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For other uses of 'groom' and 'grooming', see groom.

Mutual grooming in ponies

A Japanese Macaque grooming a fellow macaque

In social animals and humans social grooming is a major social activity, and a means by which animals who live in proximity can bond and reinforce social structures, family links, and build relationships. Social grooming is also used as a form of reconciliation and a means of conflict resolution in some species.

It is a reuse of ordinary grooming behavior, a means of achieving hygiene and good health, in that an animal that helps another animal to clean itself, is also helping to form a social bond and trust between them.

Non-human animals[]

All animals regularly clean themselves to keep their fur, feathers, scales, or other skin coverings in good condition. This activity is known as personal grooming, preening, or auto-grooming and is a form of hygiene. Foreign objects such as insects, ectoparasites, dead skin, and leaves, dirt and twigs, are some of the items typically removed.

Many social animals groom each other, an activity known as social grooming, mutual grooming, or allo-grooming. Items removed during social grooming are identical to those removed by personal grooming. Social grooming also takes the form of stroking, scratching, and massaging.

Primates provide perhaps the best example of this activity. Primatologists have called grooming the social cement of the primate world. The trust and bonding it builds is critical to group cooperation. Among primates, social grooming pays an important role in establishing and maintaining alliances and dominance hierarchies, for building coalitions, for reconciliation after conflicts, and is a resource that is exchanged for other resources like food and sex (Aureli, van Schaik, & van Hooff, 1989; Lawick-Goodall, 1968; de Waal, 1989; Smuts et al., 1987). Primates groom socially in moments of boredom as well, and the act has been shown to reduce tension and stress (Schino, Scucchi, Maestripieri, & Turillazzi, 1988). Grooming stimulates the release of beta-endorphin which is one physiological reason for why grooming appears to be relaxing (Keverne, Martensz, & Tuite, 1989). Primates have been known to fall asleep while receiving grooming.

Other animals groom socially as well. These include insects (Moore, Angel, Cheeseman, & Robinson, 1995), fish (Bshary & Schaffer, 2002; Poulin, Bansemer, Grutter, 2002), birds (Wachtmeister, 2000), ungulates (Kimura, 1998; Mooring & Hart, 1997; Mooring & Samuel, 1998), and bats (Wilkinson, 1986). Whereas social grooming among primates has been very well-studied, less is known about social grooming in these other animals. Very little is known about mutual grooming among humans.

Human Mutual Grooming[]

A few empirical studies of human social grooming exist (Nelson, 2006; Nelson, 2007). They rely on self-report survey and experimental methodology of adults living primarily in the U.S. and other Western cultures. People report grooming romantic partners more than grooming people they have other types of relationships with like family members, friends, and strangers. Grooming is associated with increased relationship satisfaction, trust, and experience of family affection while growing up. People who groom, as opposed to touch each other without grooming, are perceived to be better potential parents, more in love with the person they have groomed and more caring and committed to them. Women, but not men, tend to think people who have groomed one another are romantically involved. People also think that if people who have groomed one other are romantically involved, they are in a long-term relationship rather than one that has just begun. Human mutual grooming plays a role in pairbonding.


Aureli, F., van Schaik, C., & van Hooff, J. (1989). Functional aspects of reconciliation among captive long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis). American Journal of Primatology, 19, 39-51.

Bshary, R., & Schaeffer, D. (2002). Choosy reef fish select cleaner fish that provide high-quality service. Animal Behaviour, 63(3), 557-564.

Keverne, E., Martensz, N., & Tuite, B. (1989). Beta-endorphin concentrations in cerebrospinal fluid on monkeys are influenced by grooming relationships. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 14, 155-161.

Kimura, R. (1998). Mutual grooming and preferred associate relationships in a band of free-ranging horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 59(4), 265-276.

Lawick-Goodall, J. van. (1968). The behavior of free living chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream Reserve. Animal Behavior Monographs, 1, 161-311.

Moore, D., Angel, J. E., Cheeseman, I. M. & Robinson, G. E. (1995). A highly specialized social grooming honey bee. Journal of Insect Behavior, 8(6), 855-861.

Mooring, M. S. & Hart, B. L. (1997). Reciprocal allogrooming in wild impala lambs. Ethology, 103(8), 665-680.

Mooring, M. S. & Samuel, W. M. (1998). The biological basis of grooming in moose: Programmed versus stimulus-driven grooming. Animal Behaviour, 56(6), 1561-1570.

Nelson, H. (2006). Human mutual grooming: An ethological perspective on its form and function. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, June 7-11.

Nelson, H. (2007. Encoding and decoding mutual grooming: Communication with a specialized form of touch. Dissertation. University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH.

Poulin, R., Bansemer, C., Grutter, A. S. (2002). Geographic variation in the behaviour of the cleaner fish Labroides dimidiatus (Labridae). Ethology, 108(4), 353-366.

Schino, G., Scucchi, S., Maestripieri, D., & Turillazzi, P. G. (1988). Allogrooming as a tension-reduction mechanism: A behavioral approach. American Journal of Primatology, 16, 43-50.

Smuts, B., Cheney, D., Seyfarth, R., Wrangham, R., & Struhsaker, T. (1987). Primate Societies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

de Waal, F. (1989). Peacemaking among primates. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilkinson, G.S. (1986). Social grooming in the common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus. Animal Behaviour, 34(6), 1880-1889.

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