Why Do Cats Groom Themselves So Much?

Cat owners and lovers the world-over are all-too-familiar with this scene: their feline friend is perched or rested somewhere cozy and comfortable, at which point an elaborate grooming ritual only something with the confidence of a cat could pull off begins. Cats are known for their seemingly over-the-top cleaning and grooming routines, but why do they invest so much time and care into such behaviors? What does daily grooming do for cats, and how do you know when your cat's primping habits are healthy?

White cat licking paw
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Cats and grooming

For felines, grooming is a big part of life and learning social behaviors, starting from a very young age. Grooming rituals are instilled by mother cats immediately after the birth of her young, which is done to encourage them to use the bathroom, to clean them, and to get them to suckle milk. Littermates then begin grooming each other after about a month, which helps them form social bonds within their families. Adult cats can sometimes be seen grooming cats and other animals that they trust, including their human counterparts.

What makes cats such exceptional groomers? Those sandpaper tongues, of course. PBS took an up-close look at the scratchy tongues found on cats and learned that the small barbs, known as papillae, are not much different than human fingernails. Make of keratin, these small structures are even shaped like claws, and work well to comb through tangled hair, pick up and remove eggs laid by parasites, and keep their skin healthy and hydrated by moving natural oils around the body.

Cats lick their legs.
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Why cats groom

It's appropriate to assume that our feline friends groom themselves to keep their fur and skin clean, but those intense grooming sessions provide much more than just a detangled mane of hair. According to Harlingen Veterinary Clinic, cats do groom to keep their coats shiny, healthy, and waterproofed by redistributing oils throughout their fur, but the benefits don't stop there. Felines are able to regulate their body temperature by licking their coats, which can cool them off as saliva becomes evaporated. Removing parasites and allergens are also listed as top reasons for self-grooming among cats, as is reducing hairballs, and improving circulation.

Cats, particularly outdoor cats who hunt, also groom so extensively as a way to "hide" themselves from potential prey. PBS goes on to explain that regular cleansing can help eliminate whatever feline odors they may be carrying around, which essentially camouflages them from animals who rely on their sense of smell to foresee danger. Because a slight breeze can carry the smell of a predator toward its unsuspecting victim, giving it the heads up it needs to run and seek shelter, remaining as scentless as possible can help cats sneak up on rodents and birds, making a successful capture that much more possible.

Tricolor cat tongue sticking out with foot lying on the windowsill, background blue sky.
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When to be concerned

Grooming is a big part of any cats' self-care routine, but sometimes this habit can be a cause for concern. Compulsive grooming, licking, chewing, or hair pulling can all be symptoms of a larger issue, the severity of which can range from allergies to anxiety disorders, depending on the cat. Cats will sometimes groom to self-soothe, whether as a way to deal with an impending thread or to help relieve anxiety. This behavior is not usually something to worry about, but if you notice that your cat is grooming himself to the point that bald spots are appearing or his skin is becoming irritated, it may be time to reach out to your veterinarian.

Most over-grooming can be traced back to a root cause, like food allergies or fleas, for example. However, some cats may be displaying a compulsive disorder known as feline psychogenic alopecia, says VCA Hospitals. This form of excessive grooming is not symptomatic of an underlying issue and may be an inherited genetic trait. If your cat has been treated for other medical issues that may be causing excessive grooming but he still over-grooms, consult your veterinarian and do your best to increase mental and environmental stimulation, like toys, to help calm your cat.