Veterinarians estimate that felines spend up to 50 percent of their waking time grooming -- that's roughly four to six hours each day! Does that surprise cat owners? Likely not. Kitties commonly share the love, licking those they care about -- both fur and human friends -- with their naturally barbed tongues. Those barbs, officially known as papillae, create that unique sandpaper feel and make it easier to collect dirt and hair during grooming. Cats spend significant amounts of time keeping their fur clean, but what drives them to do so? There are several reasons for their intrinsic routine of self-care.
To Protect Themselves From Predators
Like other animals, cats possess an instinctual drive to survive, and that includes reducing the chances of falling victim to predators. For this reason, cats groom regularly to remove odors that others might pick up on. Have you ever noticed that your feline bathes shortly after a petting session? With a sense of smell that's approximately 14 times stronger than that of the human nose, cats can pick up scents we can't, including our own. Experts suspect that's at least part of the explanation behind their post-petting bath -- to remove the stench we left on them.
To Cool Down
Unlike humans, felines have a minimal ability to sweat; the majority of sweat glands are located around the paw pads. The rest of their body helps stay cool thanks to the process of saliva evaporation on their fur. This helps maintain body temperature and accounts for approximately a third of a cat's cooling process.
To Be Comfortable
What's your favorite coping mechanism when you're stressed or under pressure? Obsessive cleaning? Organizing? Shopping? For cats, it's grooming. If they're anxious, frustrated or dealing with conflict, felines will often turn to habitual self-cleaning for the psychologically soothing benefits. When in doubt, cats clean.
To Stay Clean
At the most basic level, the purpose of cat grooming is hygiene. The barbs on the tongue are great at dislodging dirt from cats' dense hair, as well as removing loose hair from the body. One downfall of this useful tongue design? Because the barbs are backward-facing, cats are much more likely to swallow whatever they remove from their body, leading to the all-too-common hairball issue. To help reduce hairballs with your kitty, comb your cat's fur regularly. The loose hair you're able to remove is that much more that your whiskered one won't be swallowing.
To Stimulate Blood Flow and Hair Growth
Those tongue barbs provide another advantage: They naturally massage the skin. Like the bristles of a hairbrush massage your scalp, a cat's bristle-like barbs improve circulation and encourage hair growth.
To Show Affection to Others
Felines don't just groom themselves; they often reach out and lick their best friends as well. Consider it a sign of friendship and trust, much like humans hug or kiss. Cats preening each other begins early in life, first starting out between mother and kittens, as well as among littermates. This friendly behavior is also commonly seen between cats in the same household and is thought to help create bonds in that environment.
Think There's Too Much Grooming Going On?
It's entirely possible. If you see signs of excessive grooming, such as patches of missing fur, take your furry baby to the vet for a professional evaluation. Issues like hyperthyroidism and food allergies can cause cats to groom more than necessary, as well as more minor concerns like dry skin and boredom.
Reader's Digest: 7 Reasons Why Cats Love to Clean Themselves
About.com: Catcare: Why Cats Groom Themselves So Often
The Daily Cat: Cat Grooming WebMD: Cats and Compulsive Scratching, Licking, and Chewing
About the Author
Tara Hall is an animal-loving writer and editor based in Austin, Texas. Her portfolio runs the gamut from small business marketing content to travel writing, fashion editorial and national music coverage.