Cats like to keep themselves as tidy as possible, devoting 8-15% of their time to self-cleaning. Kittens at three weeks old start grooming themselves, starting a regimen that will last for the rest of their lives. This is a great feature of cats as pets, fitting in nicely with their desire to share our furniture and our affection with a lot of close contact.
Grooming has deep, instinctive roots for cats. Its original purpose is a predator tactic. There’s two ways to hide from the sensitive noses of potential prey.
Dogs chose the messy route of blending into background smells. This is why they love to roll in disgusting substances. When deer are tooling along and catch a whiff, they can say, Hey, is that a wolf approaching? No, all I smell is that rotting carcass we passed a few trees back — yikes!
This works well for dogs, who hunt cooperatively in packs. As lone predators, cats have taken the other path, perhaps because of their desert past which would have offered relatively few disgusting, gooey, substances to roll in. They continuously groom themselves to rid their presence of any telltale odors, to keep from alerting their prey, or their predators.
This also means we shouldn't be shy about letting the cats be as close to us as they wish to be. They can cuddle up in our chair or nestle on our bed. They aren’t going to track mud onto the couch cushions or roll that icky aroma into the table runner.
When cats are kept indoors, it makes it even easier for them to stay tidy. We can help them in this endeavor by keeping their litter box clean. That is part of why they are so fussy about the state of their box. Who can blame them? Make things easy for them by always having clean litter for them to use.
Humans will use grooming behaviors when they are nervous; smoothing or twisting their hair, inspecting their nails, plucking imaginary lint on their pants. So do cats. “When in doubt, wash,” has long been a cat motto. This self-soothing behavior is a way for them get time to think, to feel a sense of control, and to feel good about themselves after they failed to negotiate a tricky maneuver.
With all the importance cats place on grooming, we can be alert to their state of mind and health by seeing how they balance their grooming behavior. Grooming too little can be a sign of illness. Grooming too much can indicate a cat under a lot of stress, and they are reaching for a self-soothing behavior to try to get a handle on it.
The more people have manipulated a cat's appearance for our viewing pleasure, the more help a cat will need to keep their fur in shape. "Natural" longhaired breeds like the Norwegian Forest Cat or Maine Coon have fur that requires little help, while the extravagant fur of the Persian needs daily grooming. But grooming is more than a practical care issue. It is also a bonding ritual that lets us communicate with our cats in their language.
This insistence on having every hair in its proper place means good ways of petting the cat all involve not disarranging their fur. Don’t pet against the natural lie of the fur and don’t rumple the cat.
When cats are friends, they will show mutual grooming behaviors, especially the top of the head and the back of the neck, which is hard for a cat to reach on their own. Our own petting should mimic these mutual grooming moves. Body strokes, ear "scritches," and face rubs are body language a cat has no problem understanding.
Cats wouldn't be cats if they weren't clean and tidy, quick to stop any activity to smooth a stray hair, delightful to watch as they turn a paw into a boxing glove for facial attentions or hoist a hind leg to "play the cello." They have turned a physical necessity into an expression of their personality, and a way of calming and centering themselves.
It also gives us an avenue to reach out to our cats. Whether we are helping with the grooming, with brush or hand, or simply admiring our good they look, a well-groomed cat shows they are happy.
We can take some credit for that.
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