Does your cat groom nonstop? We cherish the cat’s fastidious nature but did you ever wonder why cats groom? Neatnik behavior goes beyond looking good. Did you know in this hot weather, cats also groom to stay cool and prevent heatstroke?
How and why cats groom impacts physical, emotional, and social health. My Karma-Kat even tries to groom his best friend, Shadow-Pup. The instinct starts during kittenhood and lasts a lifetime. Of course, some cats get dingy when cats don’t groom, and there are reasons for that as well.
Kittens learn to lick themselves by two weeks of age by copycat behavior, and a slovenly Mom-cat will raise kitten slobs. Most times, though, kittens wash themselves by the time they get weaned, and adults spend up to 50 percent of their awake time in some form of grooming.
How Cats Groom
The specialized structure of the tongue makes it a perfect kitty comb, while teeth nibble and gnaw at tangles, dirt, and burrs caught in the fur. Each cat’s clean regime varies, but a good wash often happens after meals, naps, and potty breaks.
First, the mouth, chin, and whiskers get licked, followed by shoulders, forelegs, flanks, and hind legs. Finally, the genitals—how DO they pretzel themselves to reach?!—and then the tail gets attention. Forepaws re-dampened every few swipes serve as furry washrags to scrub face, head, and ears. Rear claws scratch to groom the neck and ears, and claws get nibbled clean, while front claws also scratch objects to groom them healthy.
Grooming is a barometer of kitty health. Cats that feel bad often stop grooming, or lick and pull fur out due to stress or pain. Consider an unthrifty appearance or “barbering” themselves bald a kitty cry for vet care. Cats often need help in the grooming department—especially longhair beauties. Here are 5 common reasons why cats groom.
5 Reasons Why Cats Groom
Healthy Skin & Fur. Grooming keeps skin and fur healthy. As they clean themselves, cats also search their skin and fur for dirt, sores or parasites and vacuum away buggy pests. Eww! Of course, that also can take care of shedding issues but can lead to cat hairballs upon occasion.
Waterproof Fur. Sebaceous glands at the base of each hair release an oily secretion—sebum—which lubricates and waterproofs the hair coat when your cat licks herself. Grooming also removes shed hair and prevents mats, which impede temperature regulation.
Kitty Warmers & Cool Cats. Healthy fur falls in loose layers that protect the cat’s body from injury, and insulates her from temperature extremes. That keeps her warm in cold weather and cool in hot temps. It can actually help protect against over-heating. A well-groomed coat free of mats can be fluffed and allows air to pass between the hairs and cool the skin. Cats also pant to cool themselves when they are very hot—but panting is a kitty danger signal! Since cats don’t have effective sweat glands, they lick skin and hair, and the saliva evaporation keeps Kitty cool.
Furry Social Networking. Mutual grooming helps cats take care of hard-to-reach head and neck areas, but also connects cats socially by sharing communal scent. Grooming another cat expresses comfort, companionship, and even love. When kitty accepts your petting (or you help her out with grooming) and she grooms your hair or licks your arm, she’s engaging in mutual grooming that expresses utmost trust and affection.
Stress Buster. Cats use displacement grooming to feel better emotionally. Cats may groom themselves when fearful, to relieve tension, or when uncertain how to react to situations. For example, instead of attacking or running away from an aggressive animal, your cat may suddenly begin to furiously groom. You’ll see the same frantic grooming if kitty misjudges a leap and falls on his furry fanny. Cats also use displacement grooming when they can’t indulge other behaviors; perhaps you’ve put the cat on a diet, or are trying to convince an outdoor cat he should stay inside. They may also increase scratch behavior to reduce stress. Keep cat claws trimmed to reduce damage and refer to this claw training post for more help.
We don’t know if displacement grooming has a direct effect on the neurologic impulses in the brain, or simply is a way for the cat to distract himself. Strong emotions like kitty separation anxiety may cause a rise in body temperature which the cat cools by grooming, or perhaps the benefits of massage and touch calm feline anxiety. Some displacement grooming is normal, but if kitty becomes obsessed loses fur, or damages the skin, seek vet help.
So are your cats neatniks or furry slobs? Do you help your cat with grooming? Seren used to love being combed by the Furminator, but Karma could care less. Also be aware of these 8 ways we can HISS OFF our cat!
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Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!