It’s one of the sweetest behaviors guardians of multiple cats can witness: two adult cats grooming each other. Have you ever wondered why some cats do that, and others don’t?

The scientific term for this behavior is allogrooming or social grooming. A 1998 study conducted by researchers at the University of Southampton, UK and the University of Leiden, Netherlands, analyzed grooming interactions among a group of 83 domestic cats. The study shed some interesting light on this behavior.

Allogrooming is focused on head and neck area

The study found that most of the mutual grooming was directed at the head and neck area. This may also explain why cats love to be petted and scratched in that location, to the point of often even rotating and pushing their heads into human hands and purring, similar to what they would do during an mutual grooming session.

Why do cats groom each other?

Allogrooming tends to happen most frequently among cats who are related, or cats who get along very well. Mutual grooming may be a resurgence of a cat’s mothering instinct, although it is also seen in male cats.

The hierarchy of allogrooming

The study showed that higher ranking animals groomed lower ranking animals more often than the other way round. Groomers tended to adopt a standing or sitting posture, while groomees tend to sit or lie down.

But allogrooming is not all peaceful. Researchers found antagonistic behavior in 35% of interactions. Groomers showed aggressive behavior more often than groomees. Interestingly,Β  groomers often groomed themselves after grooming a partner. Since grooming is also calming for cats, that may be a self-regulating behavior. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that allogrooming in domestic cats may be a way of redirecting aggression.

Do your cats groom each other?

Photo Β©JaneA Kelley, used with permission. JaneA and her cats write the blogΒ Paws and Effect.

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151 Comments on Why Do Cats Groom Each Other?

  1. We got Topher 1st and because he was extremely active, tiring us out, we got him a buddy 3 months later…Nancy. She is only 1 year younger than him. They both groom each other but Topher is usually the instigator. Nancy does lick back but Tophs does it the most. They snuggle together quite a bit too. We are so lucky they get along so well. When we went looking for a 2nd cat, I noticed how much Nancy seemed to act like Topher…his inquisitiveness with the world….that sealed the deal with bringing her home. They are best buddies! Yes both are fixed. No baby kitties here.

  2. I have two cats, both male. One 8 months old and the other 4 months old, they’re unrelated and both strays my family picked up. The older one usually initiates the grooming at the head but the younger one never likes being groomed (unless he’s half asleep).and usually bites the older cat’s neck before licking a random spot off the older’s body( neck, paw, back , balls,tail etc) the older would usually act aggressive and place his paw over the younger’s head.
    Sometimes, the younger initiates with multiple bites at random places( neck, tail, leg etc..) then licks. The older usually don’t mind early in that situation but would be aggresive after a while.

  3. I got a third cat because I thought one of my cats was lonely. This cat – cat #2 would always try to groom cat #1, but #1 wanted nothing to do with him. So I got cat #3 who has made attempts to groom cat #2, but I notice that there is always tension when they groom each other and they hardly ever play and never cuddle. Was I wrong that cat #2 was lonely? My cat matching NEVER works!

  4. I had three cats. Two Abys and one Maine coon. The Abys grew up together and my late Kolohe was the dominant cat having raised my other Aby. They were together for over 14yrs . Licking was definitely dominance behavior with Kolohe being the licker. He would not only lick Bert but stand over him in what appeared to be a mating stance. Brutus the Maine coon was ignored by Kolohe. Now that Kolohe is gone I thought I would see Bert become the dominant cat and initiate the licking. He has not. He often walks over to Brutus puts his head down and asks for licks from Brutus who proceeds to lick him for short periods. My question is Is Brutus now the dominant cat? He’s only 3 but huge. Bert is 15 now and the most brilliant cat I’ve ever known. Is Bert manipulating Brutus. Does Bert not care who’s dominant? Is this simply a learned behavior from yrs of living with his older brother?

    • I’ve found that while the head cat is usually the oldest after the previous passes away, it’s not always true. It seems to depend on who’s most suited to the job, and sometimes who’s actually willing to put up with the job. My last head cat got the job when all the older cats died within a year, and we got a kitten to help us all with our depression. He made a good daddy, but a lousy leader. The kitten, now 6, believes she’s a queen, and runs the place.

