Why Cats Groom Themselves
For most of us cat lovers, there’s a lot to love. Their independence makes them ideal for people with busy lives. In addition to being instinctually built for dig and bury bathroom habits, they also clean themselves, and we rarely have to bathe most breeds.
So, how do cats know to clean themselves? What purpose does it serve for their survival? Is there such a thing as too much grooming? And, what does it mean when they lick their owners?
A cat’s tongue is basically a comb. It feels like sandpaper because it’s covered with tiny little spines, called papillae. National Geographic explains that these spines are curved and hollow-tipped so they can transfer large amounts of saliva to the fur.
Cat saliva contains multiple antibacterials, antifungal, and healing properties, but don’t spread your cat’s saliva on your cut! Their saliva is designed for feline-use only. According to The Nest and Senior Cat Wellness, components include:
- Lactoferrin – Antibacterial and antifungal properties
- Defensins and cystatins – Antibacterial
- Lysozyme and peroxidase – Breaks down cell wall of harmful bacteria
- Nitrate compounds – When in contact with the skin, the nitrate in saliva turns into nitric oxide which inhibits cell growth for some bacteria
- Opiorphin – Pain killer
- Epidermal growth factors – Encourages clotting and promotes healing
- Thrombospondin – Antiviral
Why Self-Groom? Why Not?!
Cats spend up to 50% of their time cleaning themselves – think about that for a second. Can you imagine grooming yourself for eight hours a day?
Easy, Breezy, Beautiful: Healthy skin matters to cats too. At the base of each hair is a sebaceous gland that produces an oily secretion called sebum. Licking stimulating the production of sebum and spreads it over the cat’s coat to protect the fur and make it shine.
Remove Knots and Dirt: That prickly tongue is really good at removing loose hair, dirt, mats, and getting rid of parasites like fleas. A cat infected with fleas will groom much more frequently than a non-infested cat.
Wound Healing: As long as a cat doesn’t overgroom, the spines on his tongue will dislodge dirt, and the saliva can help prevent infection and combat pain. However, overgrooming can have the opposite effect, which is why vets typically recommend a cone during wound healing or surgery recovery.
Keep Cool: You know that feeling when you get out of the shower and you’re covered with goosebumps? That’s from the water evaporating off your body and cooling you down.
Grooming serves the same purpose for a cat – it controls body temperatures and helps them cool off. You’re probably thinking, “How much can that really help with such a tiny tongue?” National Geographic reports the difference between the skin and the outmost fur can be up to 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Monitor Your Cat’s Grooming Habits
All cats should groom themselves, but if they don’t do it at all or do it constantly, that can be cause for concern.
What does less grooming mean?
Many times, dirty fur is a sign of illness. Why? Because, like a person, when a cat doesn’t feel well, they stop having the desire for basic things.
Although you may not be able to visually monitor how frequently your cat is bathing herself, if you look at and pet her fur, it will tell a story. It should be soft, shiny, and even.
If you feel any sort of grit or rough coating on the fur, she probably isn’t cleaning as much as she should. Dirty fur will also have an uneven look to it. The last indication of a dirty coat is an unpleasant or stinky odor.
An exception to this would be young kittens, who are often pretty stinky at the point when they are learning to use the box and start running around and playing. A mother cat will typically keep them clean, but if you’re raising some lils yourself, you may notice an odor.
In either case, a cat that isn’t grooming or a kitten with a strange odor should be evaluated by your vet for illness.
What does overgrooming mean?
Many times, overgrooming is a way of coping with pain or even stress. If it’s pain, your vet should be able to determine the cause. There could be an injury or something you can’t see, like a nutrient deficiency. Schedule an appointment for a full exam with your vet. Be sure to video the overgrooming behavior to show the vet.
If your cat is overgrooming because of stress, that’s more of a behavioral situation. In that case, ask yourself these questions:
- What changed in your home?
- Is there a new human or pet occupant, or did a human or pet pass?
- Have you moved?
- Did you get new furniture or rearrange a room?
- Are there strays outside, or loud dogs?
- Did you get a new litter box or move the litter box to a new spot?
- Did you go on vacation?
- Are you under stress?
- Have you been arguing with someone else in the home?
Any of these things can cause stress for your cat, and like human bite their nails or eat sweets, your cat may overgroom.
Overgrooming in small stints isn’t a cause for concern – just like us, stresses come and go. If it’s prolonged behavior, please see your vet and ask for suggestions. Depending on the severity, you may also want to consult with a feline behaviorist.
I Groom Because I Love
Cats groom each other and you to show love and trust, so this typically isn’t a reason for concern. Since you can’t groom your cat back, consider getting a brush and brushing him a few times a week (more if you have a breed with long hair like a Persian). This will get rid of loose hair and dirt while building a stronger bond between you and your cat. If he’s resistant, only do it for short periods of time and offer treats as reinforcement.
Overall, grooming is a great thing and it has lots of health and social benefits for your cat. So, grab a brush, and join in!
Article by Elizabeth Ann 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist