Any cat owner can tell you that kitties are constantly licking and grooming their fur. They can come off as particularly clean creatures, always concerned about hygiene and looks. But, it turns out that cats lick their fur for a few other reasons than just grooming— and they’re probably more interesting than you’d think!
For the most part, we all know kitties lick their fur to clean themselves. Leigh Pitsko, the assistant curator of great cats at the Washington National Zoo, explains, “They have tiny hooks called papillae. When they glide across the fur, it acts like a comb.”
Here’s a close-up.
Alexis Noel, a PhD candidate, explained, “The [knot] pulls on the hook, and the hook rotates, slowly teasing the knot apart.”
Interestingly, although most people compare cats’ tongues to sandpaper, they’re actually made of keratin— the same substance in human fingernails.
When cats lick their fur, their tongues help distribute natural oils found on their skin. Interestingly, the saliva and oils help control their temperature in hot and cold weather.
In winter time, the insulating oils help a cat retain its body heat. In the summertime, however, the saliva acts like human sweat. When it evaporates, it releases heat from the body and allows the cat to stay cool.
When cats are in extreme heat, they may sweat from the pads of their feet and their paws. However, for the most part, they will lick their fur, seek out a cool environment, and search for water to avoid dehydration. The Chicago Tribune says:
“Cats are very efficient at reducing their body temperature and tolerating heat. This is most likely attributable to their descent from desert-dwelling species.”
Hiding and Hunting
Cats are smart creatures. They know any scent can let predators and prey know they’re approaching. “If they have something really stinky on them, they’re going to have to get it off,” Leigh said.
On the other hand, this may go both ways, with Leigh also admitting,”I’ve seen cats roll in things to make themselves stinky.”
Cats also bury their feces for this very reason. They don’t want to attract predators, whether it be other animals or bigger and stronger felines.
Interestingly, in the wild, where big cats compete for territory, felines like lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars do not cover their scent. Live Science says it’s “a way of signaling that they want to claim a particular area.”
Cats, like many other mammals, engage in a behavior known as “wound licking”. When a cat injures itself, one of its first instincts is to lick the wound. This is because cats’ saliva contains enzymes which help wounds heal faster. ‘Growth enzymes’, in particular, help control blood cell activity and clotting, ultimately helping the wounds scab over and heal.
If your cat is constantly licking or grooming one certain area, it may be worth a look to make sure there are no injuries hiding beneath their fur.
Interestingly, cats’ saliva also contains lots of different types of bacteria that can worsen wounds. So, as of right now, it’s always recommended you get a cone for a kitty that won’t stop licking a cut or scratch.
In case you haven’t noticed, cats don’t just groom themselves— they also groom each other! Mother Nature Network explains that grooming other cats (and humans) is a way of showing affection. “Just as mother cats lick their young, grooming communicates a cat’s fondness for a person, as well as a sense of belonging.”
In another sense, when a cat licks and rubs itself on you, it’s distributing its scent and claiming you as its own. Marilyn Kreiger, a certified cat behavior consultant, says:
“Grooming is big. Feel honored, because she feels that you are part of her family and part of the colony. She’s put her smell on you.”
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