Greetings curious humans! Skye Blake here with more fascinating facts about cat grooming behavior.
Once you understand that, you can train your cat to accept touch in sensitive areas… which is really all that grooming is about.
You’ll also be able to catch any abnormal grooming quickly and help your cat return to normal.
Let’s discover more…
The information here is for general knowledge… always see your vet with questions about your cat’s individual needs.
- Who Is Skye Blake?
- Types of Grooming Behavior
- Grooming Behavioral Problems
- Fixing the Problems
- Training a Cat to Enjoy Grooming
- Moving Forward
- List of Sources
Who Is Skye Blake?
Skye Blake, Cat Info Detective, is a curious cat researcher (not a vet or behaviorist) who sniffs out expert, reliable sources about cats, studies their information, then passes it on to you!
Sometimes there’s not enough evidence for easy answers, so Skye gives you all sides, explains the situation as thoroughly and clearly as possible, and links you to experts on each page.
Sources are at the bottom of each page so you can do more snooping.
Types of Grooming Behavior
Grooming is an essential part of every cat’s daily “hunt, catch, kill, eat, groom, sleep” routine.
Cats do a few different types of grooming behavior… oral, paw, mutual, and displacement.
Let’s take a look at each…
Oral grooming is what people most commonly see when watching cats groom themselves.
A cat will work her way down the body and legs, carefully licking every inch, cleaning between her toes with her teeth.
A cat’s tongue is perfectly made for cleaning because it has tiny rough barbs on it… ever had a cat lick your arm?
Sometimes they use their teeth, especially for in between toes and pulling out tangles and foreign objects like grass burrs.
If you’ve been around any cat, you’ve witnessed this type of grooming behavior.
A cat licks it’s paw and wipes it over his neck, back of the head and ears, and face.
After meals, a cat will meticulously groom his face area, licking and wiping numerous times until it’s sufficiently clean.
Using the back paws to scratch areas that can’t be reached with other methods is another type of paw grooming.
Typically, this is usually done for areas like the neck and ears.
Mutual grooming behavior, also called “allogrooming”, happens when one cat licks another cat, usually around the head and neck.
This area is the most difficult for a cat to groom and is a place where cats enjoy touch from a trusted cat or person.
Cats will do this grooming with people, who should accept it as a sign of affection.
They view petting as grooming from you as well, which makes it easier to train them to accept brushing and combing.
Displacement grooming happens when a cat stops in the middle of something unrelated, looks around, and suddenly starts licking her fur, walking off a moment later.
It usually happens when something startles or frightens a cat, such as a loud noise, fight, or other upsetting occurrence.
This puzzling behavior seems to be more about relieving a cat’s stress than actual grooming.
Nobody knows why they do this, but one theory is that it gives the cat a chance to regain some equilibrium or sense of internal balance.
Sort of like a person gathering their wits after something shocking happens.
Here’s an example of a cat grooming itself…
Grooming Behavioral Problems
Overgrooming and not grooming are indicators that your cat is dealing with a problem the only way he knows how.
These are abnormal grooming behaviors… red flags that illness, anxiety, boredom, or injury are affecting your cat.
Overgrooming is when a cat licks certain places on her body to the point where it becomes bald.
Sometimes a cat will pull the hair out or chew on the spot until there are sores.
If your cat is hyper focused on constantly licking a certain area (as opposed to normal grooming of the entire body after a meal), take her to the vet for a checkup.
There are many medical conditions that can be underlying this behavior. Examples are a flea infestation or hyperthyroidism.
If a medical condition is causing your cat to try to get rid of pain or itching by licking at the area, no amount of training will help.
If your vet has determined there’s no medical reason for this behavior, it’s time to look at what’s making your cat anxious.
There’s something that’s upsetting her so much that this is the only way she can relieve the anxiety.
A change in your schedule, a new person or pet, furniture being moved around, can all cause a cat to feel anxious.
She feels like she’s losing her territory, threatening her safety.
If your cat stops grooming, there’s likely a medical reason for it.
This is especially true for senior cats… arthritis and chronic illnesses can affect their ability to wash themselves.
Have your cat checked by a vet before doing anything else.
Some cats stop grooming when they’re anxious. This video is helpful…
Fixing the Problems
If you’re not already familiar with how cats see the world, this is where you should start.
Understanding how they view your house as territory is vital to taking the steps needed to make your cat feel safe and comfortable.
Evaluate changes that have been happening in her world…
Then work on positive changes like…
- Establish feeding routines
- Get everyone in your household involved
Make your home comfortable for your cat… from her point of view.
