The Mystery Behind Your Cat’s Self-Grooming After Petting

The Grooming Instinct

Cats are fastidious groomers by nature. Grooming is an instinctive behavior that is important for a cat’s health and wellbeing. According to The Spruce Pets, grooming helps cats “keep their coats and skin healthy” and regulate body temperature by removing dead hair [1]. As cats lick and smooth their fur, they evenly distribute natural oils across their coat for protection and water resistance.

Grooming also serves an important social function for cats. As social creatures, cats use grooming to bond with other cats by grooming each other. Cats who live together will groom one another to exchange scents and strengthen social connections. Even solitary cats continue to groom themselves frequently based on innate instinct [2].

Removing Scents

Cats have an exceptionally strong sense of smell, with up to 200 million odor-sensitive cells compared to only 5 million in humans. This makes smell a primary sense for cats, allowing them to detect subtle scents in their environment (Source). When petting a cat, oils and scents from our hands transfer onto their fur. These new scents can be unfamiliar or unsettling for some cats.

To restore their own natural scent, cats will groom themselves after being petted. Through licking and scratching, a cat’s rough tongue removes traces of foreign smells. Frequent grooming spreads a cat’s unique facial pheromones over their body, allowing them to smell familiar again. Keeping a cat’s coat clean through regular brushing can supplement their natural grooming habits and help remove any unwanted scents (Source). However, light grooming after petting is normal behavior for most cats as they reestablish their scent.

Petting Causes Oils

When humans pet cats, we spread oils and dirt from our hands onto their fur. This can make their fur feel dirty or weighed down. Cats have a strong instinct to keep their coats clean and well-groomed.

By licking and grooming themselves after being petted, cats are restoring their fur to its normal, clean condition. This grooming removes the oils and dirt transferred by human hands during petting.

This is especially true for long-haired cat breeds, where petting can really disrupt their thick coats. The natural oils on human hands don’t easily wash out of long fur, so grooming helps long-haired cats feel clean again.

According to WebMD, petting spreads oils from our hands onto cat paws as well, which they then ingest when grooming themselves. So removing human oils helps them avoid ingesting anything potentially harmful.

Stimulation

Petting can overstimulate cats due to the tactile sensation on their skin and fur. When a human strokes a cat’s back or pets its head, this provides intense stimulation that can rile up the cat’s prey drive and trigger an excited response. Even though petting is meant as an affectionate gesture, it can wind up the cat and make it overly energetic and reactive [1].

To counter this overstimulation from petting, many cats will immediately start grooming themselves after being petted. The act of licking their fur and cleaning their bodies produces endorphins that have a calming effect on the cat. Grooming helps them cool down from the intensity of human touch and interaction. It returns their arousal level back to normal [2]. So when a cat grooms following petting, it is not necessarily a rejection – the cat is just seeking to relax and self-soothe after becoming overexcited.

Social Hierarchy

Cats use grooming to establish and reinforce social hierarchies within groups. Lower ranked cats will often groom dominant cats before and after social interactions as a sign of accepting subordinate status. This grooming signals that the lower ranked cat poses no threat and recognizes the dominant cat’s higher position.

According to https://www.litter-robot.com/blog/why-do-cats-groom-each-other/, grooming reinforces the social pecking order and who yields to whom. Cats that accept a subordinate role will initiate allogrooming more often. The dominant cat receiving the grooming accepts this as their due.

So when your cat grooms itself after you pet it, this may be a sign that it views you as the dominant figure in your social hierarchy. The grooming signals an acceptance of its lower status compared to you.

Marking Territory

Cats have scent glands located in various parts of their bodies, including their cheeks, lips, chin, tail area, and paws 1. When a cat rubs against or scratches an object, it is leaving behind a scent unique to that cat. This allows the cat to mark its territory and send a message to other cats that this area belongs to it 2.

One reason a cat may groom itself after being petted is to spread its scent from the oil and pheromone glands on its skin. By licking its fur, a cat spreads its individual scent throughout its coat. This serves to mark the cat’s territory after its space has been “invaded” by human interaction and petting 3. So in a sense, a cat is reclaiming its territory after petting spreads the scents of the human onto its fur.

Stress Response

Cats can easily become stressed by unfamiliar handling or environments. When a human pets a cat, especially in sensitive areas like the belly or legs, it can cause stress and anxiety. Grooming is a natural calming mechanism for cats that releases endorphins which provide comfort. By licking and cleaning themselves, cats can relieve stress and find reassurance after the unfamiliar touch of human petting. Cats mainly use pheromones to recognize other cats, so the human scent left on their fur after petting can be off-putting. Excessive licking serves the purpose of removing our “foreign” scent and returning their coat to the familiar feline smell. This is likely why some cats immediately start cleaning the spot a human has pet or touched.

Individual Personality

Some cats have more of a grooming instinct than others. According to https://www.vieravet.com/, independent cats tend to groom themselves more frequently after being petted. This is likely because independent cats prefer to keep to themselves and do not enjoy prolonged physical contact with humans as much as other personalities. The act of petting causes oils and scents to transfer from the human hand to the cat’s fur. For independent cats that value their personal space, this transfer of scents can be unsettling. Grooming after petting serves as a way for these independent personalities to re-establish their own scent and remove the oils left behind from human contact.

Breed Differences

Cats groom themselves more or less frequently depending on their breed. Long-haired breeds like Maine Coons and Persians tend to groom themselves more often to keep their lush coats tidy and tangle-free. According to The Differences in Cat Grooming, “Long haired cats groom themselves more frequently – likely double or triple the rate of shorthairs.”

On the other hand, some short-haired breeds are known for grooming themselves less. As noted in How do certain cat breeds differ in their grooming needs?, “Breeds like the Siamese and Abyssinian have fairly low-maintenance coats and groom themselves less frequently.” Their sleek, short coats don’t get as messy or tangled between grooms.

So when you notice your cat grooming herself often after petting, her breed may play a role. Long-haired cats need to groom more to keep their coat healthy, while some short-haired breeds naturally have lower grooming demands.

When to Be Concerned

Excessive grooming beyond a cat’s normal cleaning routine could be a sign of an underlying issue. According to PetMD, compulsive overgrooming, also known as psychogenic alopecia, is often triggered by stress, anxiety, or changes in the cat’s environment. Cats may excessively lick, bite, and scratch areas of their body to the point of hair loss and skin damage. This obsessive behavior can lead to skin infections or problems.

Check your cat for signs of skin irritation like redness, bald patches, scabs, or open wounds which may indicate a medical condition causing discomfort. Fleas or other parasites can also prompt overgrooming. According to Bond Vet, schedule a veterinarian visit if your cat grooms excessively or you notice changes in grooming habits. Addressing the root cause, whether behavioral or medical, is key to stopping the obsessive grooming behavior.

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