An Offbeat Approach to Bonding With Cats

It involves a spiky, silicone tongue.

A giant tongue licks a cat.
SasaStock / PixieMe / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Have you ever wanted to lick your cat?

This is not my question—I can guess the answer—but it’s the one blaring from the packaging of the Licki, in all caps. Lest anyone believe the query is rhetorical, the box provides an answer: “NOW YOU CAN. WITHOUT THE FURBALLS.”

Although I’ve never felt such an urge, I do own a Licki. I ordered it from Amazon nearly a year ago, on a dare from a colleague. As soon as it came, I opened the otherwise ordinary envelope to find a silicone freak of nature.

Most of the Licki consists of a stiff, four-inch “tongue” section covered with 22 one-inch spikes, like the cleats on old-school baseball shoes. It’s attached to a mouthpiece, which resembles the big, chunky mouth guards that hang from football players’ face masks. The tongue comes in one color: a garish, fleshy pink-red. In case there is any doubt about its purpose, the slogan “LICK YOUR CAT” is printed four different times on the box and also on the mouthpiece, right where your upper lip goes, as if to remind you why you’re about to put this ridiculous object in your mouth.

Once the Licki arrived, I set it aside, for I had never truly wanted to LICK [MY] CAT and I was bashful about being so easily bullied into buying it. But one evening in late April, my cat, Nellie, was gnawing on my laptop screen and headbutting my hands as I tried to type, and I decided the time had come. As it gets warm in the spring, Nellie sheds a lot of hair. While she loves being scratched—she’s almost doglike in her affection, and doesn’t mind being touched on her belly or other places where cats can be sensitive—she’s hated every brush that I’ve ever tried to use on her.

The Licki promises a more “intimate” grooming experience with your pet, “much like a mama cat bonds with her young.” According to its manufacturer, “Cats groom each other as a form of social bonding ... Yet as a human, you’re left out of their intimate licking ritual. At best you have a one-sided licking relationship with your cat.” On the one hand, that kind of bonding sounded appealing, and like it might skirt Nellie’s hatred of brushes, as well as provide some entertainment for my wife. On the other hand, I was nervous about getting clawed or bitten as I jabbed a large, spiked silicone tongue at my cat.

Nellie was initially, and understandably, wary. She sniffed at the Licki as I attempted to lick her. But after a few minutes, she settled in, curled up, closed her eyes, and began purring loudly. She was happy to be licked on her back and tail and head. We got Nellie from a shelter when she was about six months old, and we don’t know what her earliest months were like or whether she had much time with a mother. I hesitate to apply armchair Freudian analysis to my cat, but she seemed mothered as I licked her. I tried the Licki a few more times to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, but she seemed to like it every time.

The experience was, however, not as pleasant for the licker. After holding on to the mouthpiece for a few minutes, my jaw started to ache from clenching it and my mouth watered uncomfortably. I ended up with a lot of hair in my nose and eyes. It’s tough to find a good posture to lick the cat in a way that’s comfortable for both her and the user for more than a couple of minutes.

Any individual Licki user’s experience is likely to vary as much as her cat’s temperament. The reviews on Amazon run the gamut from sardonic (“I use this to chase cats away from my yard, or rather, the owners of said cats know not to let their cats loose in our neighborhood unattended.”) to suggestive (“Awesome! My wife loves when I use this.”) to sincere (“Kinda weird, but my cat loves it!”). There are stories about people being clawed or bitten, and lots of gag-gift purchases.

Some are heartbreaking. “I put up with a lot from people making fun of it and me for being excited about it. I didn't care who laughed if it made my babies happy ... I SO MUCH wanted my cats to love it! I would show everyone who laughed!” writes one verified buyer. “It just traumatized the animals.” Another claims to lick his cat sans Licki—I have questions!—but even he found it awkward to use.

These unhappy results do not come as a great surprise to cat experts.

“There is a lot of lore surrounding cat behavior, in part because scientific explorations of cat behavior, especially social behavior, have been limited,” Monique Udell, the director of the Human-Animal Interaction Lab at Oregon State University, wrote me in an email. “While reciprocal grooming may be an important feature of feline social behavior in some contexts, it would be a leap to suggest that cats require the same form of interaction from their human partners to establish strong bonds.”

And even between cats, it’s complicated. Mikel Maria Delgado, a postdoctoral researcher on cat behavior at the University of California at Davis, told me that, though cats do bond by grooming one another, a 1998 study found that nearly a third of cat-on-cat grooming ends up in “agonistic behavior.” In other words: Even from another trusted feline, a cat’s tolerance for being licked is limited, and whoever is doing the licking is in line for a possible snarl or swipe or scratch. Licki is “encouraging a lot of things that are intimidating to cats,” Delgado said, such as hovering over them or placing one’s face near them. “I think it’s a terrible idea for the human.”

Your meowage may vary, but I figured I couldn’t argue with results. As long as Nellie liked the Licki, I was inclined to at least occasionally deal with the discomfort of using it. My wife, once she finished laughing at me, suggested that I just hold the Licki and use it to groom the cat. This felt like a betrayal of all the Licki represents. I brandished the Licki at her, with its slogan splayed across the mouthpiece, and demanded, “Does this say ‘BRUSH YOUR CAT’?”

Nonetheless, I eventually gave in to necessity and neck pain, and Nellie seemed just as pleased and mothered when I held the Licki as when it was in my mouth. It turns out that the Licki can be an effective bonding tool, and it doesn’t even require any licking.