Cats are extremely fastidious by nature -- some healthy cats spend up to half of their waking hours grooming themselves. However, cats pick up preening behaviors in their earliest moments, when their mother licks them. Grooming is natural and healthy, but too little and too much preening can cause for concern.
Cats primarily preen to remove dirt, loose hair and other debris from their bodies. Cat tongues are rough because they are covered with little hooklike things that grab dirt and brush hair. Even young cats are able to reach most spots on their bodies with their tongues when they need a bath. Besides improving appearance, preening helps cats avoid detection by predators by removing odor-causing substances from their fur. Preening also functions as part of a cat's cooling process; saliva evaporation works like sweating and helps cats maintain healthy body temperature.
Grooming is a sign of affection in the cat world. Familiar cats groom each other for the same reasons humans hug or kiss. It is a sign of interest, pleasure and mutual trust. Some cats may preen each other during times of stress to induce relaxation, and preening may actually promote bonding and closeness between cats in the same household. Cats lick humans to show love and trust for their caretakers.
Preening is a soothing behavior for many cats, and some cats may groom themselves when bored, lonely, stressed or otherwise upset. If this happens only occasionally, it is normal behavior and requires no intervention. Sometimes, however, cats preen as a means of displacement. For example, when a cat becomes anxious but cannot respond with aggression or by running and hiding, he may engage in grooming to reduce his anxiety level. While this type of behavior may be an effective solution for short-term stress, it is not healthy long-term.
Chronic anxiety and displacement often leads to compulsive preening, a condition characterized by skin chewing and licking to the point of injury. With time, even low levels of stimulation may trigger such compulsive behavior. Certain cat breeds are genetically predisposed to developing compulsive preening, according to Tufts University School of Medicine, but any cat exposed to ongoing stress or emotional discord is at risk. Skin allergies, chronic dry skin, and some other health conditions can also cause compulsive skin licking and chewing. Without treatment, compulsive grooming can lead to hair loss, skin sores, secondary infections, hairballs, intestinal obstruction and other complications.
Sandra Ketcham has nearly two decades of experience writing and editing for major websites and magazines. Her work appears in numerous web and print publications, including "The Atlanta Journal-Constitution," "The Tampa Bay Times," Visit Florida, "USA Today," AOL's Gadling and "Kraze Magazine."