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Dishing the Dirt on Grooming Cats

Dishing the Dirt on Grooming Cats
by Dr Caity Venniker

Read time: 5 min

Cats are generally fastidious groomers, and typically spend thirty to fifty percent of their waking day grooming themselves(1). That’s a huge amount of everyday self-care. I’d hazard a guess that for most of us (relatively filthy) humans, the equivalent would only be deemed necessary for red carpet events; a wedding (your own?); or Instagram models doing make up tutorials. If cleanliness is next to godliness then perhaps the Ancient Egyptians were right, and our little furry friends feature much higher on the celestial scale than we do!

Even so, without dry shampoo, beauty salons or opposable thumbs; sometimes our cats still require a little help. This varies greatly between individual cats and depends on a few different factors. Long-haired cats are more prone to problems with matting fur; and households with only one cat, or where cats do not groom each other, may also require you to step in. Older cats also tend to groom themselves less effectively as arthritis may limit their flexibility (young cats grooming themselves can look as if they are doing their final stretch before commencing an Olympic gymnastics routine!). Similarly, overweight cats may not be able to reach certain areas. Being aware of your cat’s cleaning habits is helpful because if you notice a change in your cat’s grooming, or that the coat is starting to look dull or greasy, it can be an early sign of illness and may warrant a check-up at the vet.

What are the Benefits of Grooming your Cat?

  • Regularly grooming your cat is one way to help prevent the formation of hairballs by removing excess fur. When your cat grooms herself excess hair can form a ball in the stomach (which is often regurgitated as a less than charming gift!). Rarely, hairballs form an obstruction which disrupts normal digestion and can be dangerous. Grooming to prevent hairballs is particularly important in the shedding season. Shedding occurs mainly in spring as the days get longer; and to a lesser degree at the end of autumn; but, unfortunately is not limited to these times. Indoor cats show less of a seasonal bias, but they do tend to shed more hair at these times. Stress, allergies and malnutrition can also cause excessive shedding.

  • Grooming helps to prevent matting, a common problem in long haired cats, especially as they get older. Severe mats and tangles in the fur are difficult to get rid of, and sometimes require veterinary assistance. You can cut through matted fur with blunt edged scissors to help remove them, but they often lie close to the skin and it can be difficult to clearly visualize exactly where it is safe to cut. In these situations, veterinary attention and professional clippers are a safer option. Matting tends to happen the most frequently behind the ears; under the front legs, and on the back of the hind legs.

  • Grooming helps to remove dirt, improves skin health and promotes the spread of natural oils.

  • Grooming is a good opportunity to regularly check your cat for lumps, bumps, skin irritations or fleas. It can also be a great bonding experience!

How Much Should I Groom My Cat?

This varies greatly between cats, with many cats managing perfectly well without any intervention at all. For those who need a little help, a good rule of thumb is that short-haired cats can benefit from a weekly brush; with long and medium haired cats being brushed ideally every day or two.

Bathing is usually not necessary for healthy cats unless advised by a vet for treatment of a skin problem; or to remove potentially toxic substances from the fur. This is fortunate as most cats do not enjoy being bathed and can become quite agitated.

If you do need to bath your cat, it is helpful to put a rubber mat at the bottom of the sink or tub to help your cat keep their footing and feel less out of control. The water level should also not be deep, but rather poured over your cat gently with a cup, avoiding the eyes, ears and nose. Use only shampoos that are registered for use in cats, as other shampoos may be of the wrong pH or contain ingredients that are not safe for cats. Cats will want to groom themselves after a bath so thorough rinsing is necessary to avoid them ingesting the shampoo.

How Do I Teach My Cat to Tolerate Grooming?

Grooming your cat can be an enjoyable bonding experience for both of you, especially if is introduced gently and gradually. It should only be attempted in situations where your cat is relaxed, and sessions should be kept short at first - only a few minutes to begin with. Start by stroking your cat and then introducing a few brush strokes, building up this number over time. Treats are useful initially to reward your cat for tolerating brushing and help to associate grooming with a positive experience.

Avoid forcing your cat to tolerate grooming, and try to not use any form of restraint, or your cat may become fearful and develop an aversion to being groomed. Watch for cues that it is time to end the session. These include swishing the tail (the ever tell-tail sign!!); flattening the ears; tensing the body; or intense bursts of self-grooming (“You’re doing it wrong, Mom!”).

How Do I Groom My Cat?

The brushes required for grooming depend on the type of coat your cat has. With short haired cats, a fine-tooth flea comb and soft brush or mitten brush will usually suffice. Longer haired cats may need a wider tooth comb and a longer brush; and can also benefit from a de-shedding brush for the thicker layer of undercoat. Brushing is mainly done in the direction of hair growth but swapping to the opposite direction occasionally for one or two strokes allows you to check for fleas and flea dirt. To brush a thick tail, it is easiest to make a parting down the length of the tail and brush the hair out sideways.

Grooming your cat can be a great way to bond, while also allowing you to check for any potential problems; avoid hairballs and add lustre to your cat’s daily, red carpet outfit. It’s apparent from their vigilant self-grooming that cleanliness matters to cats. Cats don’t beg you to throw balls for them or go for a jog, so giving them a hand with one of their most prioritised tasks may be a wonderful way to spend time together.

Look out for the next newsletter, where we will take a step by step look at how to cut your cat’s nails!

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  1. Cornell Feline Health Center. (2016). Cats that lick too much. Cornell University. Retrieved from:

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