Will Your Cat Clean Its Own Poop? The Surprising Facts

Cats Keep Themselves Clean By Licking

Cats are meticulous groomers and keep themselves clean through frequent licking. They spend a significant portion of each day grooming because their rough tongues are perfectly designed to remove dirt, loose fur, parasites, and odor from their coats. For most cats, this daily ritual is normal and healthy behavior. However, excessive licking or decreased grooming may indicate an underlying issue. This article explores whether cats will groom off and ingest feces, reasons for changes in grooming behavior, and how to keep your cat clean and healthy.

Normal Cat Grooming Behavior

Cats are fastidious groomers and dedicate a good portion of their day to cleaning and caring for their coats. According to North Road Veterinary Clinic, most cats will spend 30-50% of their waking hours grooming themselves.1 This frequent grooming is perfectly normal behavior for our feline companions.

Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine notes that the typical cat grooms themselves about 25 times per day.2 Grooming sessions are usually short, lasting only a few licks at a time. But all those mini-grooming sessions add up to a significant portion of kitty’s daily activity. Hill’s Pet Nutrition also confirms that an average of 30-50% of a cat’s day is spent on grooming rituals.3 This frequent self-care is key to maintaining a cat’s health and hygiene.

Reasons Cats Groom

Cats are fastidious groomers and spend much of their waking hours licking and cleaning themselves. Grooming serves several important purposes for cats.

One of the main reasons cats groom is to remove dirt, dust, and debris from their coats. As largely indoor pets, cats don’t often get very dirty. However, even indoor cats can track in dust and dirt from around the house that gets caught in their fur. Through grooming and licking, cats are able to remove these particulates before they build up.1

Frequent grooming keeps a cat’s coat clean and free of dirt, dust, dander, and anything else that may stick to it. By licking themselves, cats are able to effectively clean areas they cannot reach with their paws or rub against surfaces.

Cat Tongues are Built for Grooming

A cat’s tongue has a very rough texture due to tiny, hook-like structures called papillae that cover the entire surface. Papillae are made of keratin, the same protein that makes up human fingernails. There are several hundred papillae on every cat’s tongue.

These keratin spines face backwards and are shaped like tiny hooks that act like a brush. This rough, sandpaper-like texture helps cats groom themselves efficiently. The backward-facing papillae allow cats to lick their fur without resistance in the direction of their tongues, while providing resistance in the opposite direction to help remove dirt, debris, and loose hair as they groom. The tiny hooks also help scrape and detangle fur.

Cats have shorter papillae near the tip and sides of their tongues. These help cats delicately clean their paws and faces. Longer, stronger papillae toward the back are used for detangling knots and cleaning harder-to-reach areas.

The shape and arrangement of papillae make the cat’s tongue an extremely effective grooming tool. The hooks allow cats to penetrate through their coat down to the skin’s surface as they lick to distribute saliva and oils, removing dirt in the process.

Cats Use Saliva to Clean

Cats use their saliva to clean themselves when grooming. The saliva acts as a natural cleaning agent, helping to loosen dirt, debris, and loose hair from their coat.The hooks on a cat’s tongue carry the saliva deep into their fur where it works to remove grime. As they lick their coat during grooming, the debris gets loosened by the saliva and is removed either by their rough tongue scraping it away or by swallowing it. So saliva helps facilitate the cleaning process by making the dirt and grime easier to dislodge.

A cat’s saliva contains enzymes and compounds that break down proteins and oils on their fur to help remove stuck-on debris. It also has antibacterial properties that inhibit bacterial growth. So in addition to physically removing dirt, cat saliva actively helps dissolve debris and inhibit microbes as part of their natural cleaning regimen.

Licking Can Spread Bacteria

While a cat’s digestive system is well-equipped to handle ingesting some of its own feces, licking dirty fur does come with some risks. Feces contains bacteria, parasites, and viruses that can make a cat sick if ingested in large quantities. Some potential risks of ingesting feces include:

  • Salmonella – This bacteria can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration.
  • Campylobacter – Another bacteria that causes gastrointestinal illness.
  • Giardia – An intestinal parasite that spreads through contaminated water or food.
  • Toxoplasmosis – A parasite that is shed in cat feces and can be harmful to pregnant women.

