This is a question asked by many cat owners and the simple answer is no! Cats spend about half their waking hours licking themselves and their kitty friends so many people mistakenly believe this must mean they are self grooming.
This hard-wired licking behaviour serves several important functions for the cat. Because cats are a prey species as well as a predator licking their fur cleans them of all smells that may make other predators aware of them. Licking serves to move the essential oils from the skin evenly around the fur to keep it shiny and in good condition. These oils also help insulate against damp and cold. Although they have some sweat glands in their paws, cats don’t sweat like we do when it gets too hot. By dampening their fur with saliva, cats help themselves to cool down when the weather is extra warm.
Kittens start grooming one another — a behaviour called allogrooming — by the time they’re five weeks old. Sometimes this behaviour continues into adulthood, with bonded cats spending time licking the places that are hard to each by themselves. You’ve probably seen a cat start licking himself after an embarrassing moment like falling off a counter. This is called a displacement behaviour, and it relieves the stress caused by that momentary lapse of poise and grace. If a cat is severely stressed, she could resort to over-grooming or “barbering” her fur in an attempt to feel better.
But licking isn’t the same as grooming which is why some cats, typically those with longer or thicker hair, become matted. Elderly, arthritic cats and overweight cats find it physically difficult to ‘groom’ themselves and often need human assistance to keep their coats in good condition. All cats weather short haired, long haired or hairless will benefit from a good brushing, combing or bath. Some short haired types may need nothing more than a weekly brushing. Long haired types, particularly Persian and Himalayan cats have coats that require daily combing and brushing in order to keep knots at bay. Hairless breeds like the Sphinx need weekly baths to wash away the excessive oils on their skin.
Grooming a cat may seem like a purely cosmetic pursuit, but there are many physical benefits to regularly grooming your cat. By brushing and combing your cat’s fur you will be removing dead hair that will be ingested by the cat when he licks himself. All of this dead hair can gather in your cat’s digestive tract and result in vomited ‘hairballs’ or even constipation. Removing dead hair will help prevent matting of the fur and will generally make the cat feel better. Regularly grooming your cat also gives you a chance to check for fleas, ticks, or other lumps or bumps. There may even be times when a cat gets into dangerous products like paint or motor oil that will need to be washed out of the fur before the cat can lick himself and ingest the product.
Every grooming session should include nail inspection and trimming as needed, as well as checking the ears for excessive ear wax. It is also helpful to get in the habit of checking the cat’s teeth and gums as part of the grooming routine. Many cat owners neglect to do these simple things that could make a big difference to their cat’s welfare.
Elizabeth Llewellyn is a feline welfare and behaviour specialist with 30 years experience working with cats in a variety of settings including rescue, breeding, boarding, grooming and veterinary. She lives in Chittenden County Vermont with her three cats.