How to Care for a Healthy Cat: GROOMING

The Classic Comprehensive Handbook of Cat Care


Whether you will need to follow a particular grooming schedule with your cat will depend greatly upon the length and density of his or her coat, whether he or she spends the majority of time indoors or outdoors, and whether he or she self-grooms well. In general, cats who spend time outdoors will need baths and brushing more frequently in order to make them pleasant companions than cats spending all their time indoors.

Indoor cats may need their nails trimmed frequently. Read this section and decide for yourself which grooming schedule you need to apply to your cat.


Although cats groom themselves, not all do it sufficiently often or sufficiently well to remain free of fleas, to keep themselves clean enough to be pleasant companions, and to have a healthy and good-looking hair coat and skin. Tomcats who spend a great deal of time outside seem to be the worst offenders, but any cat may need a bath on occasion when he or she becomes dirty, for flea control, or for other health reasons. Accustom your cat to bathing early in life so it won’t be difficult to do later when the necessity arises.


It is best to give a young cat a bath about once a month, starting around three months of age, just so he or she becomes adjusted to the bathing procedure. You can, however, bathe a kitten as young as seven or eight weeks of age if you do it quickly and prevent chilling. Bathing itself does not cause illness, but the stress of being chilled can predispose any cat, particularly a young one, to disease. Once your cat has become familiar with bathing and is cooperative, use the appearance, feel, and odor of the skin and fur as guides to bathing frequency.


Once a month is usually sufficient for an average cat with healthy skin.

However, once a week may be necessary to achieve good flea control. Bathing once a week also significantly decreases the allergens in cat’s fur that are usually responsible for human allergies to cats.


Unless your cat has a specific skin problem requiring medicated shampoos recommended by a veterinarian, use a good quality cat shampoo or a gentle human shampoo (e.g., baby shampoo) for bathing.

Cats generally have a skin pH of 7, so shampoos with a neutral pH are best. Avoid bar soap and dishwashing detergents since they seem to be particularly drying and very irritating to some cat’s skin and hair. A cream rinse (products for humans or for pets) can be used following shampooing to make the comb-out of longhaired cats easier.


Before the bath it is a good idea—but not absolutely necessary—to protect your cat’s ear canals and eyes from the soap and water. This can be done by placing large wads of cotton firmly inside the ears and by applying a nonmedicated ophthalmic ointment to the eyes. (To learn how to apply eye ointment.) Long-haired cats should be combed out before bathing to make grooming afterward easier.

Place your cat in a sink or bathtub and use warm water. If your cat is an adult and a little uncooperative, gain control and avoid scratches to yourself by grasping the cat with one hand around the base of the head just behind the ears or by the scruff of the neck. Then use your free hand for soaping and rinsing. If your cat is extremely insecure, a narrow nylon harness put on the cat and attached to a leash that is tied to a fixture (never a hot water faucet) will keep the cat in the tub. Never leave a cat tied in this manner alone. Better than this, though, is a window screen placed in the tub. Most cats will cling to this with their claws, remaining in the tub, leaving both your hands free for the job at hand. Praise your cat if he or she cooperates, and try to correct with a “No” if not. Another technique that can be useful is to wash the cat with his or her body placed in a nylon net bag that has a drawstring closure that can be drawn up snugly to the cat’s neck.

As a last resort, your veterinarian can provide tranquilizers to use when it is necessary to bathe an extremely unmanageable cat. Start the bath by wetting your cat thoroughly starting at the base of the skull and working toward the tail, then apply the shampoo and suds it up.

Two shampoo applications may be necessary if your cat is very dirty. Follow the sudsing with a thorough rinsing, since any soap left on the skin can be irritating and any stunned parasites left on the skin may wake up later and continue their activities. Once the fur is free of shampoo apply a cream rinse, if necessary, then rinse again thoroughly. This may be followed by a flea dip. Towel drying is usually sufficient, but, if you accustom your cat to the sound, you can use a hair drier to speed the drying process.


