Grooming usually starts with the paws, which are easily accessible. Cats then use their paws as grooming tools to clean parts of the body that the tongue cannot reach.
Cats are widely believed to be incredibly clean creatures – at least that is the popular conception – and most of them are. They groom themselves at more or less regular intervals throughout the day, particularly after eating. Most people would say that self-grooming is a sign of a well-behaved, desirable pet. Yet there is more to it than that: grooming is essential for good health, and cats that do not groom themselves well are more open to infections.
Q. My cat often coughs up hairballs. This is not only unpleasant, but worrying. Is there anything I can do to prevent them?
Hairballs are formed from individual hairs that the cat ingests. It is inevitable that some hairs from the fur will be swallowed, and in many cases hairballs will not cause any harm as long as they are coughed up. If you have a longhaired cat you will need to help with grooming by brushing out loose hairs once a day, otherwise they may ultimately develop furballs in their digestive tract that need veterinary treatment.
Q. My cat is usually very clean, but over the last 10 days, he has stopped grooming himself. Why would this happen?
This could be a sign that the cat is ill. Even if you haven’t noticed any other symptoms, have the cat examined.
The cat’s basic equipment for grooming are its tongue, front paws and teeth. Hundreds of tiny spines, or barbs, on the cat’s tongue act rather like the teeth of a comb, picking up loose hairs, parasites and debris that the cat collects in its travels. These barbs also increase the surface area of the tongue, so that it is able to hold relatively large quantities of saliva for cleansing. The saliva has an antiseptic effect and also conditions and smooths the coat.
A cat also makes use of its teeth to clear material from between its claws and any sticky substances lying in its fur.
A COOLING FUNCTION
Cats do have sweat glands, but these are confined to the area between the paws of the feet. Spreading saliva over the skin while grooming helps the cat remain cool, as it speeds up the process of evaporation from the skin and therefore aids heat loss.
A cat’s body is so supple that it can reach right round to its back and even to the base of its tail.
A cat that has been told off or has done something wrong will often groom itself with great concentration. Psychologists call this displacement behaviour. The cat does not know how to react or how to cope, so it busies itself with the activity of grooming.
Mutual grooming seems to cement the bond between cats that get on well together. Self-grooming is one of the very first things a kitten learns. The mother grooms her kittens herself until they are about three weeks old. After that most kittens take care of their own grooming, with an occasional lick from their mother.