How Your Cat Uses its Tongue for Grooming

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You may catch your cat licking her paws or chewing on herself from time to time. Why do cats clean themselves? 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 her sharp teeth, comb-like paws, and forepaws add up to a finely tuned grooming machine. A cat can even use her front paws to stimulate tiny oil glands on her 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 her coat clean and smooth by distributing natural skin oils
  • To stimulate circulation
  • To cool herself 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 behavior: If your cat feels embarrassed, anxious, or as though she’s in a conflict, she may lick to calm herself.

Compulsive grooming

Does your cat seem to be licking, biting, or nibbling herself 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 remodeling, a new pet or family member, separation anxiety, and lack of stimulation can trigger these behaviors. And because self-grooming soothes and calms your cat, she will want to do it every time she’s faced with a conflict. If the behavior 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 she becomes ill, she may stop cleaning herself. 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 her body or tail
  • Staining on the paws from urine or residue
  • Foul smell
  • Food particles on her face or chest after meals

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

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