Why Does My Cat Lick My Face When I Am Sleeping?
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There is the widespread belief that cats are independent animals and are not sociable or affectionate. Although some felines can be more aloof than others, this description does not apply to the majority of domestic cats. Most often displays of affection are welcome and signify a health bond. When this affection is given to us during the night, they can disturb our peace, even if we would otherwise enjoy their company.
In this AnimalWised article we will explain to you why your cat licks your face when you are sleeping. We show you what this means about the bond you share with your cat, as well as what you can do to stop it if it disturbs you at night.
Why do cats lick us?
As you will see, cats lick as a means of communication. However, they also do it for practical reasons. Cats are incredibly clean animals. They groom themselves through licking their coat, something they also do to each other. Usually this cleaning process starts with the face, before moving to the legs, the body and ending at the tail. Self-grooming in cats is also known as ‘preening’.
The texture of a cat’s tongue is rough. It is so rough, it can feel like sandpaper when they lick us. Their tongue is covered in papillae, which are backward facing hooks made of keratin. This texture facilitates cleaning by removing dirt and keeping their fur in optimal condition. They essentially act like bristles on a hairbrush, removing dead hair and conditioning the coat.
Grooming their coat ensures they protect themselves from both high and low temperatures. It also helps to remove dirt, bacteria, parasites or other microorganisms which can threaten their well-being. If they are unable to clean their fur with their tongue alone, they will use their teeth to nibble and work at their hair. This is helpful if they have material stuck or they need to work out a knot.
Why cats lick other cats
Cats are instinctively self-cleaning/grooming animals. These cleaning behaviors stem from immediately after birth. Mother cats clean their kittens from the moment they are born. Doing so has many functions. It removes the effluence which accompanies labor, it keeps them clean, it stimulates defecation and it keeps them warm. They are cleaned until approximately three weeks of age until the kittens can start defecating themselves.
The hygiene maintenance by a mother with her young also reinforces the social and family bond between these animals. This is a behavior which is maintained throughout their lives. We will also notice this behavior in cats that live in a home together, regardless of age.
This preening explains why our cat licks our face when we sleep, it is a habitual act for these animals. This behavior signifies that our cat considers us part of their family. As such, they want us to be well and will take care of us by maintaining our hygiene and reinforcing our bond.
Preening of humans
Now that we understand the idea of preening we can elaborate on this concept. First of all, we must remember that, for cats, humans are a kind of ‘big cat’ that gives them the care their mother offered them when they were kittens.
However old or independent a cat may seem, due to the domestication process on which the relationship with our feline is based, they are essentially eternal kittens. When our cat wants to groom us, they will find a problem of height difference. That is why cats often rub against our legs or jump towards us, they are trying to get closer to our face. If we are asleep, cats will take the opportunity and feel incited to lick our face as we are experiencing a moment of relaxation, something to which cats are accustomed during grooming.
In addition, this behavior allows for the exchange of odors, which plays a very important role in the lives of our cats. The mixture between their body odor and our own will reinforce a familiar and comfortable sensation for our animal.
It is important to mention that during the preening, it is possible that our cat might lick then bite us. As mentioned before, the cat will use their teeth when their tongue can’t seem to remove something. They may be doing the same to us. Also, little nibbles are a way cats show affection and may also be an invitation to play, something they also do with other cats.
Other reasons cats lick our face at night
While a cat licking our face while we sleep is generally a positive sign of a healthy bond, the context is always important. Different cats have different needs. Such needs can vary according to breed, health status, situation within the home and much more. When we take these factors into account, we might see that a cat licks our face at night for the following reasons:
- Illness: when a cat is suffering from a medical condition or a certain pathology, they may not always show symptoms. In particular, they are very good at hiding their pain. If they don't normally lick your face at night and then start to do so, they may want to draw your attention to a problem. If they show any symptoms or behave out of the ordinary, it is best to go to the veterinarian for a checkup.
- Hunger: cats are animals of routine. They will expect to have food at the same time every day. If you sleep in and your cat comes to lick your face, it may be they have been expecting you to fill their bowl.
- Boredom: the amount of attention cats need will vary according to the individual. If your cat needs lots of stimulation, they may come to lick your face to initiate interaction. As cats are crepuscular animals, this often happens at night while you are sleeping or starting to go to bed.
- Anxiety or stress: cats groom themselves as part of their hygiene routine, but they also do it to relax. If your cat is grooming themselves a lot, specially to the point they are losing hair, it could be as a way to relieve stress. This hair loss can be due to psychogenic alopecia. We are their points of reference and provide them security, so they may also come to lick us while we sleep to feel safe. If your cat starts licking you at night all of a sudden and you see any signs of stress, it will need to be addressed.
Cats preen you at night during your sleep for many reasons. You can learn what licking different areas means with our article on why cats lick our hair.
How to stop cats licking us in our sleep
As you can see, there are many reasons why cats will lick us at night. Most of them are simply signs of our bond together. As wonderful as these displays of affection can be, it is understandable we do not always want our sleep to be disturbed. For this reason, we may want to stop or prevent our cats from licking us at night. If this is the case for you, here are some options:
- Prevent access: our cats love to explore, but there may be areas in the home we don't want them to enter. This is often for their safety, especially if they are housecats. Closing the door to our bedroom while we sleep is often enough to stop a cat. If they have previously been allowed access, they may meow at the door, but this should stop soon after. It is important we are consistent with our rules and guidelines for them to be effective.
- Take them to the veterinarian: if there is a health or well-being problem which is leading the cat to licking us while we sleep, we need to take them to a veterinarian. They can diagnose the problem and treat the underlying cause.
- Provide environmental enrichment: if our cat is bored and doesn't have the right levels of stimulation, then you will need to provide it for them. This can come in many forms, including toys, intelligence games, raised walkways and even adopting a new cat for company. Learn more with our guide to environmental enrichment for cats.
- Spend time together: if your cat is coming to when you sleep because they do not get enough attention, ensure you provide for them when you are awake. Play with them, pet them, encourage them and stimulate them enough that they won't feel the need to wake you.
Whether you let your cat sleep next to you or give them access to your bedroom is up to you. Make the decision which both meets your needs and respects the needs of the cat.
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