How Your Cat Uses their Tongue for Grooming

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You may catch your cat licking their paws or chewing on themselves from time to time. Self-grooming is a trademark characteristic of most cats that begins right after birth. Mothers lick their kittens to clean them, provoke urination and suckling, provide comfort, and strengthen their bond. At 4 weeks of age, kittens begin grooming themselves, and shortly thereafter start grooming their mother and littermates. This self-grooming and mutual grooming (referred to as allogrooming) continues into adulthood.

Gray tabby cat licking it's paw.

All the right parts

Cats are flexible, strategic, and well-equipped for grooming. Everything from the rough surface of a cat's tongue to sharp teeth, comb-like paws, and forepaws add up to a finely tuned grooming machine. A cat can even use their front paws to stimulate tiny oil glands on the head. The oil is a cat's "perfume" and is spread all over the body.

Why do cats groom?

Cats groom themselves not only to keep clean, but for several other health reasons:

  • To regulate body temperature
  • To keep their coat clean and smooth by distributing natural skin oils
  • To stimulate circulation
  • To cool down through evaporation of saliva
  • To eliminate parasites, infection, and allergies
  • To prevent hairballs (Click here for more about dealing with cat hairball problems)
  • Displacement behaviour: feels embarrassed, anxious, or as though in a conflict

Compulsive grooming

Does your cat seem to be licking, biting, or nibbling incessantly? Keep in mind that most cats spend between 30 and 50 percent of their day grooming themselves. But if you start to notice obsessive grooming, hair loss, or skin lesions, it may be time for a visit to the vet.

Compulsive grooming may be the result of a medical condition. It could indicate a neurological disorder, flea infestation, parasites, or a psychological disorder. Stress often causes cats to develop compulsive disorders like excessive grooming early in life. Events like moving, home renovations, a new pet or family member, separation anxiety, and lack of stimulation can trigger these behaviours. Because self-grooming soothes and calms cats they will want to do it every time they’re faced with a conflict. If the behaviour is not addressed, it can result in self-inflicted injury. For instance, psychogenic alopecia, or fur plucking, is a common condition that includes hair thinning, balding, and skin infections.

Under-grooming

Regular self-grooming will help your cat look good and feel good, but if they become ill self-grooming may stop. This could be a sign of arthritis, pain, or dental problems. Cats who are taken away from their mothers too early may also not know how to properly clean themselves.

Watch for these warning signs of under-grooming:

  • A harsh or greasy coat
  • Small mats of fur on  body or tail
  • Staining on the paws from urine or residue
  • Foul smell
  • Food particles on face or chest after meals

To encourage your cat to begin grooming, start by brushing daily. Brushing stimulates the skin and blood circulation, and gets rid of fleas and ticks. When your cat starts grooming try not to interrupt. It’s important for your cat, so let them make the most of it.

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