  5. I have 5 cats in my home, 2 mature females, Emily, a 7 year old tabby and Jazzy a 4 year old Siamese. Then I have 3 adolescent kitty boys, brothers who were feral and I rescued from the bitter cold last winter. They are a year old. Two solid white, Titus and Thomas, and Tobias has a very unusual coat. He appears to be sleek black but in the sunlight his gray tiger stripes show up. Then when you part his fur he is white underneath. Four of the five groom each other lovingly, it’s the Siamese who poo poos the idea. She allows grooming or even occasionally participates in grooming the others, but gets overstimulated too quickly and usually ends up fighting whoever’s trying to do the grooming. We call her grumpy girl! Many times I’ve had my face or hands sandpapered with their tongue’s, or I mean groomed, haha. It’s actually quite relaxing for me to see them loving on each other.

  6. My (6 lb) small cat grooms both me and my (13lb) large cat. Usually this takes place upon my awakening from a night’s sleep. It’s adorable.

  7. My cat grooms me when I pet him. Some times he gets a little rough, so I just move him off me then he calms down. Is this a dominance thing, or does he just want to show how he cares?

  8. My two male cats who are unrelated groom each other and then they start wrestling. Not sure if this considered play or just being aggressive.

      • My 5 year old male Rusty was the single kitty in the household. Last year I adopted 1 yr old female named Merrill. It was alittle rough introducing them but within 2 weeks they were grooming each other. They do it all the time and sometimes the male gets alittle too playful (I hope he`s being Playful)

  9. I have 3 cats…Puff (16), Samsam (10) and Ralph (3). Ralph and Samsam constantly seem to groom each other, with it usually being Ralph who initiates the grooming. Puff just won’t be bothered to groom anyone but herself! She actually will hiss at each of the other cats if they try to groom her! Can’t tell you how many times the boys have been tried and been shot down!

  10. My female cat grooms me every night at bedtime. Once she’s finished ‘bathing’ she cuddles in my arm and goes off to sleep. She won’t sleep until I am bathed first. What’s this all about.

  11. Our 6 year old cat, Kosmo, raised our 3 year old cat, Tippi. When Tippi became an adolescent, Kosmo stopped being his daddy and began mildly treating him like a rival. Now Kosmo performs what I call ‘bully bathing’ where he grooms Tippi and it appears to be an act of dominance or aggression. They also groom each other in a sweet manner, though less often.

    • I have two brothers/siblings. I find them always cudlling, sleeping, and grooming each other. I don’t think it’s a dominance thing with them. However, when I rescued an abandoned kitten, they didn’t accept him immediately. Eventually they taught him the household rules, but he’s now the aggressor because he cannot be totally accepted by the brothers. But all co-habitate.

  12. Chewy is 2 now and Jake is the older “Uncle”. He taught Chewy how to fight with play, but as Chewy got older, made sure that Chewy knew that he wasn’t the top cat.
    Jake has always groomed Chewy, (Yes, the head is the place!), and if Chewy objected Jake would aggressively hold him down until he was finished. Jake still grooms and though Chewy is big enough to effectively object, he doesn’t any more. πŸ™‚

  13. My two males like each other but their grooming sessions change in intensity and as to who grooms who. One kitty will start, after a little bit the other one is like, “OK, my turn” and it starts out very sweet. After about 3 minutes of this back and forth, there’s a gentle nip from one, then a bite from the other, and before I know it it’s OFF TO THE RACES, as they zoom around chasing each other in play. . .so I guess its like a little warm up, to their game. I’ve just adopted a little stray. . .we’ll soon see how #3 fits into this formula!

  14. I have 2 female cats Violet and Elsa who are sisters. They always groom each other. Funnily enough, it’s always the head and neck that gets groomed. I assumed it was because its areas they can’t reach themselves, so they asked each other for some assistance!

  15. Our 3 year old girl and our 1 year old boy are getting along. Our boy has started to try and groom our girl, but she usually get’s a little irritated and gets up and leaves. She’s pretty spoiled and I think still adjusting to him even after 8 months or so.

  16. I have 2 kittens. A boy who is 7-months-old and a girl who is 5-months-old. They both groom each other all the time, but my boy definitely grooms my girl way more than she grooms him. He would usually just lay sort of on top of hair and licks her ears, face and neck. Then they nap together once they are done grooming each other; although sometimes my boy gets a little aggressive but she just hisses and he stops and continues grooming.

  17. This allogrooming behavior actually makes a lot of sense. Cats groom in order to maintain the insulating qualities of their coat, which improves survival. They can’t reach their head or neck, however, so they make do by using their paw, but this isn’t as effective as using the tongue, which is designed for just this purpose. If cats in a social group groom each others’ head and neck, this will improve survival for the group.

