Last week the drains in my flat were badly blocked. On Friday night I came home to the plumber triumphantly climbing out from underneath the bathtub, looking distinctly harrowed and proclaiming that he’d spent two hours sandwiched between my bath and the toilet, fixing the problem. I adore my plumber. Having a shower in my own flat, without the water lapping at my ankles, was a truly glorious feeling.

It got me thinking about personal grooming and fastidiousness, particularly in our domestic pets:


Head-directed self grooming, thank you Tumblr!

Eckstein and Hart, in 2000, decided to investigate exactly how cats clean themselves. It’s probably more remarkable that for such an adorable behaviour, they were one of the first to sit down and categorise it. When they weren’t sleeping, cats spent 8% of their day grooming. Which means they spent approximately an hour each day grooming. My long showers, in comparison, take less than half the time, and there’s a lot more of me to wash. And they spend a lot of time grooming their head and face.

This head-focussed grooming can lead to momentary lapses of concentration like this:

This happens.

For much of my life I had a beautiful little Tuxedo cat named Posie. Posie was a delicate flower in the wasteland and would groom herself obsessively, with all her paws neatly tucked beneath her body, one white pawed leg raised to anoint the back of her ears. She rarely got distracted mid session and would sometimes seem preoccupied with grooming the little black smudge on an otherwise white paw. In fact she liked grooming so much that it became a problem when she developed arthritis. Her redirected grooming to her stomach resulted in a bald patch which always grew worse in winter.

Posie couldn't abide wet paws
Posie couldn’t abide wet paws

By contrast, mum’s new cat, a little black and white girl, has only the vaguest notion that she should groom herself. She sits with legs splayed, hind leg pointing in the air, a slightly confused expression on her face as she gets distracted by somebody walking across the room. She even explored a cow pat once, though she came home quickly after and was appreciative of being bathed:

Post cowpat exploration, quite content with her cuddles
Post cowpat exploration, quite content with her cuddles

Over half of cats which live together will frequently groom one another (Voith and Borchelt, 1986). Mutual grooming, or allogrooming, as I prefer to call it, is a behaviour which builds social bonds. Why is this? Well imagine yourself a cat, being groomed by another cat. You may be held down by the groomer, you’re in close contact with the groomer’s teeth and claws, all the pointy bits that could hurt you. And yet the groomer is expending energy on your behalf. You would groom yourself if you weren’t being groomed. It’s a nice thing to do for someone.

Purr, purr, purr

Grooming is also a behaviour which reassures cats. Cats which spend time in stressful situations, such as a high density cat shelter, will spent more time grooming themselves than usual (Ng Yi Hui, 2011). This can lead to bald patches, like what happened to Posie, even in otherwise happy cats. Excessive grooming in any animal is a concerning sign.

Last week I was staring at a datasheet, trying to understand why a farm had gone missing between two questions in a survey. I was reclining back in my office chair and I had pulled my ponytail high up above my head. A colleague walked past and tugged on it, asking if I was stressed. We know intuitively that when we play with our own hair, we’re probably stressed by something. I have my own distinctive stereotypy when I’m feeling under pressure. I continually run my hand through my hair until I’ve pulled out all the knots, and then I pull it all around one side and brush the ends against my hand. And yet in the playground, I’m sure we’ve all seen lines of little girls braiding one another’s hair. Do boys have their own version of this allogrooming?  But I’m getting off topic . . .

So that’s cats – let’s turn to their natural enemy: the dog. Any pet owner knows that dogs are not quite so fastidious as their feline friends. Instead they would much rather anoint themselves with fox poo (or badger poo – always preferable in my dogs’ experience, for the extra muskiness component), and they never understand why we don’t want to rub our shoulder blades all over such a wonderful smell.

Dogs often show us a particular kind of allogrooming, affiliative licking, particularly directed to the mouth which for dogs is a sign of “I love you and respect you” and for us is more a token of disgust. There’s some evidence to suggest that stroking dogs produces a physiological change in us (Charnetski et al 2004) , but interestingly, dogs’ heart rates also drop while they’re being stroked (McGreevy et al 2012), possibly showing a reduction in stress. Mutual grooming works both ways it seems.

Grooming serves a multitude of functions. For cats, it keeps them from smelling too much, from giving themselves away to their prey. Dogs take the opposite tact, hiding their smell behind something stronger and marking their own smell on their territory. And for group living animals, grooming one another is a sign of relaxation, peace and comfort with one another. I’m not sure if this is what cats are thinking when they’re so determined to come in the shower with you, but as someone who has her shower back, all I can say is that a little self-grooming is blissful.

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