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Here's why cats constantly groom themselves

By: Christina Barron, The Washington Post
April 7, 2018 Updated: April 7, 2018 at 7:47 am
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An African lion licks its cub at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Cats spend lots of time licking their fur with their scratchy tongues, but getting clean isn't the only purpose. MUST CREDIT: Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian Institution

If you've been around cats, you've seen them lick their fur. A lot. But there's more to cats' grooming than cleaning their coats.

Leigh Pitsko has experience not only with house cats, but also with rather large cats. As assistant curator of great cats at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Pitsko cares for six African lions, an Amur tiger and a Sumatran tiger. Their grooming behavior is the same as what you see with pet cats, she says.

When cats lick their fur, they're using a tool better designed than your typical washcloth.

"Their tongue is actually like sandpaper," Pitsko said. "They have tiny hooks called papillae. When they glide across the fur, it acts like a comb."

So they de-tangle and remove mats in their fur as they bathe. The process also helps them stay comfortable, Pitsko said.

"They spread a natural oil that's in their skin. It kind of acts as an insulator and can keep them warm in the winter."

In hot weather, spreading the saliva all over their coats helps them stay cool. As the saliva evaporates, it releases heat from the body. (Cats also sweat, but only through their paws.)

Grooming is social, too.

"Cats will groom each other to show signs of affection," Pitsko said. "Our big cats ... they're always grooming each other."

So when he licks you, your cat is telling you he likes you, "unless you have something tasty on your hands," she said.

Usually, grooming is a good thing, but too much of it can be a sign of stress. Pitsko said zookeepers watch for bare spots on a lion's or tiger's coat, sometimes at the end of their tail. "That's a sign that something's wrong," she said.

For a house cat, a similar bald patch probably would mean it's time for a trip to the vet.

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