The kind of grooming your cat’s coat needs between baths depends on its length and character. Short-haired cats usually need little grooming, but you may want to give them a bi-weekly brushing to distribute the oils of the coat and to remove loose hair, lessening the amount you find around the house and the amount they ingest while self-grooming. A grooming mitt or slicker brush works well for this. Long-haired cats usually need frequent (preferably daily) brushing to prevent matted coats and to lessen the possibility of hairball formation.


Mats of hair often develop behind the ears and under the legs, so don’t forget to brush or comb these areas thoroughly. When you find small mats, they can often be teased apart with a comb. If they become large, cut them away with scissors or clippers.


Tar, paint, and oil can be difficult substances to remove from the coat. Do not use gasoline, turpentine, kerosene, paint remover, or other similar substances in an attempt to remove them. Cut out small accumulations of tar or paint. Large amounts of tar can be removed without cutting by soaking the affected hair in vegetable or mineral oil or ointments containing the surface-active agent polyoxethylene sorbitan (polysorbate) for twenty-four hours (e.g., bandage tar-covered feet soaked in oil), then washing with soap and water.

Small patches of oil on the coat can be removed by sprinkling them with cornstarch, allowing the starch to soak up the oil, then brushing it out. Large amounts can be treated with mineral oil as you would for tar. As a last resort (e.g., if your cat is covered with oil) use a gentle dishwashing detergent as a shampoo.


If your cat gets sprayed by a skunk, use shampoo and water for a bath, then follow with a milk or tomato juice soak. Pour the milk or juice on undiluted; let it sit for about ten minutes, then rinse it out. A remedy that may be more effective is to use a fresh mixture of 1 quart 3% hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup baking soda, and 1 teaspoon shampoo to give the cat a thorough bath followed by a copious tap water rinse. Commercial products for the removal of skunk odor are also available at pet stores.


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In areas such as California where foxtails (wild barley) or other troublesome plant awns grow, longer haired cats with access to the outdoors need to have their coats examined for them daily in the late spring, summer, and fall. Although cats’ grooming habits usually prevent problems with plant awns, those not discovered and removed easily penetrate the skin, causing irritation and infection.


Cats affected with stud tail may benefit cosmetically if you apply cornstarch to the affected area every other day during the brushing process. Washing the affected area two or three times a week with a shampoo that contains benzoyl peroxide is also beneficial. Stubborn cases can often be kept under control by a daily cleansing with rubbing alcohol. Apply it by gently scrubbing the affected skin with an alcohol- soaked cotton ball.


Most cats who groom themselves adequately keep their ears extremely clean and need no help from you. Small accumulations of wax are normal. If your cat doesn’t remove them you can do it easily following a bath by using a damp towel or soft cloth. Wrap the cloth over your index finger, then clean out the excess wax and dirt as far down the ear canal as your finger will reach. Any folds or crevices you cannot reach into with your finger can be cleaned using a cotton-tipped swab dry or moistened as needed with water, rubbing alcohol, or mineral oil. You cannot damage your cat’s eardrums by cleaning in this manner unless you are extremely forceful, since the canals are very narrow and deep and do not allow ready penetration by a cotton-tipped swab.

If your cat has an inflammation or infection of the ear (otitis) special ear cleaning may be necessary.


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As part of their inherited behavioral tendency to groom themselves, cats condition their claws (toenails). They do this by scratching on objects that catch the outer, worn claw covering and remove it, exposing the sharp, new claw beneath. As well as sharpening the claws, the claw marks help cats visually mark their territories, and the scent glands on the feet may also mark the scratched area. This is a completely normal feline behavior.

It can, however, be a problem for owners of cats confined indoors. Cats who are not provided with a scratching post or board will use rugs, furniture, and draperies for their scratching, damaging or ruining these furnishings completely. (Cats also remove their worn outer claw coverings with their teeth, but this is seen less frequently and doesn’t cause problems for owners as does scratching behavior.)


Provide your cat with a scratching post or board while he or she is very young in order to avoid problems later. You can use a commercial scratching post—horizontal or vertical posts usually covered with carpet— or you can make a scratching post yourself. A board about eight inches wide and twelve to eighteen inches long, bare or fabric covered, can be attached to the wall. It should be at a height such that your cat can rest comfortably on the rear feet while scratching and stretching, so it may have to be raised as your cat grows. A good scratching post can be made of a bare or fabriccovered board built freestanding horizontally or vertically.

