Why Do Cats Clean Themselves

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Cats spend a significant amount of time grooming by licking and cleaning themselves. There are several reasons for this grooming ritual.

Why Do Cats Clean Themselves. Orange tabby cat grooming a tortoiseshell cat's face. With a grey background.

Some reasons a cat may clean itself include a way to cool down, protect against predators, calm down, maintain a healthy coat, and more.

While cat grooming can often seem excessive, it’s generally not a sign of something wrong. Keep reading to learn why your cat licks itself clean and when you should be concerned.

Reasons a Cat Cleans Itself

Some of the reasons a cat cleans itself include the following:

  • As a way of replicating the mother cat’s behavior: For newborn kittens, the mother cat will begin grooming them to clean the amniotic sac from the kitten. Licking them also allows mother cats to stimulate their kitten’s breathing and help them urinate and defecate by themselves. As a result, kittens emulate adult cats’ actions and start licking themselves for the same purpose.
  • To clean and groom themselves: One of the biggest reasons a cat licks itself is to feel clean simply. Licking spreads sebum, allowing their barbed tongues to lubricate their fur. Sebum makes their fur shine and protects it by removing loose hair, dirt, parasites, and fleas.
  • To cool down: Unlike humans, cats do not have sweat glands around their bodies. Instead, their sweat glands are only in their paw pads, meaning they need to find another way to cool down: by licking themselves.
  • Avoiding conflict: While it may seem unlikely, cats groom themselves to avoid conflicts, particularly with other animals. This is known as displacement behavior and arises when a cat faces performing two or more conflicting behaviors simultaneously. When this happens, it cannot decide between the two options and chooses to engage in a third behavior altogether.
  • To protect against predators: Many predators have a sense of smell significantly more robust than cats. Cats can clean themselves thoroughly by licking and removing any food or other strong-smelling items on their fur that might attract potential predators’ attention or scare away their prey.
  • Self-soothing: Another reason they groom themselves is to seek a way to calm down. An entire grooming session, where they lick themselves throughout their bodies, is a way to self-soothe. Additionally, grooming is an activity done for pleasure. Licking themselves makes cats feel good, so they often lick and groom other cats (and their owners).
  • Socialization: Licking other cats, people, or animals in a shared household is your cat socializing. Since it is pleasurable for them, grooming other cats, animals, and people, is a way of spreading that pleasure and developing more robust bonds with the person/animal they are grooming.
  • To stay warm: Grooming and licking not only help cats cool down but can also help them stay warm. Natural oils from their sebaceous glands are spread around the fur during grooming, protect your cat’s coat from dampness and seal in heat, keeping them warm on cold days.
  • Cleaning wounds: If your kitty has incurred an injury, whether it be self-inflicted or as a result of some other cause, licking helps them keep the wound site clean. It is believed that cat saliva is a natural antibiotic, so your furry friend grooming itself is a way of protecting against the risk of infection.
  • Something is wrong: Licking can be a sign that something other than an injury is wrong. For example, a cat may groom itself if it has pain in a particular area or experiences an allergic reaction. If it licks itself for something wrong, it may lick so much that bald patches appear on its coat. If you notice it is licking itself repeatedly in a single spot or excessive or obsessive grooming, contact a vet as soon as possible.

Do Cats Get Clean When They Lick Themselves?

One of the reasons cats lick themselves is to stay clean. But do they manage to get clean by doing so?

In most cases, licking is enough for cats to stay clean. For example, if your cat is self-grooming after walking outside or in your backyard, licking is enough to keep it clean.

The only time you’ll probably need to bathe your cat is if it gets filthy or cannot correctly groom itself. However, regular bathing can benefit some cats and help reduce matting and shedding.

Why Do Cats Clean Themselves After You Pet Them?

Sometimes, petting your cat doesn’t result in mutual grooming – instead, your cat decides to clean itself immediately afterward. You may worry they don’t like you petting them; however, it can be simple, like you have an unfamiliar or unpleasant scent on your hands.

If your cat is grooming itself right after you pet them, it can also be a sign there’s something wrong with your pet. If your cat has itchy skin from infections, allergies, mites, or something else, petting can irritate or cause discomfort. Aside from licking themselves, they may also try to scratch or bite you.

If this happens, your pet needs veterinary attention.

Final Thoughts on Cat Grooming

Cats lick themselves to hide their scent from predators and prey, stay warm, socialize with people and other animals, and protect their wounds from infection. However, if your cat seems to spend all waking hours grooming, and you notice them exhibiting any of the above behaviors, they may be trying to tell you something.

Observe their behavior, and contact a vet immediately to be safe.

Before you go, you may find these articles helpful:

Why Are Cats’ Tongues Rough?

What Does It Mean When Cats Lick You?

What Is Abnormal Behaviour In Cats

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