Cats love to groom. They lick themselves clean throughout the day to protect their coat and feel their best. So why, pray tell, do they sometimes extend this service to their human roommates? If you’ve ever had to ask yourself, “Why does my cat lick my hair?” you’re in the right place. We spoke to Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, a postdoctoral veterinary fellow, and Smalls' resident cat expert, to find out more.
Cat grooming basics
Cats have been grooming themselves for millennia to stay healthy. “Grooming serves several important functions for your cat,” says Dr. Delgado. “It helps keep their coat clean and dry, as well as conditioned by natural oils in their skin.”
The practice has also been known to prevent external parasites from sneaking into fur and skin. When it’s hot outside, extra grooming helps keep cats cool. “Since they can’t sweat, the moisture on their skin evaporates to cool them off,” added Dr. Delgado.
Why do cats lick human hair?
If you own multiple cats, you may notice them grooming each other. This is called allogrooming, often referred to as social grooming. Many species practice allogrooming. Studies have shown that domestic cats are more likely to groom feline members of their own family, and cats they live with or know, than feline strangers. More often than not, this manifests in one cat licking another’s head, neck and ears. “Grooming helps cats maintain their personal scent signature, and also helps create group cohesion when cats groom each other,” says Dr. Delgado. Basically, if we all smell the same, we know we’re all part of the same group.
It’s also used as a peace-keeping method. Cats who live in the same household but aren’t litter mates may not always get along; grooming each other is one way to get on each other’s level and create a more copacetic relationship. So, if your cat starts licking your hair, they probably see you as a member of their feline family and want to make sure everything is a-OK between the two of you.
Interestingly, another study determined that higher ranking cats in feline social circles did more grooming than lower ranking cats. Which means if your kitty grooms you, she may be trying to put you in your place.
Is licking my hair bad for my cat?
Luckily, Dr. Delgado says most cats steer clear if they smell or taste something (leave-in conditioner, hair oil) odd. If your cat does start vomiting or has diarrhea after licking your hair, maybe keep her away from your locks.
Should your cat’s hair-licking behavior become a nuisance to you (or to her tummy), stop the action as soon as it starts by simply leaving the room. “Try not to give them attention (even saying ‘no’) when they do it,” advises Dr. Delgado. Misting your hair with a citrus-scented or apple cider vinegar spray could also help keep your cat’s tongue to herself.