Self-grooming for cats is a pretty regular occurrence. Cats’ scratchy tongues are specially adapted to maintain proper hygiene by removing all the dirt that accumulates throughout the day.
But any pet parent with multiple kitties at home will also occasionally notice their cats licking and grooming each other. It sounds simple enough, right?
Cats can’t clean every area of their bodies, and most social grooming occurs in the head-neck area, where it’s considerably harder to reach by one cat. However, while one of the reasons for doing so is to clean themselves, 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 phenomenon and explore some of its main causes.
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 exactly is allogrooming?
Allogrooming, also known as social grooming, refers to the phenomena when one animal uses its mouth, hands, or another part of its body to touch another animal either for hygiene or social purposes. 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.
Domestic cats also frequently engage in allogrooming with other cats or even dogs and humans in the household.
When cats groom each other, they’re usually very cooperative. They rotate or tilt their head to give the groomers better access and will often purr as well. 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
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.
In contrast, cats don’t tend to groom other felines outside their colony unless the latter are integrated into the colony.
To Show Acceptance of a New Cat
Adopting new kittens into a household isn’t always easy, as existing cats may not always welcome the newcomers. They may feel distrust towards it or even downright 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.”
To Display Familial Affection
Allogrooming isn’t a behavior restricted to blood relatives, but it’s still pretty commonplace between cats of the same litter or cats and their parents. This practice may be more noticeable in domesticated cats since 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 towards 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.
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 kitty. So, if you think your pets 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. 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.
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 one 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.
The gender of the two cats might also play a role. 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.
However, this isn’t always successful. 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 instigated by the more confident and dominant of the two.
The Bottom Line
There isn’t a single, conclusive answer to the question, “why do cats lick each other?” Cats lick and groom each other on their head, neck, and other areas of their bodies to keep clean and remove dust particles from their hairs. However, this behavior also serves a multitude of social purposes.
The reasons range from signaling 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 showing aggression, establishing dominance, and reinforce already-established social hierarchies.
We have already determined in previous articles that the behaviour of cats is almost never predictable except perhaps, when it comes to wanting to be fed.
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