If you ever sneak glances at your cat when you think they aren’t looking, chances are the sight you’ll be greeted with is of their little tongue raking away against their fur. It might be an odd thing to see if you’re not familiar with the behavior, but grooming actually has a ton of uses for your favorite feline both physically, and mentally.
In this article, we’re going to look at the different reasons you cat spends so much time cleaning themselves to help you understand your furry friend just a little bit better.
Maintaining Personal Hygiene
If your cat is fit and in shape, you might notice that they never really get dirty in the same way that dogs do, even if you haven’t given them a bath recently! It might seem like magic, but it’s actually because their body contains everything they need to act as the perfect grooming kit.
With a barbed tongue and plenty of salivae, licking themselves is perfect for combing through their coats to remove dead hair, dirt, debris, or even blood (your cat is a hunter, after all). This process is also important for the maintenance of a healthy coat.
Just like humans, their skin and hair secrete natural oils that are key to that shiny, attractive appearance. By licking their coat, they’re distributing these oils throughout their entire body, ensuring that sleek shine that everyone will comment on.
That’s all well and good for their torso and legs, but what about their heads and faces? Surely those will need a quick wash with a damp towel, right? Well, no. Pay close attention through the entirety of the grooming process and you’ll notice that cats typically start by moistening their front paws, and then rubbing them along their faces.
Through this process, they’re creating personal washcloths that they can use to clean their noses, eyes, foreheads, and even behind the ears. With this method, your cat can shower on demand at any time of day. You see now why people refer to cats as some of the cleanest animals around!
Passing the Time
It’s no surprise that the life of a cat isn’t always the most exciting. While they can sleep up to sixteen hours a day, that still leaves eight waking hours they need to fill with fun, stimulating activities.
Hopefully, you’re spending some of that tossing around their favorite toys, but regardless of how often you’re playing with them, cats can get bored just like people.
Instead of playing some video games or watching television though, your cat might decide to groom themselves. They might give some tufts of fur some added licking, clean between their toes, or even start biting at some tangled hairs.
It happens with all cats, but it can start to become a worrying sign if the grooming becomes compulsive. They might have just cleaned themselves after their latest meal, but that won’t stop a compulsive cat from digging right back in there every ten or fifteen minutes.
It might not seem like a big deal, but if this process is repeated often enough they can start to irritate their skin. Remember that their tongue is barbed and that grooming can sometimes involve their teeth, and you can imagine why their skin might start to cause them some problems.
This discomfort can prompt more grooming to try and rectify the issue, which just makes matters worse. If you notice your cat is often lapping away at their fur, it might be a good idea to try and distract them with a laser pointer, their favorite mouse toy, or even a cat movie on the internet! This way you can nip the problem in the bud and keep it from becoming something that requires a trip to the vet.
Social Bonding with Other Cats
Grooming isn’t something that comes naturally to kittens when they’re born. Rather than being innate like the knowledge to use a litter box, grooming is something that is passed down from mothers to their kittens.
Right after being born, a mother cat will groom her kittens to clean them from any birthing related fluids or discharge, and from that point forward they will continue to clean their babies for multiple weeks. This can occur after they eat, before they sleep, or right after they use their litter box, and is all done to teach young cats how to properly regulate their hygiene.
From these humble and adorable origins, cats groom regularly, and if you have multiple cats in the same household that get along, it’s a common sight to even see them clean each other. This is less of a teaching tool but is more of a common bonding ritual. Through licking each other and cleaning together, cats affirm their status as part of the same social group.
One interesting thing you might notice is that your cat occasionally might give your skin a little lick as well. This isn’t necessarily for hygienic purposes but instead carries that same bonding intent.
A cat that licks you is letting you know that you’ve been accepted as one of their own, which is approval of the highest standard. If you have a female cat, this can also be a maternal instinct to help care and nurture for you. Who said cats don’t love humans?
It Just Feels Good!
Much like taking a shower after a long, hard day helps us feel more at peace with the world, cats who groom themselves often do it to alleviate any stress or anxiety in their day-to-day lives.
Maybe they’ve been taking more frequent trips to the vet, or maybe their daily routine has been changed, either by you taking a vacation and hiring a pet sitter, or by bringing home a new family member or pet.
In these cases, cats will often turn to old habits to help calm themselves down. This is referred to as “displacement behavior” and implies that the cat is moving their fears into their fur, and licking them away.
Again, this is natural and should sort itself out as your cat becomes more comfortable, but if you’re dealing with something less permanent (like perhaps a friend wants to stay at your place for a few nights), it might be a good idea to help them find other arrangements to spare your cat the undue stress. Remember that cats are all about habit and routine, so if you can avoid disrupting them, then it might be a good idea too.
While cleaning to calm themselves down is perfectly natural, if the source of the anxiety isn’t removed, or if they’re naturally anxious cats, then this type of grooming can quickly lead to the compulsive cleaning that we covered earlier.
If it doesn’t solve itself over the ensuing days or even weeks (for pets that are slow to adapt to change) then it might warrant a trip to the vet to help get some expert advice at dealing with the behavior.
Regulating Their Body Temperature
If you have any experience with dogs, then you’re aware of the fact that they don’t have sweat glands. Instead, they regulate their body temperature through panting and saliva production. It’s messy but effective.
What’s less known about cats is that they share some similar traits. Their only sweat glands are located on the bottoms of their paws, and yet we never see them pant or drool on the hottest days. How is this possible? Well, the answer is very simple.
As we covered earlier, as cats groom saliva is displaced along their bodies. After a particularly extensive shower, you might even be able to touch them and feel how damp and moist their fur is. Since they can’t sweat to cool themselves down, this saliva does the same job as it evaporates, and helps to keep your cat’s internal body temperature low.
Just note that while this is an incredibly efficient cooling mechanism for the summer when the days start to drag, it’s not foolproof. If your city is experiencing some periods of prolonged, intense heat, then it’s advisable to keep your cats indoors where it’s a few degrees cooler, rather than letting them risk the sun.
Failure to do so can still result in heat exhaustion which, if not properly treated, can lead to a costly trip to the vet. Ultimately, if it’s hot outside and you see them giving themselves a quick shower indoors, try to avoid touching them and wiping down their precious damp fur. We know they’re just so soft, but it’s not worth having them overheat.
Cats are known for their extensive grooming habits, and for good reason. Through their ritualized licking at all hours of the day, cats keep their coats healthy, relieve themselves of boredom, bond with their friends and siblings, find their inner peace, and even keep themselves cool on the hottest days of the year!
Considering they achieve all that with just their tongue, it’s pretty impressive. Now that you know how important cleaning is to your beloved cat, you can feel closer to them each time you see their little tongues lapping away.