05/16/2012 11:05 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

The Wet Side of Life With Dogs and Cats

The animals who let me share their home are not especially licky individuals, but for one notable and almost daily occurrence: the morning wake-up call. I start most days getting my eyebrows slobbered on by Tsimmes (our elderly red tabby) while Archie (the big black-and-white hairy English sheepdog mix) plops down on my chest and proceeds to lick everything on my face located below those cat-claimed eyebrows. Fortunately Frida, Isabelle and Stinky Louise do not appear much interested in the morning ablution, a good thing since there's not much additional tongue-space available if they were.

Why do dogs and cats lick their people? Let's admit it, none of us are really 100 percent sure why we do anything we do much less why the other species around us do anything that they do (despite what the experts' books will tell you). Of course, theories (again, thank you experts) abound. The first theory I heard on the subject came from my dad (decidedly not an expert) when I was growing up. Dad explained that dogs lick people because of a dietary need for additional salt, but this was the same man who also explained that yellow mustard can cause drunkenness and that labels which read "made in USA" (as opposed to "made in U.S.A.") actually meant the product was manufactured in a Japanese City named Usa (properly pronounced Ooo-sa), a city specifically created after that nation's defeat in The Great War as part of a plot to bring these United States to its economic knees. (Yes, my dad was an "interesting" fellow, but that's another topic).

Where was I? Oh yes: Why do dogs and cats lick their people? My dad's salt thing aside, most theories focus on the role we play in lieu of others of their own kinds now that their lives are so dependent on being members of our multi-species families. Dogs lick dogs and cats lick cats for many important social reasons in their lives as dogs and cats, and now that dogs and cats live with us they lick us too. Dogs and cats lick their brand-new newborns to free them from birth membranes and to stimulate those first breaths. Dogs and cats lick their puppies to stimulate those little bottoms (it is a couple of weeks before puppies and kittens will pee and poop on their own) and to provide comfort which helps establish familial bonds as well as a sense of the social lives they will live as they mature. Many kittens and puppies lick their mothers' mouths to ask for food (baby licks, mom regurgitates, baby eats: nature isn't always pretty or tidy). Dogs lick dogs and cats lick cats as a sign of submissive behavior, to telegraph benign intent, and as a means of establishing bonds and demonstrating affection.

So why do dogs and cats lick their people? What do I know? I was raised by a man who thought USA was a Japanese city. I believe, however, that Archie and Tsimmes lick me because we are a family, because I love them and they love me, and that they lick me in the morning because it's time to start the next happy day of our family life together. And, just maybe, because there's a smudge of dried up chocolate ice-cream left on my face from my midnight raid on the refrigerator. Fact is, for whatever reason they do it, it's actually a very nice way to start the day.