Grooming is an essential part of pet care. But for cats, grooming is not as tedious as that of dogs. After all, members of the feline population have a knack for licking and grooming themselves. Call them obsessed with cleanliness, but being fastidious is an innate characteristic in all cats. And in multi-cat households, you may also see them grooming each other. It is an endearing sight and one that speaks of cats’ love for one another. Or is it? Let us find out more about this peculiar yet adorable behavior in cats.
All About Allogrooming
When two cats come face to face or are sitting close to each other, they tend to lick each other’s heads and necks. This behavior is what feline behaviorists call as allogrooming. In more simple terms, allogrooming is social grooming.
In 1998, researchers from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom analyzed the interactions of 83 domestic cats during grooming. Here are some of the very interesting findings in that study.
Cats Love to Groom Each Other’s Head and Neck
One very interesting finding in the study is that cats that practice social grooming tend to focus on the head and neck regions of another cat.
The observation is quite remarkable given that domestic cats also love getting scratched and petted in these areas by their human owners. When an ordinary cat steps on your lap and you begin petting its head or rubbing its neck, there’s a chance that it will savor the feeling. You will notice the cat to inch its head a lot closer to the petting hand. They can also purr. Many cats will rotate their heads in an effort to let their owners scratch or pet the other side.
These observations point to one inescapable fact: cats love being petted. And they love it on their heads and necks.
Cats Groom Only Those that They Know or Are Friends With
The study revealed that cats love to groom each other, but only if they know one another. Felines that grew up together can show increased display of allogrooming compared to cats that have only known each other recently. Feline social grooming is also more evident in pets that have amiable or cordial relationships. You will never see animosity in kitties that groom each other.
The possible explanation for this is quite simple. Our belief is that mutual grooming is a sign of the kitty’s mothering instinct. Mother cats have this uncanny way of licking and cleaning their kittens. The close mother cat-kitten relationship is somehow revived during instances of allogrooming.
However, such a behavior is also evident in male cats. Hence, the idea of the role of mothering instinct in the occurrence of the behavior may not apply. This is where feline social relationships can come in.
Cats Groom Other Felines that are of Lower “Social Rank”
Another interesting observation is that allogrooming has a hierarchy. Pet felines that have higher “social” rank groomed those with lower ranks. While the other way around can also occur, this is quite rare.
This further strengthens the notion that allogrooming has its roots in the mother cat-kitten relationship. Mother cats have a higher “rank” in feline society than kittens. Hence, a kitty with a higher rank almost always grooms the cat with a lower rank.
This is also evident in their posture. The one grooming often stands or sits well above the cat being groomed. The other kitty will either assume a sitting position or a lying down position, depending on the posture of the feline groomer.
Social Grooming as a Form of Redirecting Feline Aggression
One very intriguing observation in the study is that about a third of grooming cats showed antagonistic behavior. This does not necessarily mean they are aggressive to the cat they are grooming. What the study found out is that more than one-third of feline groomers showed aggression before they groomed the other feline.
This observation suggests redirection of aggression. The idea springs from the hypothesis that grooming is calming for kitties. When felines groom themselves, they feel more relaxed and calmer. This can help mitigate or reduce any feelings of aggression that they may have. Hence, when they feel like bursting their bubble, cats will try to groom another cat as a way to redirect their aggressive tendencies.
Another aspect of this observation is that grooming cats also tend to clean themselves afterwards. It is not known, however, how this will impact the cat’s wellbeing.
Other Reasons Why Cats Groom Each Other
Although we have already presented in the preceding section why kitties groom each other, there are other possible explanations for the behavior. In this section, we shall explore some of these reasons.
- An Offer of Protection
One of the most important reasons why cats lick or groom each other is by offering a sense of protection to one another. This is very obvious among adult cats and their respective kittens. You will always notice the mother cat licking its young. The kitten does not have to lick its mother back, though.
This has something to do with the cat’s territorial nature. When it licks its young, the mother cat is applying substances or chemicals on the kitten’s fur. This sends a very strong signal to other cats who may want to harm the young feline. It is sending the message that such a kitten is within the territory of the mother cat. The chemical messages also convey that the mother cat will do anything and everything to protect whatever is within its territory.
Kittens also learn from this experience. As they grow up, they often follow the teachings of the mother feline. It is, thus, natural that adult cats will display the same behavior towards their respective kittens.
This hypothesis also works with a new cat brought to the home. In such instances, the new kitty may be fearful and anxious with its change of environment. It may not be able to trust the different cats that may already be present in the household. As such, introducing a new cat to a multi-cat household is best done in a very gradual manner.
When an existing cat grooms or licks the newcomer, it is often a sign of acceptance. It means they are welcoming the new kitty into their territory. The behavior helps dispel any anxiety or fear that the new cat may have. It is telling the new cat that it is welcome and that the rest of the cats in the household will protect it from any harm.
- An Indication of a Health Condition in One of the Cats
Another possible reason why cats lick or groom each other is to signify the presence of a health condition in another cat. The thing here is that the feline being groomed is ill and that the feline groomer is trying to soothe the body part that is aching or sick.
As such, you may notice the cat groom or lick one very specific body part only. For instance, if the cat has a back problem, it may not be able to lick it by itself. Hence, it needs the grooming expertise of another cat to lick this body part.
Such a behavior is most evident in cats that have injuries or wounds. If there is pain or swelling or any other health condition, then another cat will do the licking. But then, there are also pieces of anecdotal evidence suggesting that licking another feline can indicate other health problems. The feline receiving the licking may have problems with its heart, kidneys, or any other body organ.
- Feline Relaxation
We mentioned above how allogrooming can be a great way to redirect aggressive tendencies. In light of this, it is also possible for cats to groom each other because it calms them down. It has a soothing and relaxing effect.
When one particular cat is anxious or under extreme stress, the other cats in the household can also be affected. To help control the spread of anxiety in the household feline population, cats soothe each other through grooming or licking.
Again, this has something to do with their mother cat-kitten relationship. The care and affection that a mother cat has for its kittens are best translated in the form of grooming and licking. It shows the kitten that mother cat loves it so much. The slow and gentle strokes of the cat’s tongue are like the long and slow strokes of a massage therapist at the spa.
Such actions help stimulate the nerve endings underneath the cat’s skin. This gets transmitted to the brain to increase the production and release of endorphins. Other mood-regulating substances may also exert their effects on the cat. This leads to a feeling of relaxation and contentment.
There are many reasons why cats may groom each other. It can be to strengthen their social bonds or to help provide for comfort and protection. Of course, grooming always has a role in keeping cats clean.