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Home > General > How Do Cats Clean Themselves? Grooming Behavior Explained

How Do Cats Clean Themselves? Grooming Behavior Explained

a Siamese lynx point cat lies down on the floor sprinkled with catnip and lick her paw

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Dr. Paola Cuevas

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Cats are avid groomers and spend between 30% and 50% of their day cleaning themselves. If you’re a cat owner, you know that you don’t have to bathe your cat often because they do a good job at keeping themselves clean.

It’s natural to wonder how these animals manage to keep themselves so clean. In this article, we look at how cats clean themselves, why they do it, and when their grooming may be a cause for concern.

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Why Do Cats Groom Themselves?

Kittens are groomed by their mother. After they’re born, the mother cat licks and cleans her kittens and teaches them how to clean themselves. By the time kittens are able to leave their mother, they know how to self-groom.

This licking behavior does more than just keep the cat clean. By licking their hair, they’re stimulating their sebaceous glands to produce an oil called sebum. They’re also spreading sebum over their coats to keep them healthy and shiny. Grooming keeps their coats smooth, tangle-free, and soft.

Another benefit to grooming is that it regulates a cat’s body temperature. As the saliva on the coat dries, it cools down cats that are feeling too warm.

bengal cat licking each other
Image By: Ilona Koeleman, Shutterstock

How Do Cats Keep Themselves Clean?

Cats use their tongues, claws, and paws to clean themselves. While licking that much hair for long periods sounds impossible to humans, cats can deposit a large amount of saliva on their coats through their papillae.

A cat tongue gets its sandy feeling from papillae. They are tiny, backward-curved spines made of keratin. These spines are hollow so the cat can store more saliva in them for assistance with grooming. The papillae act as scoops, combing through the coat to remove loose hair, dirt, and dander.

Cats usually start grooming with the face first, but every cat has their own preferences, so the order might be different for each individual.

First, a front paw is licked to deposit saliva. The saliva is then rubbed on the face in an upward, circular motion. The nose is cleaned before the cat moves on to the rest of the face, depositing more saliva on the paw to reach behind the ear and over the eye on one side of the face. The cat then switches paws to clean the other side of the face in the same manner.

Once the head and face are cleaned, the cat moves on. The front legs are groomed with as much of the chest area as the cat can reach. The shoulders and belly are groomed next before the cat moves on to the flanks and genitals. The hind legs and tail are cleaned last.

This is a full bath. Sometimes this order is followed, and other times, the cat just does a quick grooming session and the order of the body parts cleaned will change. Some steps may be skipped if your cat doesn’t feel that a full bath is necessary.

When Does Grooming Become a Problem?

Grooming is a natural behavior and if your cat stops grooming themselves altogether, there’s a reason for it. Cats that are ill may not feel up to grooming. If your cat is overweight or has arthritis, they may not be able to reach all the areas that they need to in order to fully groom. If you don’t know the causes of your cat’s lack of grooming, contact your vet. If your cat is sick, you may want to help them keep clean by using grooming wipes on them until they feel like grooming again.

Overgrooming is when a cat excessively grooms not to clean themselves, but because they are feeling some kind of stress. Licking, biting, chewing, or sucking the coat can cause bald spots and irritated skin. In extreme cases, the open wounds on the skin can lead to infections.

When no medical issue is present as a cause of overgrooming, a diagnosis of anxiety or stress is given. In these cases, it’s best to identify the source of the stress and try to reduce it. In some cases, your cat may need help managing their stress with the use of medications, supplements, and pheromones.

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Cats are fastidious groomers and enjoy keeping clean. They can spend up to half of their day, every day, grooming. This is normal behavior and isn’t a cause for concern unless you notice that your cat is leaving bald spots and wounds on themselves.

Overgrooming is a sign of illness or stress. If you see that your cat is grooming to the point of injuring themselves, contact your vet to help manage the situation.


Featured Image Credit: Pixel Cat Photo, Shutterstock

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