Cats are pretty good at grooming. They spend a lot of time doing it, and they don’t mind where they do it. You’ve more than likely been in that awkward situation where you’re chatting with guests, and your kitty plops down in the middle of the living room, whips a leg up into a 90-degree angle, and gets right to it. But why do cats lick themselves so much? It seems like they can never get clean enough to meet their own high standards. Russell Hartstein, Certified Dog/Cat Behaviorist and Trainer and CEO (Canine Executive Officer) of Fun Paw Care in Los Angeles, gives us all the answers to common questions about your kitty’s grooming routine, from “Why do cats lick themselves?” and “Why does my cat lick me?” to “Why do cats lick each other?”
It’s All About Coat Appeal
The most obvious reason why cats lick themselves is for cleanliness. And the easiest way to stay clean is for cats to take care of it with their own tongue. It’s like a built-in brush with tiny spines that are angled backward toward the kitty’s mouth. With this handy tool, cats can rake through their fur, making it shiny and dander-free. Hartstein explains that, “Cats groom themselves for their general coat condition to remove dander and loose hairs, and to spread sebum, which also gives them a nice, beautiful coat as they spread the oils around their fur.” The tongue can also comb out fleas that have made a home in your cat’s coat. As a nice side benefit, licking the coat helps promote circulation and natural blood flow.
Washing Up After Meals
Have you ever noticed that your cat will immediately start licking themselves after a meal? Even though house cats aren’t living in the wild, they still have some of the same survival instincts. This includes eluding predators by removing any trace of the prey they’ve consumed. Hartstein notes that, “They’re predators and prey, so it also has a function when they actually kill a mouse or a bird—to groom themselves to either not smell like the other animal, or to return to their own smell so that others in their colony or family can recognize them. So it acts as prey/predator protection, which is a really critical role in their survival.” The next time your domestic feline finishes up her dinner, she’ll more than likely clean up by licking her paws and running them over her face and head.
Grooming to Stay Cool
Just like humans sweat to cool off, cats need a similar way to control their body temperature. It’s true that there are sweat glands in a cat’s paws, but the primary method of cooling down is through licking the coat. According to Hartstein, “By licking themselves, it actually cools and evaporates—the saliva evaporates off their fur. So it also regulates their temperature.” You might notice your cat grooming a little more in the summer and hanging out in the shade to stay cool.
How Much Grooming Is Too Much?
There’s normal grooming, and there’s such a thing as over-grooming. If your cat is licking a lot more than normal, or seems to be licking and biting a certain spot, this is a sign that there is an issue. The first thing to do is to check their fur and skin for any bites, sores, wounds or red areas. It’s a good idea to go to the veterinarian if you notice excessive grooming so that you can rule out a medical issue like allergies or an illness that isn’t as apparent.
Once you’ve determined that it’s not a health issue, then you can look into displacement behavior, which is a stress coping mechanism. Hartstein points out that displacement grooming is a valuable outlet for dealing with stress—much like a person would tap their foot or bite their fingernails. But he cautions that it’s a red flag that shouldn’t be ignored when grooming becomes excessive, especially if there’s hair loss. “Between 30-50% of a cat’s day is grooming, so when the cat is awake, if you notice that it gets up to 80% and that seems to be all your cat is doing, that would raise a flag.” Many different things could be the cause of stress, including boredom from lack of enrichment, house guests, a new partner or baby, a holiday party, moving, new smells, seeing a cat or bird outside, moving the cat litter box or any change in the household. Take note of any changes in your cat’s grooming frequency so that you can address issues as soon as possible.
Why Do Cats Lick Each Other?
If you have a multi-feline household, then you’ve most likely seen cats cleaning each other. According to Hartstein, “Cats don’t see as well as they smell, so it’s a group scent or scenting component. This is really important between kittens and cats where they’re part of a colony or each other’s family—that’s how they recognize one another, and so they become identifiable, rather than visually.” So when cats groom other cats, they’re solidifying their membership in their colony or family unit.
Aside from identification, cats groom each other as a bonding experience. “They groom one another, and they groom their kittens. It’s a way of connecting with others. That includes family and friends, and it’s a way of displacing stress and saying, ‘I come in peace,’” says Hartstein. Mother cats will also lick their kittens to clean them, stimulate elimination and also teach them how to groom.
Why Does My Cat Lick Me?
So now that you know why cats lick each other, you might still be wondering, “Why does my cat lick me?” Because cats groom each other to create a group scent, this behavior can signal that your kitty sees you as part of their family. “The saliva has a certain scent as well, and grooming family and friends is part of the ritual,” says Hartstein. “So when a cat rubs their facial pheromones or scent on you, whether it be saliva or otherwise, that is oftentimes a very appeasing and friendly gesture that’s also inclusive of you in the family.” While you probably don’t want to do the same back to your cat, she would most likely appreciate a nice, quiet session with a grooming glove. You can also set up a self-grooming station for your kitty to rub her face on with the Sentry Groom’n Comb.
In addition to identifying you as one of their own, Hartstein explains that your cat may lick you if you’ve masked your scent with another, unfamiliar one. “If you put on a perfume or deodorant, or you’re stressed and your cortisol is running on overdrive, they want to get you back to smelling a certain way to fit back into the family structure.” This is especially true if you’ve been out petting other cats—you’ll notice how eager your own feline is to rub their face against you to cover you in their pheromones again.
Cats certainly have a much different grooming routine from our own—one where the tongue plays a main role. And even though they have to deal with the occasional hairball, all that licking is worth it when it comes to keeping a clean, healthy coat and securing a place in their family unit.
Nikki Naser, BeChewy Senior Editor
Instead of owning 30 cats, Nikki has an impressive collection of 30 cat-themed T-shirts, and just 4 pets—a ginger-haired senior cat, a senior Maine Coon, a middle-aged Choodle, and a young kitty who showed up one day on the back steps. A former Orlando resident, Nikki worked on several tourism publications before moving to South Beach. When she’s not stopping to take pics of community cats to post on Instagram, Nikki spends her time with the office pets at Chewy, writing for their BeChewy blog.