Cat Grooming Behavior & Training - Cat Info Detective

Cat Grooming Behavior & Training

Skye Blake-updated, white background

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.

paw prints coming in from a distance

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?

Skye Blake-updated, white background

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

Tuxedo cat sitting on paper tablet washing face, grooming

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

tabby, white cat grooming himself

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.

white, ginger tabby cat licking back food

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.

Paw Grooming

calico cat washing ear, grooming

If you’ve been around any cat, you’ve witnessed this type of grooming behavior.

A cat licks his 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.

Tuxedo cat sitting on paper tablet washing face, grooming

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

2 cats by a window, one grooming the other

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 grooming each other

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

longhaired white cat grooming, licking back

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.

white, tabby cat grooming, licking back

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…

“ASMR Cat Grooming #84 (1 HOUR LOOP, bright version)”, Curry Sugar Meow, April 2, 2021

Grooming Behavioral Problems

tabby, white cat washing back leg

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

tabby cat licking, grooming back leg

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.

Medical Reasons
grey cat in towel, grooming, sick

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.

Anxiety Reasons
graphic of black cat looking worried, frazzled, upset

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.

orange, white cat on windowsill looking worried

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.

Stops Grooming

black, white cat lounging, sleeping on cushion, pillow

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…

“My Cat Is NOT GROOMING Anymore 🐱 (Why and What to do)”, AnimalWised, June 30, 2021

Fixing the Problems

calico cat in cat tree bed

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…

black, white kitten playing with fuzzy wand toy

Then work on positive changes like…

  • Get everyone in your household involved

Environmental Enrichment

black, tabby cat walking on wall walkway

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

cat standing up to play with dangling toys

Stop free feeding… establish play and feeding routines (at least 2-3 times a day).

This, along with catification, goes a long way toward relieving a lot of feline anxiety.

Locate food and litter boxes in quiet places where your cat can be comfortable but the dog can’t get to it.

Litter boxes should still be in areas where your cat lives… not miles away in a garage or utility room.

Other Steps

cat on table with dog looking up

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

dark tabby cat on cat tree looking down

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.

Nothing’s Working!

pharmacist - vet medicine

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

Cat reaching up to grab a grooming brush

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.

person petting a tabby cat's head

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.

Touch Training

grey cat's head and paw

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.

Black & white cat legs, paws

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 in sneakers walking up steps, step by step

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.

Longhaired ginger, white cat by a rose

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.

combing chin of orange tabby

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

combs, 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.

cat rubbing head

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…

“How to get your cat used to grooming | Grooming episode one”, Cats Protection, September 10, 2018

Moving Forward

cartoon signpost, this way, that way, decision

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

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 March 30, 2024

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