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Why Does My Cat Clean Herself on Me? Cat Behavior Explained

Luxifa Le

By Luxifa Le

Cat licking a person's fingers

It can seem strange when your cat settles down for a snuggle only to begin grooming herself furiously on your lap, but there is a reason behind this behavior. While it may seem like she’s gotten distracted from snuggling with you, studies show that grooming in cats is a directed and goal-oriented behavior, meaning that when cats are grooming themselves, they have a goal in mind when they start.1

For cats, grooming themselves on your lap functions similarly to allogrooming, the scientific term for the social grooming of other animals. Your cat is trying to bond with you!

Why Do Cats Groom Themselves?

Animals want to be clean, just like people. However, grooming has more functions than just cleaning. Many people feel relaxed after taking a shower, and similarly, cats feel relaxed when they groom. When a cat settles down for a long grooming session, they’ve decided that there are no imminent threats.

Thus, when your cat settles down onto your lap and starts grooming herself, she is signaling to you that she feels relaxed and it’s time to relax with her. Grooming is so relaxing for cats that the behavior can grow into a maladaptive coping mechanism, resulting in over-grooming, skin irritation, and hair loss.

What is Over-Grooming?

Simply put, over-grooming is when a cat’s grooming behavior results in adverse side effects like hair loss or skin irritation. While grooming oneself is a natural and beneficial behavior, doing it too much can result in a loss of the skin’s natural, necessary oils and result in hair loss from tugging and pulling at hair follicles.

In severe cases, over-grooming can cause welts, abrasions, abscesses, and other skin wounds from overprocessing the skin during grooming.

cat licking man's side hair
Image Credit: Kasefoto, Shutterstock

What Causes Overgrooming?

Over-grooming in cats is often a product of stress. In many cases, grooming becomes a compulsive behavior that the cat must complete to feel “whole.” It’s analogous to excessive washing in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorders and symptoms. Grooming becomes part of the cat’s “self-soothing” ritual where the behavior becomes destructive to the self.

Since overgrooming is a symptom, not an illness, it’s hard to pinpoint an exact cause for the behavior. Different cats respond to stress differently, and what might become an over-grooming problem in the making for some cats might be a nonchalant shrug for another cat.

If your cat is overgrooming to the point where they’re hurting themselves, take them to a veterinarian. Your veterinarian will be able to help you identify what’s making your cat so uncomfortable and help you fix it. In severe cases, your veterinarian may prescribe anti-anxiety medications for your cat to help them feel more comfortable in their daily lives.

What is Allogrooming?

The other explanation for why your cat likes to groom herself on you is that the behavior is an extension of the allogrooming behavior in cats. Allogrooming is the scientific word formed of “allo,” meaning “other” or “different,” and “grooming” refers to the process of physically cleaning another creature. Allogrooming isn’t just present in the animal kingdom. Humans enjoy the process of bathing their children, brushing, and styling each other’s hair, and other allogrooming behaviors that give signs of our roots in the primate world.

cat licks on mans hand
Image Credit: Svyatoslav Balan, Shutterstock

For cats, allogrooming takes the form of licking each other to smooth out the fur and remove dirt and grime particles from the coat of the groomee. Allogrooming in adult cats focuses on the head and neck area.

This behavior mirrors the human tendency to groom other adults’ hair when performing allogrooming behaviors instead of the whole body as they would with a child. While it’s impossible to make distinctions as to why cats make these conscious decisions, with adult humans, we generally regard the idea of being bathed by another adult as being shameful or unnecessary. So, allogrooming tends to be focused on areas of the body that are physically visible in daily life.

Allogrooming as a Social Behavior in Cats

Allogrooming also functions as a critical social behavior that allows cats to establish a pecking order. Dominant cats were observed grooming other cats more frequently than submissive ones. Additionally, dominant cats would take a “taller” stance, standing or sitting over the submissive cat, generally lying on their side.

In terms of social hierarchy, allogrooming is also often a precursor to displays of dominance in a more conventional sense. Dominant cats were observed not just grooming the submissive cats but also actively antagonizing them.

Combative behavior was documented in the cats engaged in allogrooming but was significantly more common in dominant cats than submissive ones. Allogrooming was a precursor to combative behavior between dominant and submissive cats.

Allogrooming Between Cats and Humans

Allogrooming occurs between humans and their pets all the time. We bathe our dogs, brush our cats, and in doing so, we strengthen the bond between humans and animals. Allogrooming is seen in the other direction as well. Often people refer to cats and dogs licking them as giving kisses. Still, in reality, this is a function of allogrooming; since allogrooming is an affectionate behavior, it’s an apt comparison, but still not quite the same.

Cats enjoy allogrooming; it’s relaxing and calming for them because it means they’re not in any danger. Cats will often settle down to groom their owners for a bit, but they may groom themselves instead since we don’t have fur that they can lick, and licking our skin probably feels a bit weird to them, even if the behavioral drive is natural.

cat licking woman's ear
Image Credit: NivCube, Shutterstock

Your cat may settle down for a cuddle and groom itself to show you that there’s no danger. By settling down to cuddle and self-preen, your cat is indicating to you that it’s time to relax as well. Cats are very perceptive to the feelings of those around them, and they may pick up if you’re feeling stressed even if you try not to show it.

Final Thoughts

There’s no shortage of ways our cats like to show us that they love us and grooming themselves while cuddling us is just one way they tell us they love us. Whether your cat’s mind is on allogrooming or grooming you, that message has a certain charm.

Featured Image Credit by: gglim79, Pixabay

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