  18. ]I have 2 Burmese kittens (about 10 months old now) brother and sister – both neutered. They are so affectionate and tactile. They groom each other all the time πŸ™‚ They have just started grooming my face and hair! It’s actually not very pleasant as their tongues are quite rough. Is this normal behaviour?

  19. One of my girl cats does this to a stray I recently rescued! The girl cat’s brother also usually cleans the rescued stray (and the girl cats, too), but he usually ends up biting the rescue and getting rough.

  20. I have 2 sister kitties who are about 1 3/4 years old. This morning I noticed that the fur had been licked off right underneath the chin of one but doesn’t appear to be red or irritated yet. Is there something I can put on it so her sister doesn’t clean her for a bit?

  21. I have 2 cats: one male and one female, both are fixed. The female usually grooms the male. He lets her do this for about 5 minutes, but then he has enough. They seem to get along pretty well, but I have noticed lately that when she gets near me he will do a weird meow and then he will grab her under the neck and won’t let go until I get him off her. He doesn’t break the skin, but it worries me. Do you all think this is a problem?

    • It could be a problem and the precursor to aggression. Since this is a new behavior, I would get him checked out by your vet to rule out any medical issues first.

  22. I just found this article as I watched my little pair of kitties ferociously groom each other at the foot of my bed! Unfortunately it leaves just as many questions as it answers, as my little guy (Pouncival, he’s about 1 1/2 years) tends to lay down while his ‘sister’ Bristol (a two year old tortie) prefers to stand over him, and usually initiates the cleaning – but after a few minutes, they always end up in a grooming contest that hits a peak when Pouncival grabs her face and just licks all over until she gets fed up and mopes away. He’s definitely the aggressor at the end but she seems to be the head honcho in that she usually starts the dominant behavior and stance to begin with! I want to say she’s taken a mother role with him, he came to us as a small, roughly six or seven week old kitten abandoned by his own feral mother (or so the vet kind of figured) when she and I were having a typical tortie conversation – and he joined in through the open window! Took us a few days of luring him in with wet food, but on the third he was waiting by my door and I just scooped him up – and he’s been both our shadows ever since. πŸ™‚

  23. Just reading this for the first time. My girls Zesty and Topaz would occasionally groom each other, always on the top of the head, and 9 times out of ten after being so sweet to each other, they would start fighting, not sure why one was always followed by the other.

    • This does seem to happen with quite a few cats who groom each other. I think it’s similar to petting aggression: they reach a point where they’re overstimulated, and fighting is their way of dealing with the excess energy.

  24. I have two cats, Gizmo a 4 year old male and Mia a 11 month old female, they both groom each other though Gizmo tends to do it more so, peaceful to watch.

  25. I have two male cats. One for them licks the other alot. The one who licks is the older cat but is smaller due to hurting his leg when he was a year old.

    • I have 2 male cats the same age but unrelated and they will usually give each other baths before trading sleeping spots (2 chairs we have in the living room-1 by a furnace which is usually the one they do this over). My fiance and I make jokes that when the younger (by 1 month) goes over to trade that it’s their way of saying please. πŸ™‚

  26. We have a father/son male pair that are extremely close. They frequently groom each other and get upset if there’s a closed door between them. We also have a female that will allow the younger male to groom her, but she will not reciprocate. (She’s always been a little odd: she doesn’t play, and as a baby when her littermates would bop her on the head she would scrunch up her face and cry. The younger male adores her but he certainly doesn’t get much from her in return.)

  27. I have a 2yr old neutered male and we just got a 10 week old female 2 wks ago. After 5-6 days they were chasing eachother all over the house playing. I’ve noticed that in the middle of playing he will basically pin her down, lick a few times, then gently bite her, lick her and then go on playing. I was trying to figure out if he is just displaying dominance or if he “adopted” her, or both. What do you all think?

  28. I have Gizmo and Lexi who are brorhers aged 5 months and Bonnie an unrelated female of nearly 6 months. They all groom each other and often all sleep together. The brothers are particularly close and frequently cuddle each other in their sleep. My older cat Candy grooms Gizmo and Misty who is 2 and a half will play with him. Strangely they are not keen on the other 2.

