How Do Cats Actually Clean Themselves?

Source:AZ Animals Time:October 25, 2023

Key Points

  • Cats learn to groom themselves from their mothers and they will groom their littermates as a sign of affection.
  • A cat’s tongue is coarse and rough because of tiny spines called papillae which help separate their hair better than regular brushes.
  • Owners can help groom their cats by brushing their coat with a fine-toothed slicker brush, providing routine dental care, and keeping their environment clean from dust and dirt.

How Do Cats Actually Clean Themselves?

Domestic cats will spend nearly 50% of their day grooming their coat.

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Cats are incredible animals that are self-sufficient and can handle themselves in a domestic house or out in the wild. They are hunters at birth and are intelligent enough to solve problems to get what they want. One of the best attributes of cats is how they like to be clean. Their habits of burying their feces and constantly grooming themselves indicate they love a healthy coat free of dirt.

But how do cats actually clean themselves? It seems improbable that simply licking themselves is enough to remove dirt and dust from their coat. Are their tongues designed in a specific way for cleaning? Is there a special enzyme in their saliva that breaks down dirt? What is the secret of how cats clean themselves?

How Often Do Cats Groom Themselves?

Cats are creatures of habit, spending the majority of their day napping and cleaning themselves while nibbling on food and drinking water. Every cat has their own ritual of how they groom themselves regarding where they start, stop, what spots to clean first, and what spots to clean most often.

According to the animal behaviorist Pamela Perry of Cornell University, cats will spend 30 to 50 percent of their day grooming their coats.

How Do Cats Groom Themselves?

How Do Cats Actually Clean Themselves?

Long-haired cats like Maine coons have a higher risk of forming knots, so they spend more time grooming than short-haired cats.

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Animals will naturally lick themselves to get clean. Dogs will lick their paws or small cuts to wipe away blood, birds will molt and shed feathers, and snakes will shed their skin to heal or allow room for growing. Cats are animals that love being clean and they will groom themselves on a regular basis. They incorporate several biological advantages to accomplish this goal.

Evolutionary Tongues

A cat’s tongue is so coarse that it feels like sandpaper. Microscopic viewing will highlight that a cat’s tongue does not have the same taste buds as humans and dogs. Instead, they have tiny hook-like spines called papillae. These spines are made of keratin, the same material as human hair and fingernails.

Cats use the papillae on their tongues to brush their coat with such fine detail that it breaks up knotted hair while stimulating skin glands to produce sebum or natural body oil. The tongue spreads the oil across the body, helping to remove old hair, dust, dirt, and parasite eggs. Because cats are highly flexible, they can lick the majority of their body to remove dirt from their chest, legs, back, tail, and behind.

However, the cat will be ingesting some dirt in the process, which their bodies can handle thanks to their strong stomach acids evolving to break down small amounts of dirt and dust on the coat. When too much hair, dirt, and dust lump together, a cat will cough it out as a hairball. Otherwise, it is passed through the digestive system.

Wiping With Paws

Cats will use their paws to help them reach areas of their body they cannot directly lick such as their head and neck.

To clean these areas, cats will lick their paws, covering it in enough saliva to moisten their paws. Then, they proceed to wash their faces to remove old food or dust from their whiskers or brush dirt off of their head and neck.

They will re-lick their paws every few swipes to help loosen dirt, so it comes off more easily.

Nail Trimming

Cats need to scratch on several rough surfaces to keep their nails sharp. Scratching rough surfaces allows the nails to splinter, allowing for new nails to grow while discarding the old sheath.

Cats will lick and chew their paws to remove dirt and keep their nails trimmed. Some cat owners may notice some cats are sensitive to having their back feet touched. This is because they prefer to handle managing their back feet themselves rather than have someone else touch them.

Domestic cats have a harder time naturally keeping their back nails short unless there are large scratching posts that a cat can climb up to help dig their nails into. Otherwise, cats will chew them to allow new nails to grow.

Why Do Cats Groom Themselves

How Do Cats Actually Clean Themselves?

Kittens have a lot of energy that gets vented out by grooming and playing with littermates.

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Grooming is a natural habit for cats. Kittens learn to groom themselves by watching how their mothers groom them and their littermates. However, grooming serves more purposes than just having them look nice.

