Anyone who owns multiple cats should have noticed a strange phenomenon – cats may groom each other when given the opportunity. This behavior is called social grooming, or allogrooming, and has been studied by animal behaviorists. There are some points that these behaviorists have discovered when studying cats who groom other cats:
- Not all cats participate in social grooming. Usually, cats who are related to each other or are friendly with each other tend to groom each other more often than cats who are strangers to each other. Social grooming is not purely a female, mothering instinct either, as male cats also participate in allogrooming. Social grooming can be a way for cats to bond to other cats to whom they feel close.
- Social grooming may be a learned behavior. Cats who were raised with a mother are more likely to groom other cats as they grow up. These cats have had the experience of being groomed by an older cat from birth and, thus, have learned this bonding behavior. Likewise, cats who were taken from their mothers at a young age and were not around other cats may not learn social grooming habits.
- Cats usually groom each other in certain areas only. Cats who do groom each other seem to concentrate on grooming the head and neck area of the other cat. These areas are hard for cats to reach in order to groom themselves, so perhaps a cat grooming a friend is simply trying to help out with his friend’s hygiene. Think about when your cat nudges your hand, wanting petted. She often focuses on her head and neck area, including behind the ears, right? She’s asking you to “groom” those areas of her head and neck that she can’t always reach, as it feels good to her. You can tell that she likes it as she purrs loudly.
- Social grooming in cats has a hierarchy. Cats who have a higher, dominant ranking socially will groom submissive, lower-ranked felines, but not vice versa. For example, if you have two cats in your household, the one who has lived there the longest or has dominated the household is more likely to groom the one who is more submissive or has had the shorter stay. The cat who is higher, the “groomer,” will tend to stand or sit while the “groomee,” the lower-ranked cat, will usually sit or lie down while being groomed.
- Social grooming among cats is not always fun and games. While it might look cute to us humans, social grooming can quickly turn violent. Groomers, the higher-ranked cats, have been known to show violent behavior towards their groomees about a third of the time. Social grooming can be a way that cats establish dominance in their relationship with other cats. This leads to the next point,
- Social grooming may lead to self-grooming in cats. After a cat grooms a friend, she will often turn to grooming herself. Part of this might be related to the fact that grooming can be a self-calming behavior in cats and something that they use to reduce their own aggression.
- Big cats as well as small cats participate in social grooming. You will notice in the wild or in zoos that tigers will groom other tigers, just as domesticated cats will groom other domesticated cats. With bigger cats, social grooming is seen more often between mother and kitten, but couples who are mating have also been known to groom each other. Social grooming reinforces social bonds within prides of lions as well as within smaller groups of domesticated cats.
Social grooming in cats is natural and, when noticed by cat owners, should be allowed to continue without human interference. If you see your cats grooming each other, don’t intervene, even if you’re afraid the grooming might turn aggressive. Social grooming in cats is a way that they establish and represent the social order among them. Think about when you pet your cat, sometimes she might act aggressively towards you. Yes, she enjoys being petted, but she may see your petting as a form of mild aggression and become tense. If you sense this happening, perhaps through a lack of purring or a suddenly twitching tail, stop before your hand becomes a scratching post, and don’t take her aggression towards you seriously. Your cat is just treating you like she would a feline friend, establishing a social order with you and showing you that, while she enjoys you “grooming” her with your hand, she’s had about enough of that for now. Don’t worry, she’ll be back for more when she’s ready.