While healthy adult cats rarely get sick from ingesting small amounts of feces when grooming, kittens, pregnant cats, and cats with weakened immune systems are at higher risk. It’s best to minimize opportunities for cats to ingest large quantities of feces by keeping the litter box clean and grooming soiled fur if needed.

When Normal Grooming Fails

Sometimes normal grooming is not enough for a cat to keep themselves clean. Severe matting and clumping of fur can occur when a cat is unable to properly groom themselves. This matting traps dirt, debris, and even fecal matter against the cat’s skin. The fur becomes a solid mass that is tangled and impossible for the cat to penetrate with normal licking and chewing. When matting gets this severe, the cat is unable to clean itself adequately.

According to My Cat Is Not Grooming Themself: When To Worry, “mats happen when loose hair gets trapped together with skin oils, saliva, and debris.” When mats become large or dense, they can pull painfully on the cat’s skin. The cat may try to avoid grooming the matted area, which only leads to worse matting. This can become a vicious cycle for the cat.

Severe matting that traps fecal matter against the cat’s body presents health risks. The cat’s skin can become irritated and infected under matted fur. In addition, the buildup of feces near the cat’s face or food can cause illness if ingested during grooming. Proper veterinary care is required to shave off severe mats and allow the cat’s skin to heal.

Signs of Grooming Issues

Cats are meticulous groomers, spending much of their awake time tending to their coats. However, sometimes normal grooming habits fall by the wayside. There are a few key signs that may indicate your cat is struggling with its grooming routine.

One of the most obvious signs is a bad odor coming from your cat’s coat. As saliva dries on the fur, it should not cause an unpleasant smell. A foul smell can signal something is preventing your cat from properly cleaning itself (Advanced Animal Care).

Matted fur is another red flag. Normally cats are able to detangle and smooth their coats. But if certain areas become impossible to groom, tangled clumps or mats will form. Mats pull painfully on the skin and can impede movement. Left untreated, they can lead to sores or infections (DPVH).

Helping Your Cat Stay Clean

Even the best cat groomers need a little help staying clean sometimes. Here are some tips for keeping your cat’s coat looking its best:

Brushing: Regular brushing helps remove loose hair and distribute natural oils throughout your cat’s coat. Brush all the way down to the skin using a soft-bristle brush. Focus on areas prone to matting like the belly and behind the legs.[1]

Wipes: Grooming wipes are a quick and easy way to spot clean dirty or greasy areas between full baths. Look for wipes made just for cats that contain natural ingredients like aloe vera. Gently wipe down the face, paws, rear end and any visibly soiled spots.[2]

Trimming: If your long-haired cat gets frequent mats, consider a “sanitary trim.” Leave the coat long but trim matted spots around the rear, legs, and belly. This can help your cat stay cleaner between full grooming sessions.

With the right grooming techniques, you can help keep your cat’s coat in great shape.

[1] https://www.wikihow.com/Bathe-a-Cat-Without-Water
[2] https://www.catster.com/guides/how-to-give-cat-bath-without-water/


In conclusion, grooming is a natural and important part of a cat’s daily routine. Their rough tongue and antibacterial saliva keep their coat clean and free of debris, odors, and parasites. While grooming is effective for light dirt, it cannot remove all waste or penetrate deep grease and grime if a cat becomes significantly soiled.

Signs your cat needs help staying clean include matted fur, greasy patches, foul odors, and skin irritation or infections. You should check for any wounds, sores, or irritations and consult your vet. With proper care and gentle bathing only when necessary, you can maintain your cat’s hygiene and prevent more serious health issues.

The key takeaways are that regular grooming is essential cat behavior, but it has limits. Monitor your cat’s coat condition and cleanliness, and help with bathing when needed. This will keep your cat comfortable and healthy.

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