Why Cats Have Such Impeccable Hygiene

Introduction

Have you ever noticed how fastidiously clean cats are? Unlike many other pets, cats are experts at keeping themselves tidy and hygienic. In fact, cats spend 30-50% of their waking hours grooming themselves, making hundreds of licking strokes with their tongues each day!1 This frequent grooming serves several purposes that we will explore in this article, including keeping their coats clean and healthy, controlling scent signals, and maintaining social bonding.

Frequent Grooming

Cats are meticulous groomers and can spend an extraordinary amount of time tending to their hygiene. According to North Road Veterinary Clinic, cats spend 30-50% of their waking hours grooming themselves. This frequent grooming is essential for cats to keep their coat clean and free of debris, distribute natural oils across their fur, and maintain healthy skin.

A key reason cats devote so much time to grooming is their rough tongue. It acts like a brush, helping remove loose hairs and evenly distribute oils secreted by their skin and coat. Their small and flexible bodies allow them to twist and contort to reach all areas that require grooming. Daily grooming sessions are part of normal feline behavior and a sign of good health.

Saliva Composition

Cats’ saliva contains chemicals and enzymes that give it antibacterial properties. According to ilovecatsforlife.com, cat saliva contains enzymes like lysozyme and lactoferrin that can kill bacteria. These enzymes break down the cell walls of bacteria, destroying them. Cat saliva also contains immunoglobulins and lymphocytes, which are antibodies and white blood cells. When a cat licks itself, the antibacterial enzymes in its saliva help kill and remove bacteria on its skin and coat. This helps keep cats clean and reduces infections.

Flexible Spine

One of the most important reasons that cats are so hygienic is due to their extremely flexible spine. Unlike humans who only have curvature in the neck and lower back, cats have significant vertical curvature across their entire spine1. This allows them to arch and stretch into positions that would be impossible for humans and most other mammals.

Thanks to their flexible spine, cats are able to bend and twist their body to reach almost every part of themselves while grooming2. They can lick their stomachs, backs, tails and even their hind legs and paws. This full-body flexibility allows cats to keep themselves exceptionally clean through their frequent grooming routine.

Rough Tongue

A cat’s tongue is made up of small, backward-facing spines called papillae that act like a hairbrush to help keep their coat clean and neat (1). Cats have hollow, keratinized papillae on their tongues that can penetrate and comb through their fur as they groom, wicking saliva deep into their coat to trap dirt, debris, and oils (2). The papillae act like a built-in brush, helping cats spread saliva through their fur to clean and condition it. Their rough tongue allows cats to remove loose hair, distribute natural oils, remove fleas and external parasites, and keep their coat shiny and healthy.

(1) https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/understanding-cat-tongues-papillae

(2) https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.1809544115

Scent Glands

Cats have scent glands located throughout their bodies that release pheromones when grooming or scratching. These pheromones allow cats to mark their territory and communicate information to other cats. Some of the main scent glands in cats include:

– Facial glands – Cats have glands on their lips, cheeks, chin, forehead and around their ears that produce pheromones.[1]

– Paw pads – Cats release pheromones from the glands between their toes when scratching. This leaves both a visual and scent marker. [1]

– Anal glands – Cats have anal glands on each side of their anus that release pheromones during defecation. This helps mark territory.[2]

When cats groom themselves, they spread these pheromones over their fur. This scent-marking helps them claim ownership of their territory and objects within it. It also allows communication with other cats in the area.

Digestive Tract

Cats groom themselves frequently to help expel hairballs and fur from their digestive tracts. As cats groom, they ingest loose hair and fur that can accumulate in the stomach and intestines. This fur often forms into compact masses called hairballs or trichobezoars, which can cause gagging, coughing, and vomiting if not expelled. Frequent grooming and swallowing of hair helps move hairballs through the digestive tract to be vomited up or passed through feces. By licking their coats repeatedly, cats facilitate this natural elimination process. One source notes that the backward-facing spines on a cat’s tongue help remove dead hair and move it towards the throat to be swallowed. Their unique digestive system is adapted to pass large amounts of fur, as long as the intake is gradual versus in large clumps. So grooming promotes ongoing hair ingestion in manageable amounts for digestion and waste removal.

Social Bonding

Cats groom each other as a way to strengthen their social bonds. Mutual grooming reinforces the connections between cats and is an important part of their interactions. According to this article, the feline family unit is built on shared space, scent, and behaviors. Littermates begin grooming each other at a young age to form attachments.

As explained in this Catster piece, most cats groom each other as a sign of friendship, though friendship means something different for cats than humans. The social bonding from mutual grooming helps cats live together harmoniously. Allogrooming communicates trust between cats.

Cats that are closely bonded will often groom each other for longer periods of time as a way to strengthen their relationship. The social bonding aspect of allogrooming is a key reason why cats who live together spend time cleaning each other.

Coat & Skin Health

Grooming is vital for keeping a cat’s coat clean, healthy, and free of debris. The act of brushing helps redistribute natural oils along the fur and skin, promoting blood flow and skin health. Regular brushing loosens and removes dead hair and distributes skin oils across the coat for conditioning and shine. This in turn helps regulate body temperature and insulate against heat loss.

Without proper grooming, dirt and dander can build up on the skin and cause irritation or skin conditions. Matted fur can also trap moisture and lead to hot spots or infections. The stimulation of brushing releases natural oils from the sebaceous glands, conditioning the fur and keeping it smooth and silky. As grooming tools come into contact with the skin, they provide a light massage that improves blood circulation.

According to Lucky Dawgs Pet Grooming, regular brushing helps distribute natural oils from the cat’s sebaceous glands over the entirety of its coat. This redistribution of oils allows for an evenly conditioned and shinier coat. The improved blood flow also nourishes hair follicles and skin.

Conclusion

In summary, cats exhibit several fascinating innate behaviors and adaptations that contribute to their reputation for cleanliness and hygiene.

Their frequent grooming with abrasive tongues keeps their coats free of dirt, loose fur, and parasites. Their flexible spines allow them to contort into positions to groom hard-to-reach areas. Their saliva contains antibacterial compounds, and the structure of their rough tongue bristles help remove debris.

Cats also have scent glands that enable territory marking and allow them to pick up olfactory cues. Their short digestive tract and fast metabolism leads to less smelly waste. Socially, grooming strengthens bonds.

For all these reasons, cats make natural cleanliness a priority in their lives. Their built-in cleaning rituals and adaptations allow cats to self-regulate so they stay tidy and healthy.

Cat owners can support natural feline hygiene by providing a clean litter box, brushing help, and scheduling veterinary care. Overall, cats’ excellent hygiene contributes to their popularity as loving and fastidious pets.

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