Cats are designed to look after their own coats. Their rough tongues are like mini-brushes, removing dead hair and distributing oils through the coat. However, they still need a helping hand - for example to reduce fur-balls, or to avoid tangles in long-coated breeds.
Also, many breeds of cat are quite different to how they originally were before selective breeding encouraged certain characteristics. For example, the Ragdoll's coat is far thicker and longer nowadays, and without help with grooming would soon become a painful mass of knots. Grooming isn't just about making your cat look good: it removes dead hair, keeps the coat and skin healthy, helps you build a bond, and gives you the opportunity to check overall general health. Many cats enjoy a brush if they have been introduced to it at an early age.
Breed needs will vary according to their type of coat. Initially, a kitten's coat will be softer, fluffier and shorter than an adult's. Even if this isn't yet required, it's still a good idea to get your kitten used to being groomed. Teaching a kitten to be handled and even enjoy the experience will make grooming much easier in the future. The good news is that cats usually love being groomed. Most will even learn to come running when they see you have their brush or comb in hand, just for the attention!
A short-coated cat will only need a quick 'once-over' with light brush or comb once a week. A long-coated breed, such as a Persian, will need daily attention with the right type of equipment - ask your breeder or a groomer for advice.
- When your kitten is on your lap, start brushing gently, initially on the sides of their body.
- Offer them the brush to sniff: many cats will rub their faces on it.
- Give some praise for being good in a quiet, soothing tone of voice.
- After just two minutes, stop brushing and start stroking again. Offer a treat as an extra reward.
- Repeat several times a day, gradually increasing the length of brushing time.
- If the kitten attempts to bite or swipe the brush, turn away but don't let go. Cats hate to be ignored and soon learn that attacking the brush loses your attention.
- When your cat is familiar with the sensation of being groomed (after about five days), start to groom the belly, tail, ears and other sensitive areas. Be extra-gentle and keep the initial sessions very short. If you notice any signs of boredom or agitation, go back to grooming the back.
- While the cat is relaxed and enjoying the experience, touch the feet and examine the claws and toes. Start with one claw, then praise and reward. At the next session, try touching two toes and so on, gradually increasing the time you spend touching the feet.
- Look inside your pet's ears and gently open the mouth to examine the teeth and gums.
- With long-haired breeds that need extensive grooming, you may want to get your cat used to being groomed on a non-slip surface on a table. Once the kittens have learnt the routine, take them to the table where you will want to groom them as adults. They will soon associate this spot with being groomed and rewarded.
- Always end a grooming session with a good fuss and a stroke.
Cat claws are layered. When cats climb a tree or use their scratching post, they will pull off the outer layer to reveal a new, sharp claw underneath (you will often find discarded outer husks around favourite scratching areas). Active, healthy cats rarely need their claws cut, but house-cats and older cats may need some attention. Always provide a scratching post to allow a cat to express normal behaviour (and save your furniture).
- It is important you know exactly how to trim the claws correctly to avoid causing pain and bleeding by cutting too far up the claw (into the ‘quick’ or sensitive part of the claw). Ask your vet or veterinary nurse to demonstrate and check your technique.
- Get your cat used to the idea of claw-trimming from an early age, preferably from a kitten. 'Pretend trim' by applying slight pressure to your cat's toes and then offer a reward.
- You can keep the soft toenails of a kitten in trim just by filing them. This is less likely to cause pain or bleeding but may not be tolerated as well as clipping.
- Check your cat's claws once a week, including the ‘dew claw’ or the claw on the inside of the legs. If they show when the cat is resting - normally the claws would be completely retracted and tucked away - then they may need trimming.
- If you suspect any claw is growing into the pad consult your vet straight away as these claws are painful to cut and your cat may need painkillers/antibiotics.
- For adult cats, use specially designed cat-claw clippers - and keep them sharp and well maintained. Ask your vet which type of clippers will be best for your cat.
