Purrfectly Clean? The Truth About Cats’ Self-Grooming Habits


Cats are known for being fastidious groomers. They spend much of their awake time licking and cleaning their fur. This instinctive grooming behavior serves several important functions for cats beyond just looking clean. However, there are also some common misconceptions about the effectiveness of cats’ self-grooming and their true hygiene needs.

In the wild, grooming helps cats maintain the condition of their coats. For domestic cats, their natural grooming rituals are not always enough on their own to keep their skin and fur healthy. Cat owners play an important role in providing additional grooming care. With proper brushing and bathing, cats can stay clean and free of mats, tangles, and skin irritations.

This article will explore the facts behind cats’ grooming behaviors. We will look at the benefits cats get from licking themselves, as well as the limitations. Understanding a cat’s full hygiene needs is important for pet owners to help keep their feline friends happy and healthy.

Saliva Composition

A cat’s saliva contains a number of enzymes and compounds that serve various purposes. One of the main enzymes found in feline saliva is amylase, which helps cats digest carbohydrates and starches (Harrison, 1974). Saliva also contains lysozyme, an enzyme with antibacterial properties that helps keep the mouth clean and free of harmful microbes (Dische, 1970). Additionally, cat saliva contains electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and chloride which help regulate hydration.

The antibacterial enzymes found in cat saliva, including lysozyme, lactoferrin, and peroxidases, provide cats with protection against oral infections and diseases. When cats groom themselves, these antibacterial compounds get spread over their fur and skin, helping inhibit bacterial growth (Schertz Animal Hospital). So in addition to mechanical cleaning, cat saliva does seem to have genuine cleansing properties.

Hairball Prevention

Cats groom themselves by licking their fur, which causes them to ingest loose hair. The rough texture of a cat’s tongue helps remove debris and mats from their coat. However, all that licking and hair ingestion can lead to hairballs forming in a cat’s stomach and digestive tract. Hairballs occur when the hair strands combine and accumulate into a ball that the cat is unable to pass through the digestive system. This can cause gagging, retching, and vomiting as the cat tries to expel the hairball.

Fortunately, a cat’s saliva contains lubricating compounds that help hair pass through their system. According to Cat Hairballs 101: How to Help, the loose hair gets bound with mucus and enzymes as part of the digestion process. This allows the hairball to slide through more easily when passed. Rhythmic kneading motions when grooming also help push hair through the digestive tract.

To reduce hairball incidents, regularly brushing and grooming your cat is recommended. Frequent brushing helps remove excess loose hair that would otherwise get ingested during self-grooming. Some cats benefit from hairball control supplements or gels containing lubricating oils that further ease hair passage. Talk to your vet if your cat frequently struggles with passing hairballs. While typically harmless, large hairball blockages can sometimes require medical treatment.

Cooling Effect

Cats use their saliva to help regulate their body temperature. As saliva evaporates off a cat’s fur, it has a cooling effect similar to how sweat cools humans down. This evaporation lowers a cat’s body temperature and prevents overheating. Cats also lick their fur to spread saliva over their coat, maximizing the surface area for evaporative cooling. The cooling effect is important for regulating a cat’s temperature on hot days. Cat owners can help keep their cats cool by using a damp washcloth to wipe down their fur, mimicking the natural cooling effect of saliva.

Scent Marking

Cats have scent glands in their cheeks, lips, chin, and paws that produce pheromones. When a cat rubs its face on objects or other cats, it deposits these pheromones. This leaves the cat’s scent and marks territory. Cats also distribute pheromones through saliva when grooming themselves or others.

According to VCA Hospitals, “The use of feline facial pheromone may stimulate cheek gland marking (bunting), rather than urine spraying.” So when a cat grooms itself, it is depositing pheromones from its saliva onto its fur. This scent marking reinforces the cat’s identity and signals ownership of its territory.

Social Bonding

Grooming provides cats an opportunity for social bonding with their family or other cats. Research shows that group grooming supports positive relationships between cats.[1] When owners brush or comb their cats, it reinforces the human-animal bond through positive touch and focused attention. Many cats even purr during grooming to indicate contentment. This shared grooming time can reduce stress and anxiety in cats while strengthening their connection to their owner.

For cats that live with other cats, allogrooming (grooming between individuals) helps establish social hierarchies and friendship. Cats that frequently groom each other typically have close, amicable relationships. Kittens also learn appropriate social behaviors through grooming from their mothers. Overall, grooming is an important social activity for cats that benefits their relationships.

Skin Care

When cats lick and groom themselves, the gesture helps stimulate blood flow to their skin which improves overall circulation. The movement of their tongue loosens dead hair and dirt and allows it to be removed. This stimulation is beneficial for keeping their coat and skin healthy. Additionally, grooming helps cats remove external parasites like fleas that may be present on their skin’s surface. If left unchecked, these parasites can cause skin irritation. By frequently licking their coats, cats are able to minimize these pesky critters.

According to the experts at Ridgeline Vet Clinic, “Brushing and combing can help remove dead or tangled fur, which improves circulation in the skin and helps prevent fur mats from forming.”

Coat Conditioning

A cat’s saliva contains enzymes and proteins that help distribute natural oils over their fur as they groom themselves. According to the PetFixClub, cat saliva contains “a natural detergent-like deodourising substance that keeps the coat soft, glossy, and clean.”

As cats lick themselves, they spread these oils from their skin over the entirety of their coat. This helps condition their fur and keep it smooth and shiny looking. The oils also help prevent mats and tangles in a cat’s coat.

IcatCare notes that grooming helps condition a cat’s coat by “spreading sebum from the skin along the length of the hair.” This sebum contains fatty acids that nourish the hair follicles and promote a healthy, well-groomed coat.

So in addition to removing dirt, knots, and loose hair, a cat’s saliva helps moisturize and condition their fur when they groom themselves through the distribution of natural skin oils.


While cat saliva does have cleansing properties, it has some limitations in its effectiveness. First, saliva cannot reach all areas of a cat’s body. Areas like the back, back of the neck, and base of the tail can be difficult for a cat to groom themselves. This leaves dirt, debris, and oil buildup in these hard-to-reach spots.

Additionally, saliva does not kill or remove all germs and parasites from a cat’s coat. Saliva contains enzymes that provide some antimicrobial benefits, but it does not fully sanitize a cat’s fur. Bacteria, fungi, and parasites like fleas and ticks can still live on a cat even after grooming. For this reason, regular grooming from a professional or additional hygiene care from owners is still important.

So while cat saliva enables helpful cleansing when grooming, it is not a complete replacement for other hygiene and grooming care. Cats still require human assistance, medicated products, or professional grooming to fully care for hard-to-reach areas and control parasites.


In summary, the research shows that cats gain numerous benefits from self-grooming. Their saliva contains enzymes that help combat bacteria, regulate pH, and moisturize their skin and coat. Regular grooming helps cats remove loose hairs to prevent hairballs and mats. It also enables cats to distribute oils along their fur for protection and insulation. Grooming cools cats down through stimulated blood flow and evaporation. Cats use scent glands on their faces to mark territory and bond with humans when they rub and lick themselves. Most importantly, grooming keeps cats’ coats clean, free of parasites, and in healthy condition. While grooming is beneficial, cats may overgroom due to stress or skin irritation. Providing a stress-free environment and regularly brushing cats can prevent excessive grooming. Overall, self-grooming is an important natural behavior for cats that owners should encourage within healthy limits.

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