  29. As I’m reading through all these lovely stories here in the comments, two out of my seven cats are lying in the bed with me, grooming each other. Cali, the female, is 4 years old and the mother to 5 of my kitties (she wandered up pregnant, adopted us, had her litter… we planned on keeping one, two at the most, of her kittens, but we refused to take them to a shelter and while we adopted out two, the others never got placed, so now we just have a large, but loving clowder!) and she grooms EVERYONE, including our oldest male Chevy, who was here before she adopted us. Anyway, her and her son Charlie are grooming each other as I type! She is definitely the “aggressor.” Every few licks Charlie gets a bite to the face or a smack on the nose. He doesn’t seem to mind though.. just takes his “spanking” then goes right back to grooming Momma. The rest of the kids groom each other often, though I’ve never seen them be aggressive like Cali is. I haven’t noticed any “official” pairings either, they just seem to groom whoever is closest when the mood strikes. Sometimes they’ll have a grooming party, with three or more kitties involved! Charlie is the only one that grooms me. He and I are probably the closest though out of all my babies. Don’t get me wrong, I love each and every one of them… but Chuck and I just have a special bond for some reason. Maybe because he’s slept ON my head every single night since he was a kitten?

  30. My three all groom each other but the two females seem to groom each other more intensely than they do with my little boy! The two youngest groom us but they both had rough beginnings to life, our gorgeous boy was with us from about 4 weeks and the other was severely neglected until we got her at 5 months so we think it’s a safety thing, we were the first safe place they had. Our eldest, just turned one, had a fab start with a fantastic mum cat and a very safe environment and she is much more independent that the other two, and has taken them under her wing and taught them all the skills they were missing even though she was only a baby herself.
    She taught our boy to wash, cover his litter and play, it was an amazing thing to watch her take over as his mum.

  31. I have 5 cats. Typically 4 of the 5 only groom the oldest male, 13 yrs old, named Sparky. I am thinking it is a hierarchy behavior because he is definitely the Alpha of the group. The youngest who is 1- 1/2 likes to aggravate and pick on 3 of them but never the oldest, guess he understands that’s the boss and not to be messed with. Quite interesting situation to see.

  32. I have a male and female and the male will always groom the female on the head, ears, neck..but then sometimes attacks her ..but I can say that I don’t ever remember seeing her groom him

    • Oh my!!
      You just described my two exactly. Sometimes their “play” can get a little rough but never injury or bloodshed so I just keep close eye out.

  33. I have two girls, a year apart. The oldest, Athena, generally initiates grooming sessions with her “little sister” Dove, but they lie in a yin/yang formation, and Athena will pin Dove down and groom her very vigorously. Then after she’s satisfied that her little sister is perfectly spotless, she lets Dove gently groom her face and neck. It is the sweetest thing ever. The only time they ever fight is when Dove tries to take Athena’s sleeping spot on my chest. Then ‘Thena will get extremely upset and hiss and spit at Dovie. Their grooming has always been of great amusement to me, and they are so sweet when they start going at it. But they only ever do it at night on my bed while I am reading a book.

  34. My 16 year old male will occasionally clean the back and top of my 15 year old female. And she will sometimes groom my 11 year old female. But none of them will groom my 7 year old female. And as much as she grooms herself, she doesn’t clean her behind!

  35. What information is available concerning mutual grooming among cats and dogs. My cat and dog groom each other regularly with the cat displaying more dominant behavior. The dog is not selective when grooming the cat, but the cat generally grooms the dog’s face, preferring the eyes and ears. Is this normal behavior? (Cat is female, black shorthair and fiv+ adopted at 2 weeks old introduced to dog immediately; dog is a female pit bull terrier introduced to cat at six months old.)

    • The information provided in this post is all I’ve been able to find, Roswalien. As the article mentions, mutual grooming does seem to focus on the head and neck.

  36. My two ginger boys are brothers from the same litter. They love to groom each other and occasionally it turns into the tootsie roll pop commercial. How many licks does it take to get to the center? One, two, three….. BITE! LOL!

    My crazy, tiny calico girl likes to groom my hair. With her I often wonder if it a loving thing or she is just tasting me to see if I am ready to eat yet. πŸ™‚

    • Hmmm…you might be on to something with the taste testing! There is that urban legend, after all πŸ™‚
      I can visualize the Tootsie Pop scenario. hahaha.

  37. My beloved Fred (rip) and Monkey would groom each other. Although older than Fred by about a month, Monkey is a petite Siamese, and Fred was a big cat (not Maine Coon big but definitely not a pushover!). Monkey would start licking Fred’s head, and he would lie on the floor with a look that said, “Yes, you may continue.” After a minute or two of contented washing, he would suddenly rear back as if to say, “Just what do you think THAT was all about!” hahaha And within a fraction of a second they would be rolling around the floor like a Tasmanian fur ball! I still have Monkey (and have now added Callie, George and Loupy), but I don’t notice anyone grooming each other anymore. I’m sure hoping for future “fursticuffs” (as long as they’re just playing, of coruse). πŸ™‚

  38. I have all male cats and they are not big groomers of each other. And a lot of times the other will slap or nip after a couple of licks. Never noticed if they lick after the other groomed them. I used to have 2 males that went to the bridge that loved to groom each other. Those two we very close.