- Press your cat's paw between your finger and thumb gently to unsheath the claw. Snip off just the transparent tip of the claw; always avoid the blood vessel in the centre of the claw; and never clip higher than the pointed tip.
- Have silver nitrate sticks (available from your vets) and cotton wool balls nearby in case you do accidentally nick the claw quick. If so, and it bleeds, don't panic. Calmly apply the silver nitrate to the end of the claw and press with a cotton wool ball for a moment. If the bleeding doesn’t stop then consult your vet immediately.
- Silver nitrate may sting, so you might want to enlist some help to hold your cat if the need arises.
- If you do cause bleeding have a chat with your vet/vet nurse about avoiding this complication in future.
- When you check the claws, also check the paw pads for any cuts or foreign bodies. Check between the toes for any signs of soreness. Contact your vet if you find anything unusual.
- Don’t forget the ‘dew claw’: the claw on the inside just below the wrist (carpal) region. This may not touch the ground so can be prone to overgrowth - particularly in older cats.
Cutting your cat’s claws is not easy so don’t feel guilty if you can’t do it! If in doubt consult your vet or vet nurse.
General weekly checks
- Check your cat's ears. Are they clean and fresh-smelling? Contact your vet if they are dirty, smell bad, or are red or itchy. Also get in touch if cats keep shaking their heads. Ear mites are a common problem in the cat world, particularly in young cats.
- Run your hands all over your cat's body. Are there any scratches, lumps, bumps or painful areas? If so, contact your vet.
- Check the eyes and nose - and contact your vet if you notice any discharge or redness.
- Check under your cat's tail. The rear end should be clean and healthy-looking. Any signs of dirt, worms or soreness should be reported to your vet.
- Run your hand against the direction of the coat, to fluff the hair up. Check the hair roots and skin. Are there any signs of parasites, or flea dirt (black specks)? Always make sure your flea control is up to date.
Most short-haired cats go through their lives without being bathed. However, there may be times when they need a dip - if they have diarrhoea, a medical condition or get contaminated with car oil, for example. Long-coated breeds and show cats are bathed quite frequently, so get them used to an occasional warm bath while still young. If you prefer, you can always leave it to the expert and ask your groomer or vet for help.
- Buy a specialist cat or kitten shampoo, ensuring it is a mild all-rounder with no harsh chemicals or perfumes. Never use human shampoo, which is unsuitable for cat hair and skin due to the difference in pH levels.
- Use a large plastic bucket, the sink or a bath lined with a non-slip floor mat. Fill the tub with just enough warm (not hot) water to wash your cat. Don’t fill the bath/sink too full or this will make the experience more frightening for the cat.
- If cats find bathing frightening, they may bite or scratch. Cat bites/scratches can be serious so stop trying if he/she gets very distressed as your vets may be able to bath the cat for you to prevent you being bitten. Be careful and gentle and always ask your veterinary practice for help.
- Offer plenty of praise and reassurance throughout. Food treats can provide a useful distraction, as can another person holding the cat’s head and providing reassurance.
- Apply a small amount of shampoo, making sure none gets in your cat's ears or eyes. If there is only a small area of contamination then wash only this area rather than the whole cat. If required, then lather up, right down to the tail, not forgetting the underside and neck. You may find it helps to take your cat out of the water and onto a towel while you do this. Some medicated shampoos need a certain contact time.
- Rinse thoroughly with a shower nozzle or jug of warm, clean water, avoiding the eyes and inner ears. Use your hands to help the soap run off.
- After soaping and rinsing, your cat will want to vigorously shake off the excess water.
- Then rub your cat from head to toe with a towel and remove from the tub.
- If you have more than one cat, this may be a time when inter-cat conflict breaks out. Separate your bathed cats until they are calm, then rub all cats with the same towel to distribute the scents.
- Dry your cat or cats in a warm room and don't let them go outside until they are completely dry. Most cats will be frightened of hairdryers unless used to them from an early age (show cats).