Cats are fastidious animals. As such, it should not come as a surprise that they spend a substantial chunk of their waking hours grooming themselves and each other.
But for cats and other social animals, grooming is not merely an act of keeping themselves clean and pest-free. More than that, there are social aspects involved in grooming.
Why only one cat grooms the other
If you have two cats and only one cat does all the grooming, it means that the groomer is establishing his dominance over the other feline. Even in larger groups, higher ranking cats perform most of the grooming while the lower ranking cats get groomed more often.
Social hierarchy is also evident in the posture of cats during grooming. Dominant cats keep their postures erect while allogrooming. The cats that are being groomed, on the other hand, display signs of submission like sitting.
Another sign that allogrooming reinforces social hierarchies is the fact that the cats that do most of the grooming often display aggressive behavior toward the cats they groom.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. This is because aggression is channeled from something harmful into something more socially acceptable.
That is not to say that your two cats will not fight each other. In fact, it is not unusual for grooming sessions to turn into play fights.
Again, it is crucial to underscore that cats groom each other because they already have an established bond. When your cats fight after a grooming session, they do so not to hurt each other. It may just be a form of rough play.
Play fighting after grooming is one way for the dominant cat to say that he has grown tired of grooming. If the play fight is confined to rolling, kicking, and running around, there is not much that you need to worry about.
However, if you notice actions like hissing and slapping, it means that the play fighting is escalating to a real fight. Before things take a turn for the worse, you need to step in and distract your two pets.
Play fighting is just mostly play, with little to no real aggression. Your cats are most likely just running around and chasing each other. An actual fight is more serious and can involve biting and screaming. You will also notice that the ears of both cats are pulled back.
Sometimes, a grooming session can escalate to a fight because one of the cats notices signs of illness in the other. Cats are attuned to each other’s bodies so much so that they notice that something is wrong before you notice signs of illness. In such a case, you should check each cat and confirm if one of your pets is actually sick.
Social dynamics and cat grooming
To better understand why only one of your feline companions does much or practically all of the grooming tasks, it is worthwhile to understand why cats groom each other.
Initially, biologists and other experts thought of felines, with the exception of lions, as solitary animals. But in light of new studies, it was discovered that some feline species like bobcats, cheetahs, and domestic cats are also social creatures with hierarchies.
Many experts also thought of feral colonies of domestic cats as nothing but a loose association. They posited that the desire for food of each member of the colony allowed them to tolerate the presence of each other, negating their instincts to fight each other.
However, it was discovered that these colonies are structured, much like the way a pack of dogs interacts with one another.
Domestic cats follow the same structure that lions follow. In these social structures, the females cooperate and bond closely with one another.
However, in house cats, the hierarchy can be more complex. Cats can bond with non-relatives and even with felines of the opposite sex. Apart from that, domestic cats establish their own territories within a home.
Why cats groom each other
But how do all of these explain grooming in cats?
As mentioned earlier, cats groom each other, not only to clean themselves. Scientists call grooming in social animals like cats and primates as allogrooming.
Allogrooming, along with allorubing and scent transmission, is a way social animals make their colonies more cohesive.
Allogrooming can only occur in an established colony. Cats will only groom other cats that they consider as members of their tribe. Once a new cat is integrated into your home and your cats’ colony, he can then partake in allogrooming.
Cats groom each other to reinforce social bonds, establish social ranks, and to show affection to one another.
1. Reinforce social bonds
As mentioned earlier, cats will only groom other felines that they recognize as members of their tribe. When these cats groom each other, they are expressing their acceptance into the group.
2. Establish social ranking
Grooming is also a way for cats to express their dominance over other feline members of your household.
This is why you will notice that dominant cats do almost all of the grooming while the lower ranking cats show their submission by getting themselves groomed.
3. Show affection
Cats can form colonies even with other cats that are unrelated to them. However, you will observe that bonds between mothers and their kittens and cats from the same litter are stronger.
It is also widely believed that mothers teach their kittens to groom, not only to exert their dominance, but more importantly, to reinforce bonds within a family and a colony.
Do not worry if only one cat grooms the other
Should you worry if only one of your cats grooms the other?
Most probably not. Remember, grooming only happens between two members of a social group. If one cat grooms the other, it means that he has accepted the other cat as a member of the family and is just establishing his rank in his household.
However, if the other cat is still new in your household, it is a good idea to observe your two pets and curb signs of potential aggression before things get out of hand
Image: istockphoto.com / bombermoon