Why Do Cats Groom Themselves?
10 December, 2013

We love our feline friends for so many reasons.  They are fun, great companions and have the inherent ability to clean and/or groom themselves.  In fact, many cats spend approximately half their day grooming themselves.  Their grooming is learned by copying their Mom from when they were kittens.   Kittens usually start grooming themselves by about four weeks old.

Grooming does more than keep 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 also a barometer of feline health. If a cat’s fur looks matted or dirty, it may be an indication of arthritis especially in older cats. Emotional or physical illness may trigger excessive grooming behavior such as licking a painful area bald.

The grooming process

Every cat has his or her own grooming ritual, but most begin with licking of the mouth, chin, and whiskers first. That’s followed by each shoulder and foreleg.  When finished with one side, the process is repeated with the other paw on the other side of the head. After the head is clean, the cat grooms the front legs, shoulders, flanks, hind legs, and tail with long strokes of the tongue. The order of body parts may vary, and not all of these areas are necessarily groomed in one sitting.

When cats groom other cats

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.

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. They also may lick to taste any substance that is on your skin, such as salt.

Cats use grooming to make themselves feel better

Cats also use grooming to make themselves feel better emotionally. Behavior that seems inappropriate to the situation is called displacement. Your kitty may suddenly groom herself when feeling fearful, to relieve tension, or when uncertain how to react to a situation.  An example is when your cat is faced with an aggressive animal and suddenly begins frantically grooming. Or your cat misjudges a leap and falls on her behind and then begins to furiously groom as though embarrassed. In this case, grooming serves as a self-calming mechanism.

Some displacement grooming is perfectly normal for cats. But if your cat 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), it’s time to take your cat to the vet.

Should you groom your cat?

If your cat enjoys being brushed or combed, then by all means do so.   Grooming your cat can serve to strengthen the bond between you and your pet. Grooming can also help you screen your cat for any problems that may be developing on the skin. However, if your cat is prone to hairballs, matting fur, or excessive shedding, you may need to leave the grooming to a professional groomer.

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