Cats clean themselves because:

  1. Stay Clean: Cats love being clean and will groom themselves to remove knots, dirt, dust, and old food from their coat and whiskers. Grooming helps remove dead hair and whiskers to allow new, healthier hair and whispers to emerge.
  2. Regulate Body Temperature: Cats cannot sweat like humans, nor can they pant like dogs. If a cat is panting, then it means something is seriously wrong and they should be taken to an emergency room immediately. Cats will lick themselves to help stay cool on warm days, as well as lying on tile floors.
  3. Stimulate Circulation of Skin: As mentioned before, cats use the spines on their tongue to stimulate skin glands to produce oil. The oil is spread across the body, giving cats a healthy, and shining coat. It also makes the skin feel soft and smooth, allowing them to move more quickly when playing or hunting.
  4. Emotional Support: Cats are creatures of habit and routine. They can be easily stressed by simple things like furniture changing, cleaning with a vacuum, someone moving, or new people in the house. Grooming releases endorphins to keep cats calm and relaxed. Some veterinarians believe grooming reminds them of being with their mother which puts them at ease.
  5. Hide Scent from Prey: Cats are expert hunters, and a key trick to being an expert hunter is hiding your scent from prey. By burying their feces, licking their coat to be free of dirt, and having a smooth coat to minimize resistance while running, cats can easily stalk and lunge at prey without being noticed.

Can Cats Overgroom Themselves?

How Do Cats Actually Clean Themselves?

Slicker brushes have thinner and stronger teeth than regular brushes to help prevent and unravel knots.

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Overgrooming is the habit where an animal is continuously grooming themselves to the point it becomes detrimental to their health.

Cats are not the only animals capable of overgrooming. Any animal that is frequently bathed or licking themselves constantly where their skin becomes red or irritated will count as overgrooming.

Grooming is a relaxing and pleasurable experience for animals. By overgrooming, they are addicted to making themselves feel good at the cost of their health.

Signs of overgrooming are:

  • Hair loss
  • Red and irritated skin
  • Constantly licking self or paws
  • Hair feels dry or dull
  • Minimizing other habits like eating, drinking, or resting

Why Do Animals Overgroom?

Cats are animals of habit, and dogs can be anxious depending on several situations.

The most common reasons for an animal overgrooming themselves are:

  • Allergies causing their skin to feel itchy
  • Stress from changes in the household
  • Boredom with having nothing to do
  • Moving or experiencing a big change in the house or family

Can Owners Help Groom Their Cats?

How Do Cats Actually Clean Themselves?

Owners and veterinary staff can clip cat’s nails when they get too long. It is recommended to introduce nail trimming to kittens so they are familiar with the technique.

©frantic00/iStock via Getty Images

Owners should absolutely groom their cats. Cats are highly social animals that like to pretend they are better and do not need anyone else. In reality, cats thrive with healthy social engagement from littermates or from their owners to show affection and build stronger bonds.

Owners can help cats with their grooming habits by:

  1. Brushing Coat: Use a slicker brush to remove excess hair and dirt from their coat. Brushing their coat during seasonal changes reduces the chance of hairballs because the brush will remove the excess hair. It will also stimulate the skin glands to produce their natural oil, making their coat smooth and shiny. Brushing is essential for long-haired cats to detangle knots early.
  2. Clean House: Keep their environment clean by picking up loose hair, vacuuming the floors, and wiping dust to prevent it from sticking to the cat.
  3. No Baths: Do not bathe a cat unless they are used to being in the water and enjoying it. Cats do not need baths because they have a system to clean themselves. Chronic bathing will remove the oils on their coat, leaving their skin vulnerable to irritation or infections.
  4. Dental Care: Perform routine dental care to keep their mouth clean. Use a pet toothbrush and pet-safe toothpaste or gels to remove plaque and tartar from their teeth so any dirt that is trapped in their mouth does not destroy the gums to cause gingivitis. Indoor cats have a higher chance of developing dental disease because owners overlook dental care.

How Do Cats Actually Clean Themselves?

A cat grooming their owner is a sign of trust and affection, as well as a sign they might need to be cleaned.

©Nils Jacobi/iStock via Getty Images

Cats are a unique species that flourish in clean environments. Keeping their coats clean tactically makes them better hunters and supports their overall health by removing knots and dirt. Owners should brush their cat’s coat daily to support their habits while nurturing a deep bond.


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