Why Do Cats Lick Each Other? The Comforting Reason Behind This Behavior

Introduction

Cats licking each other is a very common feline social behavior. Grooming between cats is a natural way they bond, communicate, and show affection. It’s important for cat owners to understand why cats lick each other, as this behavior is normal and beneficial for cats’ relationships and wellbeing. When cats groom each other through licking, it strengthens social connections, relaxes and comforts them, and keeps their coats clean and healthy. Examining the reasons behind allogrooming, which is the technical term for social grooming between cats, provides insight into cat communication and social structures.

Grooming

Cats spend a significant amount of time grooming themselves and others in their social group. Grooming serves an important hygienic function by removing dirt, loose fur, and parasites from the cat’s coat.1 When cats lick and nibble at each other’s fur, they are helping keep it clean and tidy. The barbs on a cat’s tongue act like a comb or brush to neaten the fur and ensure it lays flat and mat-free. Cats also distribute natural oils over their coats during allogrooming, conditioning the skin and fur.

By grooming each other, cats can reach areas that are difficult to self-groom, like the head and neck. This mutual grooming allows cats to maintain good hygiene and skin health. The soothing sensation of being groomed releases endorphins and helps cats bond. So when cats lick each other while grooming, it serves the dual purpose of keeping their coats clean and enhancing social bonds within the feline community.

Bonding

Cats lick each other as a way to bond socially. When a cat licks another cat, it releases endorphins in both of their brains, creating a pleasurable and relaxing feeling. Studies have shown that the act of licking leads to the release of oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone.” This hormone promotes social bonding, leading cats who lick each other frequently to become more closely bonded.

The saliva of cats also contains pheromones that mark the other cat with their scent when grooming. This scent exchange further strengthens their social bond. Kittens will lick their mothers both to bond with them and to receive care. Adult cats that live together and groom each other frequently will become more socially affiliated. Licking is an important social bonding behavior for cat communities and multi-cat households.

For more information, see:
Too Much Licking

Communication

Cats use licking as a form of communication to strengthen social bonds and show affection. When cats groom each other, they are communicating that they accept the other cat as part of their social group. This communal grooming helps establish relationships and reinforce connections within a group of cats.

Cats have scent glands around their face and neck, so when they lick these areas on another cat, they are mingling their scents. This exchange of scents is a way for cats to identify members of their social group. According to veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec, cats who live together will lick each other more often than cats who are new to each other, demonstrating that allogrooming increases as social connections strengthen over time.

Licking another cat also signals that the groomer accepts the groomee and harbors no aggressive intentions toward them. It is a gesture of trust and affection. Cats who are closely bonded often groom each other. Queens lick and groom their kittens frequently to provide comfort and reinforce their mother-kitten bond.

So when cats lick each other, they are saying “we belong together” and “I care about you.” It is one of the ways cats maintain their complicated social relationships with each other.

Sources:

ASPCA – Aggression in Cats

PetMD – Why Do Cats Groom Each Other and Then Fight?

Calming Effect

According to studies, licking has a calming effect on the cat being groomed. The soothing action of a cat’s tongue releases endorphins in the brain that promote feelings of relaxation and comfort. The repetitive motion and steady rhythm brings down heart rate and breathing, much like petting or stroking does. Researchers have found that cats will begin licking each other during times of stress or anxiety, suggesting it helps calm their nerves. Products like Licks Pill-Free Zen even aim to promote calmness and manage normal stress levels through natural licking supplements.

When a mother cat licks her kittens, it activates nerve endings under their fur that are connected to areas of the brain responsible for reward and pleasure. This gives the kittens a soothing sensation and strengthens their bond with their mother. Adult cats seem to experience similar effects when grooming each other. The calming act of licking may be why cats lick their humans as well.

Stress Relief

Mutual grooming between cats has been shown to reduce stress hormones in anxious cats. According to a study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, cats that groomed each other experienced lower blood cortisol levels versus cats that groomed alone.1 Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, so lower levels indicate reduced anxiety and stress.

The grooming behavior releases endorphins which provide a calming effect. By licking and grooming one another, cats can find comfort and relieve stress.2 This is especially important for cats in stressful environments such as shelters. Mutual grooming helps them cope with the anxiety.

Mother-Kitten Bond

Mother cats lick their kittens frequently to comfort, clean, and bond with them. The licking stimulates circulation and digestion in the kittens while removing fleas and traces of birth fluids. It also helps the mother cat bond with and identify her kittens through scent-marking. Kittens find the licking soothing and associate it with maternal affection and care from a young age.

As cited from Why do kittens lick their mother cat?, “Kittens do this because they associate it with maternal affection. Their mothers lick their kittens’ bums to make sure they they defecate after every feeding.” The licking helps establish trust and a nurturing relationship between the mother and her kittens.

Sick Cats

When a cat is ill, they may feel uncomfortable or stressed. Licking from another cat can help provide comfort and relief during this difficult time. According to Quora, “Cats may lick each other’s wounds as a form of grooming and to provide comfort. The licking can help to clean the wound and remove debris, while also helping to soothe pain through the release of endorphins.”1 The gentle, rhythmic motion of licking can have a calming effect and help relieve anxiety. When a cat is unwell, they tend to groom themselves less, so licking from a healthy cat companion can assist with hygiene as well. Overall, mutual grooming behaviors increase between cats when one is sick or injured, both to help clean and care for wounds as well as provide calming support.

Conclusion

In summary, licking is a vital social behavior for cats that serves many purposes. Mother cats lick their kittens to groom them, stimulate bodily functions, and strengthen their bonds. Adult cats continue to lick each other for grooming and as a friendly social gesture to express affection and reaffirm connections. Mutual grooming and licking provides comfort, reduces stress, and maintains bonds between cats. For pet cats, licking their human companion is also a sign of trust and affection.

Licking provides both physical and emotional benefits for cats. The act reinforces social bonds and relationships between mother and kitten, feline friends, and even interspecies friendships between cats and humans. While excessive licking in cats could signal an underlying medical issue, regular amounts of licking and grooming are an essential and healthy social behavior that brings cats comfort and joy.

Further Reading

For more in-depth information on cat social behaviors, check out these resources:

What Cats Want by Yuki Hattori provides an illustrated guide to understanding your cat’s behaviors and body language. Learn more at https://bookriot.com/cat-behavior-books/

The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat by John Bradshaw delves into the science behind cat behavior and psychology. Find out more at https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/dog-spies/the-best-books-for-cat-lovers/

Decoding Your Cat by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists explains cat behaviors and communication. Get the book at https://www.rover.com/blog/cat-behavior-books/

For more recommended reading on understanding cats, check out the resources cited above.

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