Question: "Why does my cat comb my hair?"
Ellen writes, "Hi Amy. My four-year-old Maine Coon cat, Bindi, has recently exhibited a new behavior. When I sit in my large leather desk chair, she perches herself on top of the back of the chair and starts grooming my hair. She "combs" through it with her paws and teeth. If I am leaning too far forward for her to do this she taps me on the head so that I lean back within her reach. Is this a typical behavior and what does it mean?"
Franny also has a "beautician" cat. She wrote, "My Jenny sometimes grooms my hair in bed at night. She perches herself above my head and first holds my head still with both paws while she bites on a strand of hair then "combs" it with her teeth. I'm afraid she'll scratch my face if I move my head. She's not "mean," just overly-exuberant in her play (and her lovin')."
Cats' grooming behavior can be a physical and social issue. The physical and emotional health, as well as traits of instinct influence how a cat acts and reacts. Think of this as the H.I.S.S. Test, which stands for health, instinct, stress, and symptom solvers.
Grooming keeps skin and fur healthy and clean. In fact, cats spend about 50 percent of their awake time in some form of grooming behavior.
Kittens begin to groom themselves as youngsters. Much of grooming behavior is instinctive but it's also influenced by environment. If Mom is a neatnik, then chances are the babies will also grow up with clean c'attitudes. But slovenly Mom-cats may pass on their grooming indifference to offspring. Mom-cats also groom their babies to keep them clean, and social cats groom each other and share communal scent.
Cats also use grooming to relieve stress. You could compare self-grooming for stress relief to a human getting a relaxing massage. Other times, cats can use "power grooming" as a way to intimidate other felines and chase them away from a favorite territory.
S=Symptom, Signs & Solutions
From what has been described, Bindi and Jenny both appear to be use grooming as a social behavior. Cats groom other cats in their family group when they like each other and have friendly relationships. The licking also spreads scent, so the cats that sleep together and groom each other smell alike. This creates a sort of "family perfume" that identifies each other as safe and friendly. If the cat suddenly starts out of the blue, maybe she likes the smell of your new shampoo.
So when your cats groom you, they aren't interested in creating proper feline hairdos (well, maybe SOME cats have style in mind!). More likely, cats that target an owner's hair simply trigger on the "furry part" of the human and want to share family scent with proper grooming. When Bindi sits on top of the chair back over top of Ellen, and when Jenny perches above Franny's head, they have similar views just the top of your hair. These cats also probably receive some sort of reinforcement that encourages them to repeat the behavior. Do you talk to the cat, pet her, or it may be enough simply to respond to the paw-tap that brings Ellen's head back into range…and Franny not moving but allowing Jenny to continue her ministrations.
The behavior can become a bit aggravating when overdone. Some cats actually pull out the owner's hair (ouch!) or chew it off in sort of a barbering fashion just like they over-groom themselves from stress. I suspect when cats do the pulling/chewing behavior it may be an extension of the wool-sucking sorts of targeting Oriental heritage cats often seem to indulge. That can have a basis in nutritional deficits (sometimes anemia) not to mention the potential for hairballs if they swallow long strands of human hair. So if a cat does seem to want to eat your hair, I'd encourage a vet check.
You can offer kitty a substitute such as a fuzzy stuffed toy, and shoo the cat away from your head to prevent being snatched bald. But in most cases, I consider a cat grooming a human's hair to be a huge compliment and gesture of affection, sort of the kitty equivalent of a petting session. Don't worry, the cat won't expect you to become kitty beauticians with a lick and a promise. Petting will do.