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Why Cats Groom

By Linda Hall and Rita Reimers

Does it seem like every time you turn around, Miss Fluffy is grooming herself? Well, you aren’t imagining things. Adult cats spend close to half of their waking hours washing themselves, and their cat pals, to purr-fection. They may even decide to groom YOU!

Is it healthy that they spend so much time on this endeavor?

Why Cats Groom
A healthy cat will spend quite a lot of their day grooming themselves, their cat pals, and asking to be groomed by them. It is indeed a sign of good health, and you’ll notice that sick and elderly cats often stop grooming altogether (a sign you need to take your cat to the vet, by the way).

Licking distributes your cat’s natural skin oils evenly on her coat, keeping her fur shiny and well conditioned. The oils, called sebum, also give your cat’s fur a waterproof finish, while the licking action promotes the creation of more of these oils. Grooming also prevents mats by removing the loose hair and dirt, as well as any parasites and their dander.

In the wild, cats groom to remove any residue of food from their bodies. This prevents predators from smelling any food remnants that may bring them straight to their nest and endanger their kittens. You’ll notice your cats groom immediately after eating, after which time they usually decide it’s time for a nice long nap.

Another benefit of grooming – it helps your cat cool down, since cats do not sweat. Unlike dogs, they don’t pant to bring down their body temperature, and in fact, if your cat is panting that is a sign she is in distress and needs to see the vet ASAP.

Grooming Promotes Bonding
As a side benefit, grooming promotes friendship and bonding among cats in the same household or colony. By the time they are five weeks old, kittens are learning this behavior by “allogrooming” their litter mates.

Usually, mutual grooming is confined only to those places the cats cannot themselves reach, for example, the top of the head and down their back. Bonded cats will spend quite a lot of time grooming one another and snuggling up afterward for a snooze.

If your cat decided to bathe you, it’s a sign you have been accepted into their social order. She is also protecting you by making sure predators can’t detect you, and she is making that bond between you even stronger.

When Grooming Spells Trouble
Not all grooming is good grooming, however. When cats are sick or under stress, they use grooming as a way to self soothe. Cats under severe stress might lick themselves raw and create bald patches on parts of their bodies.

Certain illnesses can also cause cats to over-groom. Hyperthyroidism and diabetes can both lead to constant licking and eventually cause alopecia, as can food allergies, environmental allergies, and skin conditions such as mange mites. Allergic Dermatitis can be quite painful and lead to sores and lesions on her skin. Feline acne and arthritis are additional conditions that may cause over-grooming.

Parasite infestations are probably the number one issue that results in over-grooming; ringworm, ear mites, fleas (and flea allergies) can spell itchy misery for your cat, which can lead to a host of other issues. The parasites lay eggs, which are ingested by your cat during grooming and can lead to intestinal problems. The scratching from bites can also cause problems, causing infections from the scratching as her skin becomes raw and inflamed. Not fun to even think about, let alone experience.

It is important to take your cat to see her veterinarian immediately if you suspect she has been grooming to excess, especially if you see bald patches and skin inflammation.

You can help your cat with her grooming routine by brushing her every day. She will still groom herself naturally, but you will have removed a lot of loose hair that she otherwise would have swallowed while cleaning herself. You will also be taking care of those places she cannot reach herself – essential if she is an only cat, or if your cats do not mutually bathe one another.

Once she has been groomed from nose to tail, get out that camera and post some photos of your beautiful cat!

Have a question about cat behavior that you’d like answered?
We’d love to hear from you!
Send us an email at questions@stopcatlittersmell.com

For information or help with your cat’s behavior, visit The Cat Behavior Alliance​