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How Do Cats Clean Themselves? Normal Behavior & Advice (Vet-Reviewed)

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Last Updated on November 26, 2023 by Catster Editorial Team

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Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Luqman Javed

DVM (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Cats are known for their impressive ability to self-groom. However, there is a line between healthy grooming and compulsive grooming. Likewise, some cats may under-groom. Both compulsive grooming and under-grooming occur due to other underlying health problems.

Understanding what’s normal for your cat’s self-grooming habits can help you monitor their health and well-being. If your cat is over or under-grooming, you should contact your vet to diagnose potential conditions causing poor grooming habits.


Why Do Cats Groom Themselves?

Before we dive into what’s normal, it’s important to understand why cats clean themselves. Obviously, cats groom themselves to keep their fur and skin clean, but there are several other reasons why cats self-groom. Here are just a few other reasons:

  • Distribute oils for soft coat
  • Remove debris, dirt, and parasites from their coat
  • Self-calming
  • Stimulate circulation
  • Regular body temperature
  • Bond with other cats or their kittens

In other words, cats self-groom for a number of reasons. You never want to discourage self-grooming because it is an important part of your cat’s well-being and socialization with other cats.

How Often Should Cats Groom Themselves?

Since self-grooming serves such an important purpose in a cat’s life, most cats spend anywhere from 30% to 50% of their waking hours self-grooming. Can you imagine if we bathed ourselves this much? Needless to say, you should see your cat self-grooming quite a lot.

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How Cats Groom Themselves

Cats groom themselves using two parts of their body: their tongue and paws. These body parts, matched with the cat’s flexibility, allow the cat to groom almost all of their body.


Have you ever been licked by a cat? If so, you know how prickly the cat’s tongue is. This rough surface helps to keep the cat’s coat and skin nice and healthy. The comb-like surface allows the tongue to pick up any debris or foreign objects on the skin’s body.

cat licking its paw
Image Credit: TeamK, Pixabay


Cats can also use their claws and paws to clean their skin and coat. You can expect your cat to use their paws on locations their tongue won’t reach. For example, cats use their paws to reach their face, top of the head, and neck areas. Cats can even use the back of their paws to help clean their bodies. Their forepaws are often used to help distribute the oil from the cat’s head to other locations. This oil helps the cat to smell clean and for the coat to stay nice and soft.

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Under-Grooming and Compulsive Grooming

Healthy cats will use their tongue, paws, and forepaws to self-groom for up to half of their waking time. However, cats under-groom or compulsively groom due to a number of underlying health conditions.


Under-grooming is mostly a problem with senior cats. As the cat gets old, it is more difficult for them to reach all the areas on their body. Osteoarthritis (a common ailment in older cats) limits a senior cat’s flexibility, which may make it difficult for them to groom as they used to. Cats can also under-groom due to other conditions, such as obesity.

Issues with the mouth, particularly those conditions that involve pain, may dissuade a cat from grooming themselves. Because the tongue is essentially their “brush”, a painful tongue will mean rubbing said brush against their body isn’t something cats would want to do. Likewise, pain in the paws (especially the forepaws) may also dissuade cats from self-grooming.

Cats that are generally unwell (for example, with a flu) may choose to not groom, much like how we tend to slack on self-hygiene when we’re unwell and would rather rest up. In general, any disorder that results in pain will probably lead to a cat who chooses to under-groom.

Likewise, some hormonal issues may cause a cat to under-groom or appear very unkempt despite their best efforts to keep grooming themselves. Finally, many other behavioral disorders may take up an inordinate amount of a cat’s time in activities other than grooming. For example, a cat with a neurological disorder might spend most of their time circling randomly rather than grooming themselves.

Under-grooming results in your cat not being as clean as they used to be. You might notice more mats or loose fur around your home. Dirt and debris may be stuck to the hard-to-reach areas as well.

If you think your cat is under-grooming itself, take them to the vet to see if there is an underlying condition. Additionally, help your cat groom by taking them to a professional groomer and helping the cat groom with daily brushes.

Compulsive Grooming

Compulsive grooming happens whenever cats groom so much that it results in additional hair loss, skin lesions, and skin irritation. Compulsive grooming can happen because of parasites, other skin disorders or infections, varying degrees of pain, neurological issues, stress, or other body system disorders or diseases.

If you are noticing issues with your cat’s fur and skin due to grooming, take your cat to the vet. The lesions may need treatment, and the cat will need to be evaluated to ensure there is no deeper root to the problem. You will have to treat the cause of the compulsive grooming to get it under control.

cat licking its paw
Image Credit: Hannah Oliver, Unsplash

When To Contact a Vet

You should contact a vet if you notice your cat is grooming way less frequently or more frequently than before. Both under-grooming and compulsive grooming can be signs of serious illnesses that need veterinary treatment.

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How To Help Groom Your Cat

Whether your cat is under-grooming or over-grooming, here are some tips you can incorporate into your cat’s routine to help the grooming process go smoothly.

1. Create a Stress-Free Environment

Always try to create a stress-free environment for your cat. If the environment is stressful, your cat may groom less often due to fear or compulsively groom due to stress. Try to create a calm and safe environment for your cat so that your kitty grooms just the right amount.

2. Brush Regularly

Brush your cat regularly to help mitigate hairballs and excessive hair loss. This is especially important for long-haired cats, unwell cats, seniors, young kittens, and overweight individuals. Likewise, short-haired cats can benefit from brushing as well. You might need to introduce your cat to the brush first. With proper introduction, cats will grow to love brush time since cats groom one another in the wild.

Alternatively, a wall-mounted brush can also be used to help a cat reach certain spots they wish to groom in your absence.

grooming brush with cat fur
Image Credit: RJ22, Shutterstock

3. Bathe When Needed

Bathing in an excellent way to help groom your cat. It also tends to motivate otherwise lazy cats to groom themselves after they’ve been bathed. Bathing also helps control external parasites that might be lingering in your cat’s fur, and medicated shampoos can prove beneficial when it comes to controlling some ailments (such as ringworm). Even if your cat has no skin issues, a bath might help them cope better, especially when they’re shedding their undercoat (often around spring or autumn).

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Final Thoughts

Cats clean themselves 30% to 50% of their awake hours by using their tongue, paws, and forepaws. That being said, some cats under-groom or compulsively groom due to stress or underlying conditions. It’s important to monitor your cat’s grooming to make sure they are as healthy as possible.

If you suspect your cat is under or over-grooming, contact your vet. In the meantime, try to create a stress-free environment and help your cat with the grooming process by brushing them regularly and bathing them when needed.

Based on the underlying cause for your cat’s grooming problems, a vet may offer some additional treatment tips.

About the Author

Christian Adams
Christian Adams
Christian is the Editor-in-Chief of Excited Cats and one of its original and primary contributors. A lifelong cat lover, now based in South East Asia, Christian and his wife are the proud parents of an 11-year-old son and four rescue cats: Trixie, Chloe, Sparky, and Chopper.

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