We often see cats grooming or allogrooming those around them – including humans. Grooming is an important behavior in cats – used for different purposes and has many different meanings.
Grooming is not always well-understood by pet owners and often can only be seen as an expression of love. But it can also be an aggressive act.
Seeing our loved felines grooming and licking each other is cute. But allogrooming is, in fact, a complex and vital communication tool between individuals.
Cats have a very unique tongue that is perfect for grooming. Their tongues have keratin spines or filiform papillae. Much like a hairbrush, it helps remove any dirt, foreign substances, and fleas.
Allogrooming – What It’s All About
Allogrooming is found in many species of the animal kingdom and cats are a brilliant example of the importance and versatility of the simple act.
Curtis and Colleagues (2003) found that the most frequent incidents of allogrooming between cats were those that were closely related. This suggests that grooming between related individuals maintains those relationships; decreasing the risk of aggression.
This can be extremely important in multi-cat households or in densely populated colonies where the de-escalation of fights are vital in avoiding harm. This is especially important in feral colonies where injury could mean life or death for the individual.
When Grooming is Actually an Aggression
What people don’t recognize is that an aggressive or dominant act between individual cats in the same household is often mistaken for love. This can occur when two cats in the same house have unequal status within their social circle, or when they don’t have adequate access to resources such as food, toys or sleeping positions.
Allogrooming is not generally harmful but can impact the submissive cat’s welfare and behavior significantly such as becoming timid, frightened or overgrooming themselves.
The most common sign is seeing a cat grooming another and very rarely, their roles will be reversed.
You may also see when the submissive cat grooms the dominant cat, the submissive cat would be met with aggression by the dominant.
Another sign can be seen when the dominant cat is grooming the submissive cat such as the submissive cat is stiff in body, tense or has flattened ears or hunched up body with the dominant cat placed on top of it or in a higher position.
A situation like this might be the result of personality clashes, too little beds options or improper introductions.
- When Stress is a Factor
Another consequence of aggressive allogrooming is a redirection of stress. This happens when a cat is stressed by something it cannot escape or has no control over.
This might be a change in routine, the introduction of a new cat in the house or neighborhood or even a change in cleaning products. Usually, this is accompanied by over-grooming itself or its companion.
Signs may include shortened whiskers, thinning of fur in one area of its body or bald patches. These bald patches may have wounds in extreme cases.
Finding the cause of stress can sometimes be difficult and depends on the individual.
The first things to consider are any recent changes. By using the process of elimination, you can also use vet-prescribed anti-anxiety medications to aid the cat’s anxiety with the new change.
Mother-Kitten Bonding and Grooming
Allogrooming is most commonly seen between a mother cat and her kittens. When first born, kittens are unable to use their bladder and bowels, so the mother helps by grooming the kittens and stimulates them to go.
Grooming becomes less frequent the older the kittens become. But some mothers will continue to allogroom their kittens well into adulthood.
This grooming serves several purposes. The first is to ensure the kittens are clean. Second, to ensure that the kittens express themselves. And finally, to ensure they form and maintain family bonds throughout their kittenhood.
How well a mother cat grooms her kittens is a good indicator of the level of care she gives and how bonded they are together. You will also start to see kittens groom each other, especially as they get older and much more playful.
Kittens grooming each other can become a problem when they are without a mother and they are being hand-reared.
Kittens will naturally want to suckle and without an available nipple, they will sometimes latch onto their siblings and possibly cause damage to their siblings’ whiskers. This could also cause barbing of fur.
If this happens, it’s best to raise them as individuals; unless they are able to be watched at all hours of the day.
This article only briefly highlights the range of use of allogrooming by cats to help communicate with each other. There are many factors dictating why one cat is allogrooming another, but its overall purpose is to help de-escalate potential aggressive situations that could cause injury.
With this understanding, we know more about monitoring our cats’ welfare and can ensure cats in the same house can co-exist and more importantly, bond.
So next time you see your cats groom each other, consider how they are doing it and identify if it is a mutual show of bonding or perhaps a more aggressive act.
Bradshaw, W. S. (2014). Sociality in cats: A comparative review. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 11, 113-124.
Ojima, K. (1998). Quantitative and distributive study of the fungiform papillae in the cat tongue in microvascular cast specimens. Annals of Anatomy – Anatomischer Anzeiger, 180 (5), 409-414.