Being well-groomed isn’t just for us people–cats are experts at looking, and feeling, good too. But, for cats, it’s not just all about looks. Grooming is an innate behavior kitties perform that keeps them looking tidy but also keeps them cool, parasite-free, and even as a bonding behavior. So, what if your cat is performing some strange licking behaviors? Here are some of the ingenious reasons cats lick themselves and some examples of when you might need to be concerned.
Why Do Cats Lick Themselves?
Grooming is just about as important to kitties as sleeping. Cats can spend up to 50 percent of their waking hours grooming. Considering the average cat sleeps 15 hours per day, that means many are spending 4 to 5 hours licking some part of their body. With that much time spent focusing on grooming, it’s likely you’ll notice some strange licking behaviors–including biting or chewing.
Biting and chewing are simply part of the grooming ritual. Cats will bite at their claws in order to remove shedding or broken nails and though it looks a little strange, it’s very normal. “When we see a cat cleaning its paws, it may chew on its nails or around its paw pads to get rid of dirt, litter, or other debris,” Dr. Carlo Siracusa, clinical assistant professor of behavioral medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, tells PetMD. “All of these can get stuck in the paw pads, so it is a necessary part of the cleaning process.”
This is the same for a cat’s glorious coat. Biting and chewing are just another way to really get in there and make sure dirt, potential parasites, and hairballs are kept under control.
All this said, here are six ingenious reason cats lick themselves:
1. Cleaning and Pest Control
Cats are meticulous groomers and yes, they really do get clean by grooming. Their uniquely barbed tongues help to remove detritus from deep within their fur while dispersing sebum, an oil produced by sebaceous glands which lie a the base of each hair. Amy Shojai, an author and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, points out to The Spruce Pets, “Licking spreads sebum over the hair coat to lubricate and protect the fur and make it shine. It also removes loose hair and prevents mats, and removes dirt and parasites like fleas.”
The smarties at Science report that studies of cats’ tongues and grooming habits shows that “saliva helps them cool off, according to thermal imaging—an important tool, as cats only have sweat glands on the leather of their paws.”
3. Conflict Avoidance
Over at Petfinder, Barbara Pezzanite, Ph.D., notes, “A cat may groom to temporarily reduce conflict, frustration, or anxiety. Under these conditions, licking becomes what is called a ‘displacement behavior’.” Pezzanite adds, “Displacement behavior can occur when an animal is motivated to perform two or more conflicting behaviors simultaneously. Unable to do so, a third behavior arises that is out of context with the situation. For example, during a social conflict a cat that feels threatened may be conflicted between running from its attacker and fighting. Caught in a bind, the cat decides to groom instead! Grooming appears to calm and reassure the cat.”
If you’ve ever watched a cat groom, you may have noticed the process generally follows a pattern when kitty is focused on getting a full grooming session in. Generally she will start by licking her paws and rubbing them over her ears and face, both sides, before working her way down her body. This process is soothing to kitties, which is probably one of the myriad reasons they get so lost in it.
Your cat may lick you to let you know how fondly she feels about you. If you live in a multiple cat household, you may notice your kitties grooming each other. This behavior, called allogrooming, is something that cats do to strengthen the social bonds between them.
6. Something’s Wrong
If your kitty is licking herself bald or you notice her licking or chewing repeatedly at a certain area, she could be telling you something is wrong. Focused licking can be a sign of pain in that area or of a more generalized condition such as skin allergies. If you notice focused licking or bald spots on your kitty’s coat, it’s time to check in with your vet.
When to be Concerned About Kitty Licking
Overgrooming: If your kitty is licking herself bald or pulling out chunks of hair, you might have an overgroomer on your hands. There are many reasons cats overgroom and most relate to a physical or emotional issue. These include fleas, allergies, stress, boredom, and pain so if your cat is overgrooming, get her to a vet so you can get her, and her luxurious coat, back to their shining selves.
Obsessive licking of non-food things: Sometimes cats lick things other than themselves, from plastic bags to walls. Usually, this isn’t an issue and just one of the ways curious cats explore their environment by sense–in this case, taste. If the behaviors you’re seeing seem like more than the occasional taste test, talk to your vet. Cats that chew or lick obsessively can have underlying medical or emotional conditions, such as pica, that may need your attention.
Licking you: If cat is licking you here and there, don’t worry. It’s a sign of affection. Or perhaps, your kitty just really likes your lotion or the salt on your skin. In the case that your cat is attracted to lotion or perfume, you will want to stop this behavior. Many perfumes and lotions contain essential oils that are toxic to kitties–it’s not likely you’ll be wearing a toxic load but better to be safe than sorry.