Updated: August 10, 2022 by Kristen Chapple
Cats are mysterious creatures. No matter how much we love them and know them, they can always surprise us. We still have a long way to go before we can say that we fully understand our furry little friends. Their behavior can be perplexing and baffling. One of the questions that troubles even scientists and animal behaviorists, is why do cats groom each other?
It is not the question of utmost importance, but it is a peculiar one. Many different species enjoy mutual grooming sessions. Scientists call it allogrooming. This behavior reinforces bonds and social structure, it can resolve conflicts, it can even lead to sexual activities. It would be a long story to analyze different species social grooming habits, but they all have something in common: It is a friendly and almost altruistic behavior, and it is more or less predictable.
Cats make a special case because their grooming interactions are, guess what, unpredictable. Most of the times it looks so sweet and cuddly, but sometimes it turns ugly in a blink of an eye. And a cat that gives the grooming is the one that usually starts the quarrel. Why on earth would you cuddle someone for a while and then the very next moment get angry for no reason? Of course, it doesn’t happen every time, but the 30% rate is enough to raise questions.
Why Do Cats Groom Each Other and Themselves Anyway?
Cats like to keep themselves clean. In order to achieve that they spend more than 10% of their time grooming. Taking care of hygiene is healthy, but it is not the only reason for grooming. It helps to cool down in hot weather. They can’t sweat and it is ridiculous to pant like a dog. Cats spread saliva on their fur instead to get fluffy to enable air circulation against the skin. Evaporation of the saliva helps cooling, too. It is also a sort of cat’s way of meditation to relieve the tension and relax.
So, when you are clean, cool and relaxed, why wouldn’t you help out the next cat to show her how important it is to be clean, cool and relaxed? Is it a kind of social bonding similar to primates and other species that perform grooming? To get a better understanding, let’s take a look at how does it work and why do cats groom each other exactly.
What Exactly Are They Doing?
The ritual doesn’t have strict rules as these encounters differ from occasion to occasion. However, some actions are more common than the others, so there is a pattern that can be called the most common ‘procedure’. It begins when one cat approaches the other. One cat licks and grooms the other. The groomer focuses on head and neck area. Finally, it ends when one cat moves away.
It doesn’t look like it’s complicated, does it? A mother cat will lick her kittens and teach them to groom each other. Head and neck are areas that are hard to reach when a cat cleans herself so a helping hand is both welcome and useful. Why would anyone doubt that this is a cute way of bonding with some extra benefit in the hygiene department? After all, social grooming is reserved for friends and family, only. You will never see a cat grooming a stranger or any cat outside of her group.
While our instinct tells us that this must be affectionate, some facts undermine that notion.
- Why does it start with the approach and not when cats are lying together?
- Why is it one-way traffic most of the times?
- Male cats are initiators.
- The most frequent grooming occurs between two males and the most rare is between two females.
- The groomers take a dominant posture.
- Higher ranked cats do a lot more grooming.
- Why do groomers show offensive behavior occasionally?
- Why do they split up at the end of the session?
All of these actions happen frequently, but not every time when cats lick each other. It looks like our cats are trying to confuse us on purpose in order to preserve their mysterious ways. Still, situations that occur more often should give us a better chance to understand or guess the reasons behind certain behavior.
It Is Mostly About Dominance and Redirecting Aggression
A 1998 study from the University of Southampton called ‘The function of allogrooming in domestic cats’ suggested that it may be a way of redirecting aggression. When a cat feels a tension, she will assert her dominant position by grooming a lower ranked cat rather than picking a fight with the member of her alliance . It makes sense as higher ranked cats do most of the grooming. This theory also explains offensive displays at the end of the sessions. Moreover, a cat that does the grooming often grooms herself after the partner.
While it is hard to comprehend all the subtleties of these interactions, it is beyond doubt that it has something to do with dominance. Dominant cats are the groomers and submissive ones are on the receiving end. However, the dynamics of cats relations are ever-changing, so that’s the best guess why there are so many variations in grooming behavior.
It seems like aggression has a part in social grooming but the correlation is actually negative. Or inversely proportional, to be precise. The more cats display aggressive behavior, the less is a chance of allogrooming to happen and vice versa. So, allogrooming might play a part in keeping the balance and harmony in the group or pair of cats by mitigating the aggression before it comes out for real.
While reasons for social grooming are not as adorable as you thought, it is not inappropriate or undesirable in any way. It is perfectly normal behavior for cats in a group and it still looks cute. If you have cats that groom each other and even show some offensive behavior in the process, you shouldn’t worry. It will not make any situation worse. If they do allogrooming they consider each other a family and they will sort it out. Even though it is not affectionate it is helpful. Whatever theory makes sense to you allogrooming is positive and contributes to the well-being of your cats.