  39. I have brother and sister Ragdolls. The male grooms the female and then he attacks her. She never grooms him. Both of them love their rubdowns from us though and by rubdowns, I mean their whole body, even the stomach!

    • Mine do so also… the male grooms the female and not always, but often attacks her afterwards… I think he does so to get her out of my bed πŸ™‚

  40. Our two littermate cats have never groomed each other; they barely hang out together at all. However, every once in awhile, I’ll see Angel try to lick Chucky’s noggin, then a smallish fight begins.
    And about Sue’s cat bringing home a kitten, I watched a feral male take over baby-sitting duties for two kittens several times. Mama went off to another part of the yard, while Hobo played with the babies. He pretended to be surprised when they jumped him from behind the plants, and he monitored their every movement in the garden. I have photographic evidence too! Neither of the kittens looked like their babysitter, so I think he was just being a pal. He originally escorted Mama to our food bowls, like a gentleman taking his date to the theatre, when she was already heavily pregnant…we had never seen her before. All were TNR’d a month later, and Mama is still with me after five years. Hobo, the baby-sitter, moved down the block to live in someone else’s yard, and the kittens were taken in by a neighbor.

    • Aw, I love these stories! I love the “gentleman taking his date to the theatre” image. I can hear him now…”Nothing but the best neighborhood dining for you, Babe!” πŸ™‚

    • That’s very interesting about the Feral male, maybe in a colony they take on babysitting duties like Meerkats:) at least they were all familiar with one another.
      This little kitty was a totally random cat he picked up on his nightly stroll. We think Uncle Toby may have looked like the mother cat (although not smell like her )who had
      possibly been killed, it was just so strange because Spitty would not leave his side, she curled up with him, ate with him. I named her Spitz because she was so fierce, first time I tried to pick her up she bit straight through the nail bed on my finger, it was very painful, she also drools when she sleeps πŸ™‚

  41. Gordon and Jasmine groom each other at least once or twice a day. Either one can initiate it. What’s so hilarious is that they go at it so “industrially” that it appears that their tongues get tangled up. Sometimes, when they are finished, they fall asleep next to each other. At other times the grooming leads to chasing and play fighting. Jasmine will screech and holler when Gordon pins her down, but I notice she’s always ready for another skirmish later on.

  42. Oh yea. Rikki loves to be groomed by Lucy. But then Lucy starts that play fighting stuff and the warm and fuzzies go away.

  43. I have a male 10 year old cat that decided our house was nicer than his and moved in a few years ago. One morning after being out all night I went to let him in and he had brought home a small calico kitten who was about 10 weeks old, she would not leave his side and she was totally feral, he groomed her and looked after her just like a Mummy cat. Today she is 16 months old and still goes to her Uncle Toby for a wash, it’s very sweet. She is domesticated now but it took me three months before I could touch her and hold her for thirty seconds, she now sleeps on my bed πŸ™‚
    I have five cats
    and these are the only “bonded pair” even the vets are astounded that Toby did this.

    • That is SO much nicer than being brought a lizard! Great story. It started my morning with a smile. Thanks!

      • We found Spitty kitties brother living in the drain and he also joined the family six months later, but he only grooms me:) …
        ..he thinks I’m his mummy cat now, but he was also very feral, he runs from everyone except me. He does touch noses with the other cats, his name is Slinky Malinki. Glad you liked my story about good old Uncle Toby, he sometimes grooms Slinky but not as nicely as his Spitty Kitty πŸ™‚

  44. I have a “coonish cat” who is grooming himself constantly!! He has the softest fur ever; his name is “Toaster”. He has quite the personality!

  45. When Binga grooms Boodie, it’s often the prelude to a full-on Boodie beating! Oddly, Boodie does not mind all that much (at least when it is over), and the two of them can often be found napping together a little while later. Me? I only let Binga get a few licks in and then I’m don’t like her doing it anymore.

    • My cat grooms me, specially when i try to sleep. She particularly likes my hair, but directs her grooming to my face, armpits or hands. Even though I have a smaller cat, but she seems not very fond of him.

      Why does she do this? It’s just a way of showing affection or she’s trying to calm me?

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