Many cats seem to prefer a log with the bark still on it or sisal doormats that can be hung vertically or left on the floor. Whichever scratching object you choose, be sure it is stable to prevent it from coming loose or falling over onto the cat during a vigorous scratching session.

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Place the scratching object near your cat’s sleeping or resting area when first beginning training, because cats usually stretch and scratch just after awakening. Then praise and pet your cat whenever he or she uses it.

Whenever your cat scratches at furniture or other undesirable objects, give a correction and take the cat to the scratching post. However, be sure to emphasize positive reinforcement by giving your cat food, play, and affection whenever he or she is scratching at the post. Too much punishment will only result in a cat who will learn never to scratch anything (including the post) in front of you. Encourage play with toys that can be dangled from the post. This will give you an opportunity to give praise for jumping and clawing at the post. With consistency and repetition your cat should soon be using the scratching article and leaving other objects alone.

If you have an adult cat whom you have failed to condition to a scratching post while young, your problem may be more difficult. The basic principles of correction and praise are the same, but it may take much longer for you to achieve the desired results. You may also have to temporarily move favored but inappropriate scratching objects, such as couches, and replace them with a scratching post and/or booby trap the areas and objects which are off-limits. Try to provide a scratching post covered with a material at least as desirable as the things your cat has been scratching on before, or you may not get far at all. Animal behaviorists feel that loosely woven rough fabrics with longitudinally oriented threads are preferred by cats, but you may have to experiment a little before finding just the right one. During the training period you may have to trim your cat’s claws in order to avoid furniture damage.


Trimmers for human nails are satisfactory for trimming cats’ claws, or you may use nail trimmers designed especially for pets, such as the White’s type. Resco trimmers, usually used for dogs’ toenails, also work fine for cats. To trim your cat’s nails, extend the claw as described. If you do this in good light and your cat’s claws are not darkly pigmented, you will be able to see the pink dermis (the quick). Cut the nail just beyond the point where you see the dermis end. If you cut into the dermis, it is painful to the animal, and some bleeding will usually occur. The bleeding stops, but the pain will make your cat reluctant to have a nail trim the next time. Pigmented nails are harder to trim, since the color obscures the quick.

However, with good, intense light you can often see the quick even if the nail is dark colored. If you can’t see the dermis, the easiest rule to follow is to cut the nail just beyond the point where it starts to curve downward. If you accidentally trim the nail into the quick and the bleeding doesn’t stop quickly, you can apply a styptic powder or pencil, Monsel’s solution (ferric subsulfate, available from pharmacists), cornstarch, or a black tea bag that has been moistened then squeezed out, or you can bandage the foot firmly for about an hour.

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If you have accustomed your cat to being handled at a young age, nail trimming should be a one person job. If your cat seems particularly disagreeable, try to accustom him or her to the procedure gradually, trimming a few nails at a time and correcting bad behavior before resorting to a second person for aid. Cats who are overrestrained for nail trimming will become aggressive before having a chance to learn to cooperate. An alternative to nail trimming is the application of commercially available tiny wooden or shell beads or clear plastic nail covers to the cat’s claws with adhesive. These nail protectors need to be replaced every few weeks.


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Declawing (onchyectomy) is a surgical procedure that can be resorted to when nail trimming and attempts to train a cat to use a scratching post have failed. It may also be necessary for cats who are not careful to keep their claws sheathed during play. It should not, however, be a routine procedure for pet cats. It is too painful a procedure to be performed unnecessarily, and cats who have been declawed are at a disadvantage in some situations. They are unable to protect themselves well against dogs or other cats and often cannot climb as well as normal cats to escape danger. Therefore, declawed cats should not be allowed outdoors unsupervised. When you and your veterinarian agree that declawing is necessary, the surgery is performed under general anesthesia in the veterinary hospital. The front claws are removed completely so regrowth is impossible, and the feet are usually bandaged for a day or two. The rear claws can be removed if desired, but this is unnecessary, since they do not usually cause a problem in scratching behavior or accidental injury to the cat’s owner during play and are necessary for a cat to scratch him or herself. Once the bandages are removed, your cat will be able to return home and within two weeks should be free from pain.

