Understanding Why Cats Groom Themselves

Grooming cat
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Most cats are neatniks and spend up to 50 percent of their awake time indulging in some form of cat grooming. However, grooming is learned by copy-cat behavior during kittenhood. So if the mom-cat is a slob, chances are Junior may get a bit dingy and careless about his appearance. Kittens learn to lick themselves by two weeks of age and are washing by the time they're weaned.

Understanding Why Cats Groom

Grooming does more than keeping the cat looking good. It maintains healthy skin by stimulating the production of sebum, an oily secretion produced by sebaceous glands at the base of each hair. Licking spreads sebum over the hair coat to lubricate and waterproof the fur and make it shine. It also removes loose hair and prevents mats, and removes dirt and parasites like fleas.

Grooming is a barometer of feline health. An unthrifty appearance can signal illness in a cat, and those older kitties with arthritis may be unable to pretzel themselves enough to stay pristine. The emotional or physical illness may trigger excessive grooming behavior such as licking a painful area bald.

Cats can't sweat to cool themselves. While dogs pant to cool off, a cat that pants (open mouth breathing) is in dire straits and needs veterinary help. Instead of panting to cool off, cats rely on the saliva spread on the fur. It evaporates to help cool the kitty in hot weather. Well-groomed fur can be fluffed to allow air circulation against the skin.

why cats groom themselves illustration
Kelly Miller ©. The Spruce 2019 

How Cats Groom

Every cat has her own grooming ritual, but most begin with the licking of the mouth, chin, and whiskers first. That's followed by each shoulder and foreleg. She'll then wash both flanks and hind legs, the genitals, and then her tail from tip to stern.

Kitty uses a dampened forepaw to scrub face, head, and ears and redampens her paw by licking after every few swipes. She'll switch paws depending on which side she's washing.

Next, she'll scratch with rear claws to clean and groom the neck and ears. She nibbles on rear claws to keep them groomed, and both nibbles and claws an object to file her front claws into shape.

Mutual Grooming

Mutual grooming expresses the friendly relationship between cats. It also helps kitties get grooming attention to hard-to-reach areas of the body, usually the head and neck regions.

However, mutual grooming is more of a social activity than a hygienic one. Grooming another cat expresses comfort, companionship, and even love. Cats that groom an owner's hair, lick your arm and accept the owner's petting actually are engaging in mutual grooming that expresses utmost trust and affection. You are kitty-blessed!

2 brown tabby kittens sitting in front of a wooden door and grooming each other, Satteldorf, Hohenlohe, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany
Silke Klewitz-Seemann / Getty Images

Displacement Grooming

Cats also use grooming to make themselves feel better emotionally. Behaviors that seem inappropriate to the situation are termed "displacement" behaviors. Cats use grooming in this function more than any other behavior. Your kitty may suddenly groom herself when feeling fearful, to relieve tension, or when uncertain how to react to a situation.

For example, a cat faced with an aggressive animal may (instead of running) suddenly begin frantically grooming. Or perhaps your cat misjudges a leap and falls on her furry fanny - and then begins to furiously groom as though embarrassed. In this case, grooming serves as a self-calming (kitty massage) mechanism.

Animal behaviorists believe self-grooming as a displacement behavior helps the cat deal with conflict. Perhaps the touch-sensation has a direct effect on brain chemistry or neurologic impulses that make the distressed cat feel better. In other words, self-grooming may be self-medicating with a feline form of Prozac. Or maybe it's just an unconscious way for the cat to distract herself, the way some people bite their nails to relieve tension.

Some displacement grooming is perfectly normal for cats. But if Kitty becomes obsessive about grooming so that it interferes with other normal behavior or interaction, or causes physical harm (hair loss or skin injury, for example), seek a veterinarian's advice.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.