What is all that licking really about?

Most healthy cats will spend up to 50% of their awake time engaging in some form of grooming. Grooming is a learned behavior; most kittens learn to lick themselves by two weeks of age, and they are washing by the time they’re weaned. However, if kitten’s mom-cat is a slob, chances are Junior may get a bit dingy and care less about his appearance. So, it is always important for bottle-fed kittens to have exposure to adult cats to learn this skill. Grooming has several important functions.

Self-grooming is vital for maintenance of healthy skin and fur. Licking stimulates the production of sebum: an oily secretion produced by glands at the base of each hair. Licking spreads the sebum over the hair coat to lubricate and waterproof the fur. Lastly, licking removes loose hair, prevents mats, and removes dirt and parasites like fleas.

Cats do not have the ability to sweat to cool themselves. While dogs pant to cool off, cats rely on the saliva they’ve spread on their fur. It evaporates to help cool kitty in hot weather. Well-groomed fur can also be fluffed to allow air circulation against the skin.

Cats use grooming to make themselves feel better emotionally and to serve as a self-calming mechanism. This is called “displacement grooming.” A cat may suddenly groom itself to relieve tension when feeling fearful or when uncertain how to react to an odd situation. A good example is the cat that misjudges a leap, falls down, and then begins to furiously groom as though embarrassed. Alternatively, a cat that is faced with an aggressive animal may–instead of running–suddenly begin frantically grooming. Animal behaviorists believe self-grooming may help the cat deal with conflict. The touch sensation could have a direct effect on the brain chemistry that makes the distressed cat feel better, or it may be an unconscious way for the cat to distract herself (like the way some people bite their nails to relieve tension). Some displacement grooming is perfectly normal for cats, but if your cat obsesses about grooming so much that it disrupts normal behaviors or causes physical harm (hair loss or skin injury), medical attention is needed. Your cat may have a medical condition which needs to be treated or may need medication for severe anxiety.

All cats have their own grooming ritual, but most begin with using their front feet to clean their mouth, chin, and whiskers. A dampened forepaw is used to scrub their face, head and ears. The paw is redampened by licking after every few swipes. This is followed by cleaning their shoulders and forelegs. Lastly will be their flanks and hind legs, genitals, and then their tail.

Many cats will share grooming. This is called “mutual grooming,” and it has two functions. First, it helps kitties groom the hard-to-reach areas of the body, especially the head and neck. Second, and more important, mutual grooming is a social activity. Grooming another cat expresses comfort and companionship. Cats that accept people petting them are engaging in mutual grooming and expressing trust and affection.

Grooming is a good indication of a healthy cat. Cats at any age want to stay clean. An unkempt hair coat is an indication that your feline friend is not feeling well. One of the most common reasons older cats stop grooming is due to pain from arthritis, and this can be noticed well before cats start becoming less active. Another common reason is obesity. These cats are physically too large to groom all parts of themselves. This can be very stressful for the cat and can become a medical problem due to skin trauma from urine and feces stuck in their fur.

Some cats, such as long-haired breeds and obese cats, may need human help from time to time. These cats need daily brushing or bathing to help prevent matting and to stay clean. Overweight cats greatly benefit from weight loss so that they can properly groom themselves again. Once a cat develops thick mats in their fur, they must be removed with electric clippers. NEVER use scissors to remove a mat, as thick mats are frequently close to or in contact with the skin. I see several cats every year that need stitches due to home mat removal with scissors. Some cats will actually need a (mostly) full-body shave, also called a “lion cut” or “lion trim.” Some long-haired cat owners also like to get lion trims during the summer months. We routinely do this type of grooming at Cats On Broadway Hospital. Often times, we try to reserve our grooming spots for cats that need to be sedated for grooming, such as cats with painful matting, aggressive cats, or cats that are too afraid of the clippers to be groomed elsewhere. However, please feel free to consult us at any time about grooming options. If you have any concerns about your cat’s grooming behavior (or lack thereof), please call us to schedule an appointment at (406)728-0022!

Have a great start to your Summer! =^_^=