The average cat may spend upwards of 30% of her time grooming herself—licking her fur clean with her sandpaper-like tongue, wiping her face with a previously-licked paw, and even chewing her nails to keep them rimmed. But sometimes, your kitty may lend a helping hand on the grooming front to another cat in your household. So why do cats groom each other?
Cats groom each other – “allogrooming” – to bond with their housemates, to assert their dominance and rank (the groomer is usually of “higher rank”), and to keep their young kittens clean (in the case of a mother cat ). Interestingly, cats usually keep their allogrooming to the neck and head regions.
It’s hard to look at one cat grooming another and not think it’s a sign of affection or even let out a subtle, “Aww!” However, this behavior in cats can stem from quite a few feline instincts. To learn about all of the possible reasons behind cats grooming one another, read on!
An In-Depth Look Into Feline Allogrooming
To understand why cats groom each other, you need to learn about how cats groom each other. It’s not as simple as it may seem. For example, not all cats will respond to this allogrooming positively, some cats will always be on the receiving end, and the sex of your cats undoubtedly plays a role in who’s the “groomer.”
Below, you’ll see data from a 1998 study on feline allogrooming and the trends associated with it:
- Nearly all allogrooming sessions focused on the head and neck areas.
- 94% of allogrooming sessions happened after one cat intentionally approached the other (Translation: The cats weren’t already lying next to one another when it began).
- 91.6% of the time, one cat was the groomer, and one was the groomee (it’s not a mutual grooming session—one cat is dominant while the other is submissive).
- 75% of allogrooming sessions had the higher-ranked cat in the dominant role.
- 70% of aggression during allogrooming came from the groomer, not the groomee.
- 65.4% of male-female allogrooming sessions had the male cat as the groomer.
- 43.6% of groomers (the higher-ranked cat) sat upright.
- 12% of allogrooming sessions ended in a fight.
It’s also quite interesting to note that fixed status, kinship, and a desire to show affection rarely play a role in these social grooming sessions. And as heartwarming as these allogrooming sessions may seem, they most often stem from feline instincts.
3 Reasons Cats Groom Each Other
If you have at least two cats in your household who share a strong bond, you’ve probably walked in on an allogrooming session on at least one or two occasions. However, your cats weren’t grooming one another to say, “I love you,” even if they were both purring and seemingly enjoying themselves.
The more likely explanations for this are:
As a Sign of Dominance
Who’s the highest-ranking cat in your household? If you’re unsure, dominant cats tend to claim more territory (via scent marking or spraying), intentionally tackle and intimidate the lower-ranking cats in your home, and dominate both food bowls upon dinnertime. Most cats will groom another to claim their “social ranking,” similar to how a mother cat grooms her kittens.
This licking will spread your dominant cat’s scent to the skin of your submissive cat (a way of marking) without having to take this dominance out via aggressive behaviors, like fighting, biting, and growling. One of your cats can boast the top-rank in your household’s feline hierarchy, which is apparent by this allogrooming behavior—your dominant cat is usually sitting upright. In contrast, your other cat exposes their sensitive neck or head to grooming, a sign of submission.
To Build Their Social Bond
Your cats may not be grooming one another to show affection or that they love one another. Still, they may be engaging in allogrooming to enhance the social bond they share. This allogrooming behavior could be nothing more than your cats saying, “I enjoy being around you,” which is not a statement they make lightly in the feline world.
Cats only groom other cats that they like being around and trust, and you may even notice that your submissive cat turns her face or neck to make the grooming easier on your dominant cat. Other times, one of your cats may approach another to ask to be groomed—a sign of trust, adoration, and happiness. While dominance and submission play a role, both cats appreciate and care for one another.
To Keep Her Kittens Clean
It may take a newborn kitten six weeks or longer to learn how to groom herself and keep herself clean. In other words: Until your kitten knows how to keep herself tidy, she’ll rely on her mother to do this task for her. Interestingly, mothers of young litters don’t only lick their kittens to groom—they also lick their kittens’ butts and private areas to stimulate pooping and peeing for their first 3-4 weeks until the litter can do these things on their own.
However, these behaviors don’t suddenly end when your kitten is fully-weaned from her mother. In your kitten’s younger years, she learned that her mother grooming her was a sign of love, affection, and even security. That opens up the possibility that your cat grooms another cat in your household to take on this motherly persona and provide these same feelings to another cat she likes being around. While not the most common reason, it’s undoubtedly the most relieving.
Why Do Cats Groom Each Other Then Fight?
The good news is that allogrooming typically signifies that your two cats like each other and share a positive bond. So if these grooming sessions naturally turn into wrestling, gentle biting, sporadic hissing, and chasing one another, this scuffle may be nothing more than a high-intensity play session.
However, there are other reasonable explanations for fights triggered by those adorable kitty grooming sessions.
In rare cases, the groomee will be the one to “fight back.” Similar to how your kitty may suddenly bite you when you’re petting her (also known as petting-induced aggression), your cat may suddenly feel she’s had enough of the grooming and bite or wrestle with the other cat to say, “That’s enough!”
Most often, the dominant or higher-ranked kitty in your household will be the one to escalate this grooming session into a fight. The reason behind this is simple: Many cats vying for an aggressive outlet will choose the safer alternative of allogrooming to release their frustrations. However, some cats struggle to control this aggression while grooming, and it triggers a fight.
If allogrooming leads to fights, you can either:
- Spray your cats with water
- Shake a can full of coins
- Clap your hands or shout loudly
By now, you likely know when your cats are fighting and when they’re merely playing. Don’t let them duke it out and settle their differences, as this can lead to severe wounds like abscesses, scratches to the eyes, or even the spread of an illness.
Want to learn more about why cats groom each other and then fight? Watch the video below to find out more!
Cats don’t groom one another because they think the other cat is dirty or smells. This seemingly polite behavior comes from a desire for dominance, bonding, or to keep a litter of kittens tidy.
But it’s not unusual for these allogrooming sessions to go wrong, especially when the grooming session is unwanted or escalates into a play fight. Allogrooming is generally a sign that your kitties like each other’s company (despite the power imbalance).
So if you sense a looming battle, spray them with water or clap your hands loudly to redirect their attention and end the quarrel.
- Cornell Feline Health Center: Cats that Lick Too Much
- Wikipedia: Social grooming
- The Function of Allogrooming in Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris cams); a Study in a Group of Cats Living in Confinement
- ASPCA: Aggression in Cats
- The Humane Society of the United States: What to do if your cat is marking territory
- Alley Cat Allies: How Old Is That Kitten? Kitten Guide: Six Weeks