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Why Do Cats Lick Each Other When grooming?

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Cats groom themselves all day long. A cat’s tongue is specially adapted to maintain proper hygiene. The tongue removes all the dirt that accumulates throughout the day.

But any pet parent with multiple cats will also occasionally notice their cats licking and grooming each other. It sounds simple enough.

Cats Grooming each Other

Cats can’t clean every area of their bodies. Most social grooming between cats occurs in the head-neck area. This is because it’s considerably harder for the cat to reach. Hygiene does play a role in why cats groom each other, but there are additional reasons why kitties engage in social grooming.

So, why do cats lick each other? Let’s take a closer look at this and explore some of its main causes.

What’s Allogrooming?

Cats aren’t the only species that partake in allogrooming. It can also be found in other felines, mammals, and a host of other species. But what does the word “allogrooming” mean?

Cats grooming
Cats will cooperate when grooming by tilting the head if necessary

Allogrooming, also known as social grooming, refers to the phenomenon when one animal uses its mouth, hands, or another part of its body to touch another animal either for hygiene or social purposes.

The image that usually springs to mind is one of monkeys. They must be the most knowledgeable of all allogrooming primates. At the zoo, monkeys of all sizes and breeds are constantly allogrooming, often while gazing at us who are gazing at them.

This contrasts with grooming, in which animals lick the fur on their own bodies using their tongues, paws, or teeth.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior found that cats in free-roaming cat colonies express their cohesion in colonies using three main methods: allogrooming, allorubbing, and transmitting scent signals.

Allo is a prefix of Greek origin meaning other or differing from the normal or usual. This help us to understand that allogrooming is a different form to the normal grooming a cat displays all day.

Domestic cats frequently engage in allogrooming with other cats and even dogs and humans in the household. Some cats groom their owners. This is generally explained as a display of affection. Does your cat lick your hair? A possible reason is that your hair is the closest thing to fur on your body.

When cats groom each other, they’re usually very cooperative. They rotate or tilt their heads to give the groomers better access and will often purr as well. Your cat may do this to you too. They love having their heads petted and will often rotate their heads in your hand, signaling, “I like this!”

They may even solicit allogrooming themselves by approaching another cat and exposing the back of their neck or top of their head.

Why Do Cats Lick Each Other? Some Common Reasons

1. Social Bonding

Allogrooming sessions can act as a bonding experience between two cats.

However, generally speaking, allogrooming occurs among two cats with an existing social bond, such as parents and their kittens, siblings, or play-mates that spend a lot of time together.

Two sisters allogrooming showing familial bonding

In contrast, cats don’t tend to groom other felines outside their colony unless the latter are integrated into the colony.

2. To Show Acceptance of a New Cat

Adopting a new kitten into a household isn’t always easy, as existing cats may not always welcome the newcomers. They may be suspicious of it or even attack it.

When this happens, adult cats may start to smell and lick the new kitten to transfer the “family scent.” This isn’t only a way to bond with the new kitten but also to show others that it’s been accepted as part of the “cat family.”

The smell also marks the new cat or kitten as belonging to the territory. An older cat will often assume the role of welcoming the newcomer.

The common scent gives the new cat a feeling of welcome.

3. To Display Familial Affection

Allogrooming isn’t a behavior restricted to blood relatives. It’s commonplace between cats of the same litter or cats and their parents.

This practice may be more noticeable in domesticated cats as feral cat colonies don’t usually show loyalty to bloodlines.

Maternal instincts may also explain why mother cats lick and groom their babies. A mother cat will generally spend a lot of time licking her kittens. The licks are both a sign of affection for their young and an instinct to protect them from harm.

Female cats groom their babies right after they’re born, as the smells of birth can draw predators. But even after cats learn to bathe and groom themselves, they will continue to groom them.

Mother cat grooming her baby!

4. A Symptom of Health Issues

Licking another cat can be an excellent means of mutual relaxation. However, excessive and compulsive licking could be a symptom of stress and anxiety for your cat. So, if you think your pets are stress-licking themselves or each other, it won’t hurt to give your vet a call.

Additionally, a cat sometimes licks another cat after noticing a disease or injury. It does that either to provide comfort or even draw the attention of the cat owner to the injury.

You may notice that the allogrooming is targeting a specific area. Usually, the cat will focus on the damaged or injured part.

Therefore, if you notice that one of your cats is incessantly licking the other in the same spot, it would be a good idea to get it checked by the vet.

Cats grooming each other
Are you okay kitty?

4. As a Marker of Social Hierarchies

In addition to showing affection, acceptance, or bonding, allogrooming could be a way of showing dominance in the group.

Generally speaking, the groomer will be a higher-ranked, more dominant cat licking a more submissive or timid cat of a lower social rank. 

According to a 1998 study by scientists from the University of Southampton, higher-ranking cats were 78.6% likely to groom lower-ranking cats than the other way around.

Moreover, allogrooming cats usually took higher positions, either standing or sitting upright, while those being licked were sitting.

Cats do groom each other
The allogrooming cat has assumed the higher position while the other cat is sitting.

The gender of the two cats might also play a role. Male cats are often the groomers in male and female pairs. This may be because the male cats are larger and more physically dominant.

The same study also found that male cats almost always initiate this behavior towards females. However, even in groups consisting of all males, allogrooming is still prevalent.

Why Do Cats Lick Each Other and Then Sometimes Fight?

The study mentioned above might also explain why pets that don’t particularly like each other might start allogrooming one another.

The researchers argue that allogrooming can be a way for cats to redirect pent-up anger and potential aggression, into more acceptable behavior.

In 35% of the examined cases, the act of grooming each other quickly turned into a form of aggression. As you may have guessed, the aggressive behavior was started by the more confident and dominant of the two cats.

In a common scenario, when two cats in the household are allogrooming, it can sometimes appear to be quite aggressive. It gets to the point where one cat has had enough and either runs away or the two cats start fighting.

Occasionally the play fighting can turn a more aggressive behavior which is where you as the cat owner would need to step in.

The Bottom Line

There isn’t a single, conclusive answer to the question, “Why do cats lick each other?” Cats groom and lick each other on their heads, necks, and other areas of their bodies to keep clean and remove dust particles from their hair. However, this behavior also serves a multitude of social purposes.

The reasons range from signalling health issues to forming a social bond and helping cats get along with each other better. Additionally, mothers lick their young ones to protect them from predators and keep them clean. Cats in one home may also lick a new cat to show acceptance.

Even more surprisingly, mutual grooming can be a way of controlling aggressive behavior establishing dominance and reinforcing already-established social hierarchies.

We have already determined in previous articles that the behavior of cats is almost never predictable except perhaps, when it comes to wanting to be fed.

cats reading the paper in bed
I noticed that the fur on your head is a bit awry dear. Would you like me to fix it for you?

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