Grooming Behavior of Cats

By: Elizabeth Fowler, DVM

TVMA Member
New Braunfels, TX

Published October 2018

Cats are fun and fascinating animals with many unique behaviors. One habit that deserves some extra attention is their grooming behavior.

It is not uncommon to hear or think, “Cats don’t need to be bathed. They take care of that themselves.” Though they do mostly manage to maintain their own cleanliness, there are still times that cats may need a bath or shave. In fact, some breeds, like the Bengal, enjoy being bathed.

Cats are well-equipped for grooming. They are flexible, which allows them to reach most areas of their bodies. A cat’s tongue consists of many small barbs or papillae made of keratin, which are facing backwards on the tongue. Keratin is the same substance that makes up hair and nails. The barbs on the cat’s tongue are useful in removing hair and foreign bodies. In healthy, particularly short-haired cats, that hair is swallowed and usually passes without any issues. Cats may use their paws as combs or even as washcloths as they may lick their paws and use them to scrub their faces.

Cats Groom Themselves for Several Reasons

Grooming actually serves many purposes in cats. They first learn this behavior from their mother. Mother cats perform this function to help keep kittens clean and create a bond. By two weeks of age, kittens have learned to perform this chore on their own and can independently groom themselves by the time they are weaned.

Grooming Maintains Healthy Skin

Grooming helps to maintain healthy skin. Licking stimulates the production of sebum, an oily secretion produced by glands at the base of each hair. Sebum helps lubricate and waterproof the fur, making it shine. Grooming also helps to reduce mats and remove loose hair, dirt and parasites like fleas. Grooming also can serve as a cooling mechanism on hot days. Cats can sweat but only through their paw pads; the evaporation of saliva after grooming can aid in cooling. In addition, well-groomed hair will fluff up and allow air circulation against the skin.

Social and Behavioral Purpose

Grooming serves a social and behavioral purpose. Even large cats like lions can be seen grooming each other. Allogrooming, or social grooming, not only creates bonding but also establishes a group scent, which is especially beneficial in the wild to establish and recognize a pack. Cats groom their humans for much of the same purpose.

Grooming Soothes Cats

Some cats will groom themselves when faced with a stressful situation such as the presence of an aggressive animal or after a fall. Some behaviorists feel this may be a displacement behavior that helps a cat deal with conflict; cats may experience a direct calming effect on the brain and neurologic impulses produced by the touch sensation. It may be likened to the tension relief some people feel from biting their fingernails.

Indicator of Health

Grooming behavior is an important indicator of health in our feline friends. Cats spend 30 to 50 percent of their day in grooming activities. A sick cat may stop or reduce grooming, resulting in a harsh or greasy hair coat, mats, staining on the fur or a foul smell. Other conditions such as parasites, allergies or behavioral issues may result in over-grooming. Arthritis and pain may result in over-grooming or decreased grooming. Pain in a joint may cause your cat to lick more frequently there. General arthritis may make it more difficult to reach certain areas to groom. A change in grooming behavior should prompt cat owners to consider a visit to the veterinarian.

All cats may need some assistance with grooming from time to time. Long-haired breeds will need additional brushing and help from their owners, so they do not develop mats or hair balls. Some short-haired breeds benefit from this as well. Many cats enjoy being brushed and see this as a social time.

Many people consider cats to be “self-cleaning” pets. Remember that all cats need some help grooming at times and use this important behavior as a tool to monitor your pet’s well-being.

Elizabeth Fowler, DVM, lives in New Braunfels, Texas. Dr. Fowler practices at County Line Veterinary Clinic.

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