I have a healthy kitten ~9 weeks old, long-haired, seems to have good cleaning habits (I found her at 8 weeks).

She likes to jump up on my lap and clean herself, which is fine. Sometimes when she's cleaning herself she'll clean my hand or arm too (if my hand or arm are near where she's cleaning herself sometimes she'll just switch over to me for a while), which is also not causing any harm. Sometimes I'll pet her while she's cleaning herself if she's on my lap; because I want to reinforce good cleaning behavior (I don't want her to end up being Stinky McCrustybutt some day).

I have a few questions related to the risk of interfering with her normal cleaning habits:

  1. How does a cat know when to stop cleaning herself? Do they stop when they are clean? Or when they have covered a certain amount of their body? Or do they just clean as much as they can in a certain amount of time?

  2. When does a cat's cleaning behavior fully "set in"? That is, at 8-10 weeks, for example, can her cleaning behavior still change or is it pretty much done (and therefore nothing I do can make it better or worse)?

  3. I read somewhere that sometimes cats interpret humans petting them as humans cleaning them. Is it bad to pet my cat while she is cleaning herself -- will she think I am cleaning her and so not clean herself completely because she assumes I'm doing some of the work? If she interprets it as praise is this also bad because she might end up never cleaning herself unless I am also petting her?

  4. Is it bad to let her lick me while she is cleaning herself? Will this somehow use up her... "cleaning points" so that she spends time cleaning my hand when she should be cleaning herself instead? If I shouldn't let her do this, how can I stop her without discouraging her from being affectionate to humans in general?

  5. Actually, 4b. She only really cleans the parts of me that happen to be near her, and only when she's cleaning herself. Does she actually know she's licking my hand (and not licking herself) or is she just sort of in robot-self-cleaning mode licking everything in range?

  • 2
    You should consider separating these into individual questions.
    – Spidercat
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 20:35
  • @MattS. I had thought of that; but they're all strongly related (in particular, 1 and 2 are the "root" questions behind the rest) and I would have had to repeat the background info on all of them (and an answer to 3/4/5 probably would have indirectly answered 1/2 anyways). They all specifically concern my interference with her cleaning. Plus I got a great answer to all of them below. Hope it wasn't too much! Next time I will split them up more.
    – Jason C
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 0:40

3 Answers 3


1) Most cats stop cleaning themselves at a reasonable time. An overanxious cat might overgroom to the point of stripping their hair and harming their skin. An elderly cat might not be able to clean themselves enough due to flexibility issues.

2) Adults are often better cleaners than kittens are, but I don't think you need to worry about upsetting the process by interrupting it yourself or anything trivial like that.

3) I have never thought that a cat sees petting as cleaning, but of the other kinds of closeness a cat allows - rubbing another cat, that sort of thing. Pet all you like or the cat will let you, it won't hurt grooming.

4) It might be scratchy, but that's the only issue. Grooming another cat is just a way to show closeness and love, it won't eat into the self grooming time. Enjoy it. If you don't like it, move the hand away, or pet her with it.

5) Cats know what they are doing, she knows she's licking you and not herself.

  • 5
    I just wanted to add that a sick or elderly cat may not be as good at cleaning themselves as the animal would be normally. Also, the only downside to the cat licking you is that it's often proceeded or followed by a nip. Cats will bite their fur while grooming, and so they'll display the same habits while grooming you, unfortunately. If you find you're getting nipped while the cat is grooming you, it might be best to discourage it, but otherwise it doesn't really matter.
    – Kai
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 18:36
  • 4
    Sure. The OP seemed to worry that any interference with the process could have bad consequences long term. This isn't so, if you don't enjoy the way she does things, redirect to something you like better and you can both enjoy the closeness. I had a cat that loved 'making biscuits" on me and would do it forever. I would move her aside, or put a thicker cloth so the claws wouldn't poke me.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 18:43
  • 1
    One of our cats just had the cone of shame, and observing her cleaning behavior with this, it seems they are well aware of the cleaning being successful or not. She kept trying to clean her face, but the cone interfered with her licking her paw and rubbing it on her face, which she clearly noticed. She then resorted to licking the inside of the cone, and rubbing her face against that. With some training, we eventually established a routine where I offered my finger inside the cone for her to lick, and let me do the face-rubbing. This appeared to satisfy her a lot faster than cone-licking.
    – bgse
    Commented Nov 27, 2020 at 11:50
  • 1
    Regarding them discerning between grooming and petting, this is most definitely the case. Petting our cats when they are on their side, they typically will move to present their favorite petting areas, so as to steer away from the full body petting to their favorite area only. When we brush them to help in times of excessive shedding, they clearly recognize this as grooming, and will reposition every so often so the full body area can be brushed. So it appears they recognize this as grooming and have a basic understanding of how they can assist the process, and that it is effective for them.
    – bgse
    Commented Nov 27, 2020 at 13:16

She may think you are cleaning her and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Grooming is social bonding, you guys are identifying each other as a family unit.

When problems result, it is usually because given anxiety (as a kitten or - continued stressful environment in adulthood), a cat may groom too often, and then there is a feedback loop: the comfort they get from cleaning their human becomes habit that reinforces itself.

This behavior is still only a problem when humans start to want it to stop. In my case, it's becuase it drives my partner mad that when he's trying to sleep, he can hear my cat abrading, and I mean abrading, my arm. Other people can't take the rough tongue. If you're cool with it, it's not a problem. Plus it probably won't become a reflexive obsessive habit, given a safe happy environment. And in the meanime, you guys are bonding.


Petting as cleaning: that's a big mixed bag. On one level they see it as friendly social grooming, but I'm pretty sure they don't count it in place of their own cleaning activities. If anything it can help to stimulate them to clean themselves more (a good thing in older cats who might not clean themselves enough) for a few reasons: it is pleasurable (like self grooming), it makes them feel better about themselves, it stimulates thinking about cleaning (because it is viewed as a grooming type activity), and finally if you put "too much" of your odor on them (via the skin oils) they feel they have to wash themselves to smell like themselves (that is it is ok to have some group scent from you but too much is a bit weird to them).

The activities and behaviors you describe are perfectly normal and I do not think you are in any way causing this cats behaviors to develop in the wrong direction. You are just establishing a loving bond between you and your cat.

When she cleans you she is "returning the favor". It is a love gesture back to you for your grooming of her. Also she is putting her odor on you (as she would by rubbing up against you). The group odor (where one individual has odor components from others in the group) is one way of establishing a friendly clan.

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