An alternative surgery is one in which the tendons that extend the claws are cut. This procedure has not found general favor, as regular nail trimming to avoid growth of the toenails into the paw pads is required afterward.


Almost all cats need special attention given to their teeth to preserve them and to minimize mouth odors. Most cats, like most people, develop deposits called dental tartar or calculus on their teeth. When present it is most obvious on the premolars and molars as a hard yellow-brown or grayish-white deposit that cannot be removed by brushing or scraping with a fingernail. Its presence is not normal. It can cause gum disease (gingivitis, periodontitis), accompanied by discomfort and halitosis (bad breath), and can eventually lead to loss of teeth. Many cats develop mouth disease and lose teeth. Most do not develop true cavities, but many develop extensive cavitylike erosions in the tooth enamel and cementum of the tooth root (cervical line lesions, neck lesions, external odontoclastic resorption lesions). Many cats lose teeth because of these erosions and others because their owners miss the early stages of gum disease.


Once tartar is present it can only be removed properly with special instruments—either tartar scrapers (tooth scalers) or an ultrasonic tooth cleaner. Tartar is best removed by a veterinarian, since anesthesia is usually necessary to do a really thorough cleaning job, followed by polishing to provide a smooth surface that discourages new tartar formation. Tartar originates in a soft white-to yellow-colored substance on teeth called materia alba or plaque, which is material left on the teeth after eating combined with saliva, bacteria, and bacterial by-products. You can remove this plaque and prevent tartar formation in the following ways: 1. Feed your cat a large quantity of dry cat food. Feeding a hard food diet will not absolutely prevent tartar in all cats, because its formation is dependent on the biochemical conditions in each cat’s mouth. However, it has been shown experimentally that, in general, cats eating an all-dry- food diet accumulate substantially less tartar and have much less plaque than cats eating solely moist, soft food. 2. Encourage your cat to chew on (but not eat and swallow) large, hard bones. This will help remove plaque by abrasion. Although most cats will not chew on hard rubber or rawhide toys as dogs will, if you give them large hard bones with a little meat on them when they are young, cats will often develop the habit of bone chewing. Beef and lamb marrowbones are good. Keep in mind that bone chewing may cause broken teeth, and avoid bones that splinter, such as pork chop and chicken bones, to prevent stomach or intestinal perforation. Be sure to thoroughly cook any bones offered by roasting or boiling to avoid disease transmission. Some cats also enjoy chewing on freshly cooked corncobs.

3. Clean your cat’s teeth yourself a few times a week. You can use a toothbrush, but a gauze pad, rough cloth, or cotton-tipped swab will also work. Moisten the cleaning tool with water, then scrub the teeth and gums vigorously. It’s not usually necessary to do the inner tooth surfaces, because the motion of the tongue keeps the areas next to it relatively free from plaque. Dentifrices are not always necessary, but many products are available that provide additional abrasion (pastes containing calcium or silicates), an oxygenating effect (to inhibit bacteria), or antimicrobials (to inhibit bacteria). Chlorhexidine gluconate or acetate (0.1%) is an easy-to- find disinfectant that has been shown to inhibit plaque formation when brushed into the gum-tooth junction. Avoid toothpastes designed for humans as they foam excessively. If your cat’s gums bleed even though they look healthy otherwise, it is not usually because you have scrubbed too hard, but because they are in the early stages of disease. Good tooth care should cause an early problem to correct itself. If you see loose teeth, gums that are red and pulling away from the teeth (receding), or if bleeding gums do not improve with good preventive care as suggested above, you will need the help of a veterinarian to clear up the condition. Loose teeth will need to be removed and dirty ones cleaned.

You can begin treatment at home with daily gum massage. Use a cotton- tipped swab to rub gently at the tooth-gum junction. This process will help a cat get used to the type of oral manipulation that will be needed to restore a diseased mouth to health. Tooth brushing on a regular basis will be necessary to achieve a healthy mouth in any cat who has been allowed to develop periodontal disease.

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