What Does It Mean When Cats Groom Each Other?

If there’s one thing cat owners all over the world know, it’s the fact that cats are clean freaks. In fact, they’re so obsessively clean that chances are that when you look at your cat, half the time you’ll probably see them licking and grooming themselves. It’s probably because they always want to look #instaready (because more often than not, cat parents are prone to taking a million pictures a day of their little fur babies!).

However, cat grooming behavior happens for a variety of reasons, and not just for maintaining cleanliness. And in social situations, when cats groom each other, it becomes more than just keeping each other well-groomed and presentable, but rather it harks back to the days in the wild where your cat’s ancestors lived in colonies and had to create social bonding mechanisms in order to survive together.


What is this behavior called?

In scientific terms, this is called allogrooming, or in layman terms – social grooming. It’s in some way related to a cat’s natural maternal instincts, installed in their DNA. Grooming is a learnt behavior since birth, as mother cats immediately start grooming their kittens until they are old enough to learn how to do it themselves. Once the offspring start exploring the world around them, and meet new feline friends, this learnt behavior is then done to other cats they meet as a form of social cohesion.

It is often noted that the most mutual and amicable grooming behavior always happens between cats that are related or cats that have known each other for a while. Stranger cats approach grooming with a slight hint of caution as trust is very important for them. Mother cats are the ones responsible for grooming their kittens and even other cats, however in some rare cases the male cat also partakes in grooming, especially with little kittens of his own.

Why do cats groom each other?

Cats who groom each other are showing that they are enjoying each other’s company. This is why you will rarely see two cats that do not get along start licking one another. Apart from that, grooming may also be simply to keep themselves clean. As we mentioned above, cats are clean freaks, and by keeping each other groomed through licking on the neck and head areas, two friendly cats are just trying to keep their natural wild instincts alive. Grooming also provides a form of comfort for cats, as mother cats lick their kittens when they are very young in order to control their temperature and calm them down if they get anxious.

In cat hierarchical rankings, cat grooming always follows a particular ranking system. The more dominant, upper ranking cats in the community or colony are the ones responsible for grooming lower-ranking members of the colony, and it is rare to find cases where it is the other way round. This means that adult cats are always the ones grooming the younger cats and tiny kittens in their group.


Are my cats grooming or fighting?

Sometimes you may find that your cats start to posture and eventually get into a fight shortly after grooming each other. This may be confusing to some cat owners and may ring some alarm bells in their heads. Well, the truth is, it’s actually pretty rare to find cats who really go into an all out deathmatch after grooming.

More often than not, your cats are probably just playing with each other. Cats can be very playful at times, and especially after stimulation from grooming, that energy often results in high aggression and rough play.

On the other hand, research has actually shown that 35% of cats who allogroom have underlying antagonistic behavioral traits. It’s usually the grooming party (the more dominant one) who is holding some aggression towards the receiver. If you have a cat who is a groomer, but often lashes out at the other party, then you might have to think of ways to discipline your cat, or consult professional cat trainers for advice.


Why do my cats bite each other when grooming?

If your cats start biting each other on the neck while they social groom, this usually means that they are trying to get something that’s stuck in the fur out. Because cats don’t have opposable thumbs like we do, they use an effective combination of licking, nibbling and biting to fully clean their fur and the fur of the cats they groom.

Biting also represents the post-groom playfulness of cats. In the wild, cats in colonies tend to do one of four things: sleep, hunt, play, and groom. And because your cat’s natural instincts define their behavior, their aggressive side shows up right after they groom – this often represents practice for their hunting skills rather than a show of animosity towards each other. Of course, if the bites start getting too serious, then you might have to book a visit to the vet as soon as possible to diagnose the cause of this behavior.


Cats grooming humans

If you have a cat who grooms, licks and bites you when you get close, this is an ultimately rewarding experience. This means that your cat is showing you the highest form of affection, and they are trying to let you know that they love and trust you.

This grooming behavior, much like when they do with other cats they trust, is a way to affirm your position in their “family”. You are a part of their clan and colony, and they are showing you through a symbolic gesture that you belong to them – because remember, only dominant cats groom lower ranking members of their community.

But frankly – even if you don’t necessarily get any cleaner, the warm and fuzzy feeling you get when your cat starts licking and grooming your nose or face is just something that is so special, and if you’ve been the recipient of a cat grooming session before, it definitely helps you understand why cats just love getting close and licking one another on the head and neck.

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