Why Won't My Cat Stop Grooming Herself?
There’s more behind it than you might think 😽🛁
Have you ever noticed your cat sitting there grooming herself all day long and wondered what that’s all about?
It turns out that cats actually have a bunch of reasons for licking themselves.
The Dodo spoke to Dr. Zay Satchu, cofounder and chief veterinary officer at Bond Vet in New York City, to find out why cats are so obsessed with grooming — and the answer might actually surprise you.
Why do cats groom themselves?
Cats actually lick themselves for a lot of different reasons, and they start at a young age.
Kittens learn to groom from their mothers and begin grooming when they’re only a few weeks old. (If kittens are part of a litter, they’ll start grooming their littermates too.) A mother cat will lick her kittens after giving birth to stimulate their breathing, help them learn to go to the bathroom, encourage them to suckle and comfort them.
And while adult cats are typically very tidy animals, which explains some of the constant grooming, they clean themselves for a variety of other reasons as well.
“Many people think that cats groom to keep clean,” Dr. Satchu told The Dodo. “And while that is true, there are also many other purposes for grooming. Grooming helps cats regulate their body temperature, distribute natural oils throughout their coat, promote healthy blood circulation and ease anxiety and stress.”
To keep clean and distribute oils
Cats’ tongues are barbed (the barbs are called papillae), which lets them remove stuff that’s stuck in their fur, like dirt or fleas, basically like a built-in hair brush. (And as a bonus, the barbs on your cat’s tongue promote blood flow, similar to the way a massage does for humans.)
Licking also distributes an oil called sebum. There are sebaceous glands at the base of each hair, so when your cat licks, it spreads the oil over her fur. Sebum protects cats’ fur and makes it shiny.
To regulate body temperature
Cats don’t sweat like humans do. They only have sweat glands on the bottoms of their paws, so it’s easier for them to get overheated.
So cats lick their bodies to help themselves cool off. When they lick their fur in hot weather, the saliva evaporates, which lowers their body temperature.
To avoid predators
Cats will lick themselves after eating a meal as a survival instinct to try to avoid predators. They’ll give themselves a bath, washing away any scent of the food they ate with their saliva so predators can’t smell the prey (in your pet’s case, her cat food).
To calm anxiety
Licking can be a displacement behavior. A displacement behavior is when an animal does something out of place, usually when faced with a stressful situation. This often happens when they aren’t sure how to react to something. For example, if your cat is confronted with a conflict, like a neighbor’s dog coming into your yard, she may use grooming as a way to deal with the situation rather than running away or confronting the pup.
The act of grooming can also be super soothing to cats. If you watch your cat groom herself, you’ll probably notice that she uses the same licking pattern every time, almost like a kind of ritual. For example, every time she grooms, she might lick one paw then rub it over one ear in a circular motion, then over her nose, and then she’ll repeat the same process on the other side.
To protect against infection
Cats, like many animals, lick their wounds. And that’s because their saliva actually has properties to help fight infection. Cat saliva contains lysozyme, an enzyme that’s part of the immune system and has antibacterial properties.
Why do cats lick their paws?
Cats will often lick their paws as a part of their grooming routine.
Cats are pretty flexible, so they’re able to bend to lick different parts of their bodies, but some areas are hard for them to reach, like their faces and heads. Your cat will use her paws to distribute her saliva over those areas. (If you watch your cat groom herself, she’ll lick her paws then run them over her face, ears and other hard-to-reach parts of her body.)
But if your cat is just licking her paws, not her body, there could be some other reasons — especially if she does it constantly:
- An obsessive compulsive disorder
Why do cats overgroom?
While grooming is a natural behavior for your cat, Dr. Satchu warns against too much grooming.
“Overgrooming can indicate a health issue,” Dr. Satchu said. “Some of these include allergies — both environmental or food related — skin conditions, thyroid conditions, anxiety and pain or discomfort.”
If you think your cat is grooming obsessively, you should contact your vet to see if there’s something else going on.
Signs your cat is overgrooming
Cats do groom a lot (most cats spend about 30 to 50 percent of their day grooming), but if your cat has started licking herself constantly, it could be a problem.
“If the amount of grooming they're doing results in thinning of fur, bald patches or scabs/ulcerations, you should definitely reach out to your vet,” Dr. Satchu said.
Here are some common signs of overgrooming in cats:
- Hair loss
- Skin irritation
- Increase in hairballs
Treatment for excessive grooming
There are a bunch of ways to treat and prevent excessive grooming depending on the underlying cause:
- If your cat has allergies, your vet might recommend allergy medication for her.
- Keep your cat up to date on flea and parasite medication.
- Provide stimulation for your cat so she doesn’t get bored, such as cat trees and toys to play with.
- Try cat calming products to ease your cat’s anxiety.
- Keep a consistent daily routine to minimize stress, like feeding your cat at the same time every day.
Why is my cat not grooming?
Undergrooming is also a problem. if your cat isn’t grooming, it could mean that she’s sick. (Cats who are taken from their moms too early also might just not know how to groom themselves.)
Some common reasons that a cat might stop grooming are illness, old age and obesity.
Here are some signs of undergrooming:
- Dirty or matted coat
- Food stuck in her fur
- Dirty paws
If you notice your cat hasn’t been grooming herself, you should take her to the vet to find out why.
So basically, cats are super clean, but they also have a bunch of other reasons for licking themselves all the time.
But if it seems like your cat is licking herself way too much or not enough, you should get her checked out.