If you’re the owner of multiple cats, then you’ve probably seen one of your feline pets lick the other’s fur and face from time to time. On these occasions, an “aww” is surely due, but did you ever stop and wonder why do cats groom each other?
There are a bunch of potential reasons behind this, and you may be surprised to find out that it’s not always about hygiene or even affection. The motives could be related to social bonding, maternity instincts, and hierarchy.
In this article, we’ll be exploring all these reasons and more, so keep reading to learn more about why cats groom each other.
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What Is it Called when Cats Groom Each Other?
When cats groom each other, it’s referred to as allogrooming. Scientifically, this is defined as social grooming between members of the same species.
A lot of animal species (such as birds, primates, and even insects) groom each other as a way to build stronger bonds and establish social hierarchies. In cats, allogrooming can be best observed in free-roaming cat groups.
According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, allogrooming is one of three ways cats express and maintain cohesion in colonies. The other two ways are allorubbing and transmitting scent signals.
The observation of cat colony allogrooming has lead scientists to conclude some interesting facts including:
While two cats can regularly engage in allogrooming together, one cat usually delivers most of the grooming.
Typically, cats receive more grooming from cats that are aggressive toward them.
Dominant, confident cats are more likely to engage in allogrooming than less-dominant, less-confident cats.
Higher numbers of pairs of cats living in the same space, as well less aggressive behavior between cats are two factors linked with more allogrooming.
So why do cats participate in allogrooming, let’s take a closer look.
Why Do Cats Groom Each Other?
Now that you have an idea of what allogrooming is, it’s time we tackle the main question: why do cats do it? Most people think it’s either for hygienic purposes or a sign of affection between cats, but the truth isn’t that simple.
Scientists believe it to be a lot more complex, so they’ve studied allogrooming behaviors in not only domestic cats, but also lions, primates, and many other species. Below are several possible reasons why cats groom each other:
The most prominent reason for allogrooming between cats is to establish and strengthen the social bonds among the group members. If you introduce your cats to an outsider cat, you’ll find that the outsider cat won't get any grooming from the rest of the group.
It will take a while of integration into the group for the new cat to start receiving some grooming. Receiving grooming from other cats indicates that the new cat has been accepted by the other members and has earned the group’s trust and affection.
In a 2004 study called Social organization in the cat: A modern understanding, researchers from the University of Georgia examined feline social interactions in free-roaming cat colonies. They had two major findings:
- Allogrooming happens among cats who already have a social bond.
- Cats outside the colony don’t receive grooming from other cats unless they’re integrated into the colony.
To put it simply, a cat is not going to groom another cat it doesn’t know, which makes total sense for us humans; we certainly won’t go hugging complete strangers under normal circumstances.
Right from when kittens are born, their mother starts to instinctively lick the newborns to make sure that the babies are breathing and to clean the afterbirth mess from their fur. From that point forward, kitten depends on this grooming for a variety of reasons such as bathing and soothing anxiety.
The mother will continue to wash the kittens during their early weeks. Her cleaning of the abdominal and anal areas after feeding encourages the young kittens to eliminate waste as well as teaches them how to groom themselves.
Another instinctual motive behind mothers licking off their offspring is to remove the lingering baby pheromones that could be picked up by nearby predators. Grooming can also be a way for mother cats to marking kittens as their own, effectively protecting them from other cats and facilitating their integration into the group.
Another reason for practicing allogrooming in a cat colony is to show dominance and establish hierarchy. It’s typical for the dominant cat to give more grooming to less-dominant cats than to receive grooming from them.
In a 1998 British study from the University of Southampton called The Function of Allogrooming in Domestic Cats, researchers noted that cats engaging in allogrooming generally groomed the head and neck area.
They also found that higher-ranking cats groomed lower-ranking cats more than the other way around. The grooming cats took higher postures (standing or sitting upright) while the receiving cats were sitting or prostrate.
What’s more, cats produce certain pheromones to mark their territories, be it a place, another cat, or even a human owner. Other cats can pick up the scent of these pheromones, but not humans.
As such, cats practice allogrooming with each other to mark the colony’s members. This is also the reason why your cat(s) can tell when you’ve been around other cats that aren’t in the same house.
The same study of allogrooming in cats, which involved more than 80 cats, showed that the groomer members asserted their dominance by taking the higher posture while the receiving cats were sitting or lying beneath during a grooming session.
The study also reveals that 35% of the groomer cats are likely to act more aggressively. This suggests that aggressive cats use grooming as a way to redirect their hostility and avoid violence.
Unlike humans who have sweat glands all over their bodies and dogs who have the ability to stick their tongues out to cool off, cats don’t possess a colling mechanism per se, especially those with thick fur coats.
Excluding their paws, cats have no sweat glands whatsoever across their bodies. This is another reason why grooming is important to your feline friends.
By licking each other, a cat will deposit some saliva over the other cat's body that evaporates over time. Since any evaporation is always accompanied by the lowering of temperature, grooming can help cool off the cat.
Show of Affection
If you’re a multi-cat household and one cat gets sick, chances are you’ve noticed other cats from the house start licking the ill cat’s fur and sometimes even lick its wounds.
This is one of the common ways cats show affection. The gesture goes back to early felines where healthy cats tended to lick certain spots on the ill or elderly members of the colony to pay respect and soothe their pain.
So not only does licking an open wound relieve some of the pain, but it also disinfects the wound and keeps it from turning into a fatal infection. Following the principles of natural selection, cats that licking their wounds are more likely to survive than those who don’t.
How to Keep Grooming Healthy for Your Cats
Even though cats can groom themselves, if your feline pet cat sheds heavily or has long hair, then you need to brush its coat daily to keep it free of mats or knots. Additionally, here are a few tips to help you ensure healthy grooming for your cats:
If you have cats with shorter fur, you should still brush it a couple of times per week to remove some of the hair that the cats would otherwise swallow.
If you have old or ill cats with little interest in cleaning themselves, or if you have overweight cats who can't reach different areas of their bodies, groom them daily and bathe them at least once a week with lukewarm water and cat shampoo.
Ideally, you should use a stainless steel comb with rounded teeth for grooming. The teeth must be set far enough apart to allow adequate removal of dirt and feces and to detangle the cat's hair.
You should also use a flea comb with teeth close together enough to catch fleas from the cat's coat.
Be sure to groom your cat every few days if they're short-haired, and every day if they're long-haired or unable to groom themselves. Trim your cats' claws every two weeks using a proper nail clipper. If any of your cats won't cooperate, your vet or a professional groomer can do the job.
So why do cats groom each other? As you can tell, there are several reasons for this behavior. Besides hygiene and showing affection, cats groom each other to create social bonds, establish hierarchy, relay maternity instincts, redirect aggression, or even regulate their body temperature.
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