Updated by Sheryl on Nov 22, 2021
Licking their bodies is a major characteristic behavior amongst felines. For indoor cats, it is a defining behavior as neither other cats nor other domestic animals lick themselves so much. They, in fact, spend a third to half of their hours' awake licking, which includes licking themselves and other cats. This is a mind-blowing stat if you consider that they spend about half of a day asleep.
Before pronouncing your furry friend as self-obsessed and lovey-dovey, learn how important licking and grooming is to their psychosocial and physical health.
When the members of a species spend time grooming each other, it is called allogrooming or social grooming. It is common in monkeys, apes, horses, birds, cattle, and felines. Cats may be the animals that spend the most time grooming and allogrooming.
Cats usually lick their humans and fellas to show affection. But there is a lot more to cat grooming than their beauty standards or affection.
Cats' tongues are covered with tiny barbs that curve inward. So, when they are licking their coat, they are practically brushing the fur. Licking thus helps them remove dirt, tangles, and parasites.
Oils produced by the cat's sebaceous glands also spread more evenly from grooming. This will, in turn, improve temperature regulation.
Their saliva also has antimicrobial properties that help them stay immune.
So, if there are so many benefits to licking and if they are a bit of a loner species, why are cats licking each other? Why don't they do it themselves? Why do they let others lick them? Here are the answers:
As we had discussed, grooming benefits cats in many different ways. It helps them stay clean, hygienic, immune, and comfortable. But that is not the only reward.
The first and probably the most important thing a mother cat does after giving birth is to lick the tiny kittens clean. This stimulates the little beings while the mother makes sure they are in good health. It is also a stimulus that kickstarts many vital organs and functions into place. Most kittens need this care to get their excretory functions started.
Licking also replaces the smell of blood with the scents of a cat. Blood, otherwise, attracts predators. So, it is basically an ID tag given to the baby by the mother cat.
All the more, grooming strengthens the familial bonds between the mother and the litter. It also calms the mother cat down after she had gone through labor.
Licking is a basic instinct exhibited by even first-time cat mommies with no guidance. If it wasn't for these licking instincts that help her bond, the babies would not have been safe.
Kittens are born deaf and blind. The loving licks, warmth, scent, and milk they receive from their mother are usually the first and only connections they make with this world.
Besides, the sounds produced by cats - meows, grunts, purrs, etc. - are also only more coherent and meaningful when they are older. The squeaks produced by kittens can tell their mother if they are hungry or cold. Cat mothers are literally going over their babies with a fine-tooth comb by licking them. The act provides them with insights into the babies' conditions and other needs.
In a nutshell, licking is one of the first methods of communication a cat is taught. The skills go a long way in helping them understand other cats and let other cats understand them.
Yes, this is why cats need to "understand other cats and let other cats understand them". While allogrooming looks like simply an act of love and care, it is also the mildest and subtlest way in which cats establish their hierarchy. So, if you see one cat licking the other more than the other way round, the groomer is of the higher-order. Yes, even aggressive cats groom the low-ranked ones. This does not change the hierarchy but lays more weight on it.
Male cats and older cats also tend to groom more. Mother cats do the majority of grooming for their young. The kittens return the favor only when they are almost half-grown and minimally.
So, allogrooming is not just out of affection but also an act of assertion.
In the case of cats that have or want a significant other, allogrooming within the couple develops a stronger bond. The exchange of pheromones and scents also helps them be marked as each other's own. This means that they need to be less aggressive since their helpmate will be pursued lesser.
Although they are predators, cats are some of the smallest hunters out there. If the smell of the food that they have eaten stays on their face, larger predators can sniff them out and attack them.
Allogrooming removes the smells of food and smears a reasonable amount of predator-saliva on them. Ergo, cats love being groomed by other cats.
As flexible as they are and as equipped as their tongues are, cats still cannot reach to groom all around their bodies. The head and ears, for example, are eminent parts of the body that need cleaning. Bathing is not a cat's favorite option and they need help.
The evolution perk of allogrooming helps them clean themselves completely.
While licking each other helps to be calm and supportive, a cat also has health benefits from the act. An extra coating of antimicrobial enzymes in other cats' saliva keeps them safer from germs.
Allogrooming also helps with getting rid of earwax and dirt from their head. Cats also reportedly lick each other's backs to stimulate pooping.
Licking each other also updates cats within a household with individual health conditions.
No, they are not having an on-and-off relationship; that is just how cats are.
We have already learned that allogrooming in cats is also an expression of hierarchy. So, they may be play-fighting, asserting dominance, or even bullying. You need to know them well to be sure.
Sometimes the predatory instincts kick in out of the blue and will make them hurt one another a bit. But you need not worry unless these kinds of behavior are too frequent or unreasonable.
The instinct and need start right from the cradle and will be to the grave. Mother cats stimulate pooping and peeing in kittens by licking their tiny arses. They also monitor their babies' health by doing so. Even when they are older, cats benefit from being licked in the back. So even older cats lick each other's private areas.
Besides, there are two other important reasons for allogrooming from behind though.
The face and the ears, in particular, are impossible for a cat to clean by themselves. But the face is usually soiled from playing, hunting, and eating. So, the "kisses" help in washing their faces.
Likewise, the face also produces a lot of peculiar pheromones that form their identity. Licking the face helps with bonding since facial pheromones are strong.
Bad ear hygiene threatens the cat not only in terms of health. Earwax contains a good share of dead cells, proteins, fats, and pheromones. This makes them an easy target to larger predators, including domestic dogs. So, cats have developed a liking to each other's earwax.
Now that you know how cats benefit from spending 2 to 6 hours a day licking or being licked you won't pronounce them finicky or self-obsessed. But then if you are observant enough, cat allogrooming behavior also helps you zero in on a few of your cat's health issues early on.
The above-mentioned cases are only applicable if your cats have been allogrooming for a long time and have suddenly changed the regime. If your cat has always disliked their ears or privates being touched, have the vet figure out whether it is psychological/psychosocial or a health issue.
Who knew that those little rough tongues could speak volumes!