an article by animal behaviourist Dr Joanne Righetti
Let’s talk about grooming?
Did you groom yourself today? Did you brush your hair or wash it? Perhaps you combed your eyebrows! Had a shower?
This is the way we humans groom and many animals also groom themselves. The function of grooming is thought primarily to be cleaning of the outer surface of the body including the skin, hair, feathers or scales. Grooming may, however, be equally important as a parasite removal tool, a display behaviour and a social behaviour.
Caring of the body surface is important because it functions as a temperature regulator, a sense organ, a protective device and a moisture barrier.
Animals differ in their methods of grooming. Mammals tend to lick themselves, use our teeth to nibble and/or use their forepaws or, in the case of primates, their dextrous hands, to rub and manipulate their hair. Our companion animals may spend a large amount of time in self grooming. Cats are known for their fastidious attention to self-grooming. Birds use their bills to realign feathers, a behaviour known as preening. Did you know that insects also groom? They rub their antennae to keep them clean. An increased parasite load may interfere with the body’s ability to function healthily so grooming can remove fleas and other nasty bloodsuckers. Licking the body surface may help keep animals cool.
Social or mutual grooming is found amongst many species of animals and is also known as allogrooming. Commonly it is observed between mother and young and is necessary for the cleaning of juvenile animals who may not yet be able to toilet or self-groom. Cats that are familiar with one another or related are more likely to groom one another. Horses also groom one another.
More about mutual grooming.
Some scientists believe that grooming may have been the precursor – that’s what came before – language. Difficult to groom one another when you live in big groups. Better to develop another form of communication that strokes and prods - talking! In both grooming and speech, endorphins are released, which make us feel relaxed.
There are downsides to grooming behaviour though. Some animals groom excessively due to anxiety or boredom. It can also be difficult for some owners to groom their pets –they hate it! There is now a complete industry in animal grooming with specialised groomers and grooming services where our companion animals can be dropped off or visited by mobile services.
Grooming, however, is not all about keeping clean. Yes, even grooming involves sex! Animals groom themselves as a social signal to the opposite sex.. Small male rodents groom, not only to keep their fur clean but also to attract females. The longer a male grooms himself the more interest a female shows, thought to be due to the odours that the males emitted.
In some birds a ritualized show of grooming is often part of a male's courtship display, a bright and healthy coat signifying an individual worth mating. In chimpanzees too, male chimps groom one another more when females are present.
We humans are no exception. A flick of the hair, signifies I’m interested in you. Look at me! Another examples of how we are no different to wild animals!