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How Do Cats Clean Themselves? 3 Typical Ways & FAQ

Nicole Cosgrove Profile Picture

By Nicole Cosgrove

cat licking paws

On average, cats spend 30–50% of their day grooming themselves. With them spending this much time dedicated to cleanliness, you’re bound to find your feline tending to their fur just as often as you’ll spot them napping in the sun.

While we all know that cats love to be clean, how they manage to keep themselves so well-groomed is more of an intriguing question. After all, how well can they stay clean without a cat shampoo and water?

Cats have a unique physiology that enables them to properly groom themselves. We put together this guide so you can learn more about their inbuilt grooming tools. There’s also a section on why cats are so keen to maintain their strict grooming schedule.

Top 3 Ways Cats Groom Themselves

1. The Tongue

The first and most important way that cats clean themselves and each other is with their tongues. If you have had cats and dogs as pets, you’ve probably been licked by one or both of them at some point. You might have noticed the differences in how their tongues feel.

While dogs have smooth tongues, cat tongues are raspy. This is due to the papillae covering a cat’s tongue. These tiny barbs are harmless but make your cat’s self-grooming sessions super effective. As cats lick themselves, the papillae on their tongue collect all the unwanted debris stuck in their fur.

Any loose hair, dirt from outside, or dust from their under-the-couch exploration gets picked up and removed, leaving their coats shiny and clean.

Cat grooming self on concrete floor
Image Credit: user32212, Pixabay

2. The Teeth

Your cat using their teeth to clean themselves might sound alarming, but it’s an integral part of their grooming routine. While their tongues are useful by themselves, sometimes an effective grooming session requires more heavy-duty equipment.

Cats use their teeth to reach deeper into their coat than their tongues can, like a pin brush for double-coated pets. By using their teeth, they can remove matted clumps of fur, dirt, or even plant matter that’s gotten too tangled up to be easily removed. Fleas and ticks are also common victims of your cat’s searching teeth.

While it’s frowned upon for humans to nibble at their nails, cats use their teeth for claw care too. They can remove dirt, trapped litter, and even broken parts of their claws to stop them from catching on furniture or the carpet. Having plenty of places to scratch also gives your cat a chance to properly tend to their claws.

3. The Paws

Despite their incredible flexibility, there are a few places that your cat can’t reach easily. Their heads are one of the few places that can’t be groomed with their tongue, unless they employ the help of a feline friend. This is where their paws come in.

In the same way that we fill our hands with water to wash our faces, cats keep their faces and ears clean by licking their paws and then using them to clean their heads. They’ll rub their faces, foreheads, and even behind their ears until they’re satisfied that they’ve managed to remove all the dirt and leftover food caught in their whiskers.

black and white cat grooming itself while sitting on paper
Image Credit: StockSnap, Pixabay

Why Do Cats Groom Themselves?

It’s easy to assume that cats only clean themselves to stay clean. The reason that they spend so much time self-grooming, however, isn’t only because they like being as clean as possible. Here are a few reasons that cats are so fastidious about their grooming.

ginger tabby cat sitting with its legs outstretched while grooming itself
Image Credit: skorchanov, Pixabay


If you have more than one cat, you may have noticed that they spend a great deal of time cleaning each other whenever they cuddle. This can seem like an odd thing for them to do, especially when the other cat is perfectly capable of grooming themselves.

“Social grooming,” or “allogrooming,” is a way for cats to build and strengthen bonds. It’s their way of showing affection and how much they trust the other cat, whether they’re a blood relative or not. It also helps spread their scent to the other feline, marking them as part of the family for anybody who would dare question them. They lick their favorite humans for the same reasons.


The biggest reason that cats groom themselves so much is simply because of cleanliness. While they can benefit from our input — and appreciate a good brush now and then even if they hate baths — they’re more than happy to keep up with their own personal hygiene.

Keeping your pet's skin and coat clean and healthy is very important, but finding a great shampoo can be harder than the actual grooming! We love our Hepper Pet Shampoos because they makes grooming so much easier. These pH-balanced formulas are made with natural ingredients like oatmeal, cucumber, and aloe. They are free of phthalates, sulfates, and soaps and very gentle on your pet's skin. Now you just need to decide which formula is best for your fur baby! Here’s a quick guide to help you choose the right option for your pet’s next bath!

Hepper Oatmeal pet shampoo
Hepper Colloidal Oatmeal Pet Shampoo

Hepper Waterless No Rinse Pet Shampoo
Natural cucumber & aloe scent
Natural cucumber & aloe scent:
Natural cucumber & aloe scent:
Safe for cats & dogs
Safe for cats & dogs:
Safe for cats & dogs:
Rinsing required
Rinsing required:
Rinsing required:
Free of harsh chemicals & nasty ingredients
Free of harsh chemicals & nasty ingredients:
Free of harsh chemicals & nasty ingredients:
Lathers easily
Lathers easily:
Lathers easily:


Cooling Down

With all their fur, cats can find it much harder to moderate their temperature, especially in warm weather. Since they don’t sweat the same way that we do, regular grooming helps them keep cool when they’re too hot.

Cats only have a few sweat glands — on their paws, for example — so wetting their fur with saliva and letting it evaporate is one of their best methods for cooling down.

Kitten Care

Newborn kittens need plenty of care, and their mothers don’t only need to make sure they’re well-fed, behaving, and presentable. Mother cats will also groom their kittens to ensure that their tiny bodies work correctly.

Until they’re at least 4 weeks old, kittens are unable to go to the bathroom by themselves. Since this is incredibly dangerous for the kittens, their mother will clean their rear ends to stimulate their bowel movements.

Cat mom cleaning her baby kittens.
Image Credit: Pif Paf Puf Studio, Shutterstock


If you enjoy relaxing in long bubble baths at the end of the week, a cat’s grooming sessions are used in much the same way. A self-grooming session is their way of unwinding after all their adventures.

This is also why many of them start to lose their fur whenever they feel stressed. Like purring, self-grooming is how your cat reassures themselves.

Skin and Coat Health

The papillae on your cat’s tongue aren’t merely for removing loose fur and dirt. They’re great for cleaning away parasites, pests, and allergens that can damage the health of their coat.

Regular grooming sessions are also how your cat spreads their natural oils through their fur. This helps protect, clean, and maintain their coat, which is why they always look so well put together.

What Is Excessive Grooming?

You might think that your cat grooms themselves frequently, but the amount of time that they spend cleaning themselves isn’t usually a cause for concern. There are cases, however, when your cat’s habits can be harmful.

When your cat cleans themselves too much, it’s known as excessive grooming and can have several causes. Allergies, fleas, and stress are all common reasons that your cat might be grooming themselves too much, or it could be a sign of another more serious health issue that requires a trip to your veterinarian.

If you’re worried about how much your cat is grooming themselves, pay attention to any missing patches of fur, redness, and irritated skin. A regular amount of grooming will leave your cat’s coat shiny, sleek, and in good health, while too much will make it look unkempt.

You should also pay attention to whether your cat is grooming themselves at all. Both too much grooming and no grooming can be signs of underlying health issues.

tabby cat licking her paw
Image Credit: SJ Duran, Shutterstock

Final Thoughts

When it comes to cleaning themselves, cats use three main tools, along with their impressive flexibility, to keep themselves in top shape. Their barbed tongues, teeth, and even their paws are all used to help your cat’s grooming sessions be as thorough as possible.

While most cats spend a great deal of their time grooming themselves, you should pay attention to any signs of unkempt fur or bald patches. These can be signs of under- or over-grooming and can be the result of underlying health problems.

See also:

Featured Image Credit: AntonMaltsev, Shutterstock

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