Why Do Cats Lick Themselves?

Written by Shaunice Lewis
Updated: October 15, 2022
© sophiecat/Shutterstock.com
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One of the benefits of having a cat is that they tend to be very clean animals. This is one of the reasons why people choose them over dogs. Cats lick themselves to groom themselves and regulate their body temperature. They can spend as much as 50% of their waking hours licking and grooming themselves. Because of this, cats are some of the cleanest pets you can have.

Licking Is A Cat’s Natural Instinct

A mother cat’s first job once her kittens are born is to make sure that they’re clean. The mother will first remove the amniotic sac and then lick the kitten with her roughly-textured tongue. This is to stimulate the cat’s breathing. Later on, when the kittens are nursing, the mother cat will stimulate the kittens to urinate and defecate by licking their hind ends.

Kittens learn from their mothers, so they’ll pick up the behavior of self-grooming by the time they’re a few weeks old. If the kitten is part of a litter, they will usually lick and groom each other. But licking is not only a way for them to keep themselves clean, there are a variety of reasons why cats lick themselves. We’ll take a look at some of the most common and important reasons.

To cleanse their injuries

When a cat has injured itself, it will instinctively lick the area that has become painful or inflamed. This includes any open wounds they may have gotten. Licking a wound clean can be very beneficial for the cat, as it helps rid the area of dirt and blood in order to keep the wound clean.

However, if the cat’s licking becomes excessive, it can cause the wound to become infected and in turn delay the healing process. If you notice that your cat has a small wound and has been licking the area clean, this is normal. Just keep an eye out to make sure that it is not excessive. Otherwise, you’ll want to stop your cat from doing this so that they don’t make it worse. Always consult your vet for serious wounds so that they can be treated with proper medication.

To hide their scent from predators

A cat’s sense of smell is fourteen times more powerful than a human’s. This is both a benefit and a disadvantage. It’s a benefit because it can help a cat immensely when it comes to tracking and hunting down prey. But it can be a disadvantage because cats that may try to attack young and defenseless kittens.

A mother cat in the wild will attempt to hide her kittens by removing the evidence of their feeding. She will groom herself and the kittens thoroughly after nursing. This is the same reason why cats will bury their uneaten, dead prey in the wild. This is so that they cannot be tracked down or hunted by other animals. It is also so that they can hide their food from other scavengers and save it for later consumption.

You may have unknowingly witnessed this same type of behavior if you’ve seen your cat scratching at the floor around its food bowl after eating. It was attempting to hide the scent of the food from other predators so that it will have something to come back to later. The domestic cat doesn’t realize this is an unnecessary behavior since it lives indoors and there are no predators, but it is still ingrained in them naturally.

To groom their coats and skin

If you’ve ever been licked by a cat, you know that its tongue is rough in texture. A cat’s tongue is barb-like and rough in order to assist in the grooming process. They’ll use their prickly-textured tongue to groom and clean their fur. While grooming, the tongue stimulates the sebaceous glands located at the base of their hairs. They will then spread the sebum from the glands throughout the hairs by licking. This helps make their coats look a bit shinier.

Their practice of self-grooming will also help rid the fur of dirt and any parasites such as fleas. An added bonus is that since cats do not have sweat glands, grooming their fur can help them stay cooler on hot days. Grooming also feels good to the cat, so sometimes you’ll find them grooming for no apparent reason. Sometimes cats will do it simply because they enjoy it. And you’ll often find cats grooming one another. This is a way for them to share in the positive sensation of grooming and share a bond with those that they love.

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What Do I Do If My Cat Is Grooming Excessively?

Although cats have many reasons to be grooming themselves, sometimes the behavior can become a bit excessive. You may be able to tell if your cat is grooming excessively by noticing any bald patches in their fur or sores on their skin. Grooming can become an obsessive-compulsive behavior for cats when they are under a lot of stress.

Many cat owners can attest to the fact that cats strongly dislike change of any kind. Things that can trigger this behavior of excessive grooming can be anything from a new baby, a death in the family, or even simply rearranging the living room. These things can cause a lot of stress for your cat if it is used to things being a certain way. Try to keep a sense of routine and order for your cat as best as you can to limit these types of responses.

Other causes of stress for your cat might include flea bites, ringworm, itchiness due to allergies, or an underlying health issue. It’s always best to take your cat to the vet for regular checkups so that these things can be spotted and then corrected. The longer they go unchecked, the more harmful they are to your cat and the more stress it will cause.

Sometimes cats that were taken away from their mother too soon will display more self-grooming or suckling than normal. This is because they were not allowed the normal weaning period. This excessive behavior usually disappears over time once the kitten is kept in a regularly safe and predictable environment.

Cats can display the overgrowing behavior in other ways besides just licking their fur. When a cat grooms itself, it may also bite, nibble, chew, or suck on the coat or skin. This is because as we mentioned before, a cat while grooming itself, activates the sebaceous glands that produce sebum. The sebum is what gives cats their shiny coat and smooth feel. But if the cat is doing this excessively, it may bite and chew patches of its fur away.

When not due to medical issues, this behavior can also be a sign of fear, anxiety, isolation, stress from a new household pet, separation anxiety, or lack of stimulation. One way you can prevent this is to make sure that your cat feels comfortable in your home by having its own safe space, and that it has fun, engaging toys to play with. Keeping your cat preoccupied can help reduce the amount of time it spends grooming itself.

You can also give your cat something fun to do and maybe even calms its anxiety by providing it with a catnip toy. Everyone knows that cats go crazy over catnip. But did you know that you may be able to use it to help your cat deal with stressful situations? The key to using catnip to help your kitty calm down is to administer the catnip about 15 minutes before you expect your cat to be in a stressful environment—such as a trip to the vet.

The catnip may make your cat a little crazy when it is first given to it, but after a few minutes, your cat should be worn out and in a more mellow mood. This covers two things—it gives them something engaging to focus on other than grooming and then helps them settle down, potentially reducing feelings of anxiety. Providing toys that are meant for your cat to chew on can also help by providing an alternative for chewing instead of its own fur.

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What Does It Mean If My Cat Tries To Groom Me?

This might seem strange to some owners when they experience their cat trying to groom them when they aren’t covered in fur, but there’s a reason for it. Cats do this because they are social animals and grooming each other is one way that they socialize. When cats lick people, it is a sign of affection and trust. What they are telling you is that they love and trust you—just as they would their littermates or their own mother. They could also be simply licking your skin if they taste a substance on it like salt from your sweat.

Should I Groom My Cat?

Only if you notice that your cat enjoys being groomed. If you try to brush or comb your cat and you find that it enjoys it, then you can definitely continue to do so. Grooming your cat with the right tools like a good quality de-shedding brush can be a way for you to strengthen the bond between you and your cat. It can also be a great way for you to notice any signs of illness that may be showing up in your cat’s fur or skin.

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However, you may want to keep in mind that a lot of cats do not enjoy being groomed. If this is the case for your cat, do not try to force it (if you value your own safety). Some cats would simply rather groom themselves. If your cat is prone to hairballs or suffers from excessive shedding, you might want to consider taking it to a professional groomer.

The Featured Image

Why do cats lick themselves
Close up of cat licking human arm.
© sophiecat/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Freelance writer specializing in natural health and wellness.

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