Environmental enrichment (“catification”) makes it possible for a cat to have safe places to walk around rooms off the floor.
This is especially important if you have multiple cats, dogs, and children… all of whom will chase a cat relentlessly if not taught to leave him alone.
Play, Meals & Litter Boxes
This, along with catification, goes a long way toward relieving a lot of feline anxiety.
Litter boxes should still be in areas where your cat lives… not miles away in a garage or utility room.
Training dogs and teaching children to respect a cat’s boundaries are important as well.
It takes some time to take these steps to improve your cat’s world… and your own!
Summary of Steps
Take each step one at a time, starting with giving your cat escape routes, a safe room, and access to the vertical world.
Then establish routines, making sure food and litter boxes are available and stress-free zones.
Finally, be sure everyone else involved understands and follows the main “cat rule”… respect the cat’s boundaries.
If your cat’s anxiety is extreme and you’ve done all you can to provide territorial security, it might be necessary to use some anti-anxiety medication.
Using pheromone plugins and sprays is helpful for some cats, while others may need drug therapy.
Always talk to your vet and consider working with a certified cat behaviorist before making that decision.
Training a Cat to Enjoy Grooming
Many people give up trying to do any part of grooming because their cat resists all attempts.
They think it will hurt the cat, don’t want to risk scratches and bites, or are just lazy.
Since grooming is very important for your cat’s health and wellbeing, it’s worth taking the time and patience to gently train your cat.
Training methods for cats are quite simple and can be used for anything you need your cat to do.
The idea is to use rewards like treats to make the activity fun… something your cat wants to do.
Clicker training is a good way to work with cats, especially if a cat needs extra time and work to achieve your goals.
Grooming is simply a form of touch, so your goal is to make your cat aware that touch is pleasant.
Many cats are sensitive to being touched in certain places on their bodies, especially their sides, back ends, bellies, and paws.
When attempting to train your cat for grooming, work with him during his sleepiest, most relaxed times of day.
This is usually after he’s done his own grooming session and is settling down for a nap.
Notice what your cat does when you pet her… she moves around so you’ll pet her head, cheeks, and neck, since those are favorite touch spots.
Baby Steps Work Best
People often make the mistake of trying to get a whole session done at one time, but many cats won’t tolerate it.
The trick is doing baby steps… being able to gently touch or rub a paw gets a reward.
Repeat the same touch a little longer, rubbing a little more of the paw.
If he resists, stop and try again later, working a little at a time, according to your cat’s tolerance level.
This lets him know he’s in control and won’t be forced.
Reward your cat each time you work with him, so he realizes this is something he likes.
Treats or massaging his head where he enjoys touch are great rewards.
This gentle touch, gradual method allows your cat to feel in control while desensitizing her to pressure and touch that’s necessary for grooming.
Accepting Grooming Tools
Do the same thing with clippers, brushes, cotton balls, combs, and anything else you may need to use to groom your cat.
Put the item near your cat and let her sniff it… exploring it gives her the opportunity to realize it’s not a threat.
If she rubs her head or cheek on it, all the better! It means she’s owning it.
Then work on any sounds the item makes. Clippers make noise and some cats are afraid of the popping sound.
The same method will help your cat accept pills and droppers… work on this before you actually have to use them.
Discover more at “How to Train a Cat“.
Here’s a video showing the basics of getting a cat to allow grooming…
Now that you understand a bit about cats grooming themselves and how you can help, discover more about your part in the grooming process at “How to Groom a Cat“.
Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.
Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.
Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.
Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own.
However, sometimes they refer to primary sources.
When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.
List of Sources
“77 Things to Know Before Getting a Cat” by Susan M. Ewing, Fox Chapel Publishers International, Ltd., 2018, pp. 97-101
“How To Tell If Your Cat Has A Double Coat In 4 Simple Steps” by Dr. Emma Chandley, BVETMED, PGCERTSAS, MRCVS, Cats.com, updated March 1, 2023
“What to Do About Hairballs in Cats” by Hilary Parker, WebMD®, Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM, February 26, 2023
“Feline Grooming Behavior” by Bonnie Beaver, DVM, MS, Feline Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians, W.B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, PA, 1992, pp. 255-266
“The Cat Whisperer”, by Mieshelle Nagelschneider, Bantam Books, The Random House Publishing Group, New York NY, 2013, www.bantamdell.com
“Think Like a Cat, How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat – Not a Sour Puss”, by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Penguin Books, Penguin Group (USA) Inc, New York, NY, 2000, 2011
“Total Cat Mojo”, by Jackson Galaxy with Mikel Delgado, PhD, Tarcher Perigree, Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2017
Updated December 29, 2023