Crouched on top of a picnic table, Woobie and Maximillian, a pair of Himalayans, and their housemate, a Persian named Ling-Ling, sharply survey the birds darting among the trees. Indoor cats, they’re so absorbed by the great outdoors they scarcely notice the grooming nooses their owner has slipped over their heads. Nor do they seem to care that she’s armed with an array of brushes, combs and nail clippers.
Weather permitting, the backyard is an ideal place to groom the cats, says the trio’s owner, certified master groomer Kathy Salzberg of Walpole, Mass. Focused on the outdoor sights and sounds, the cats allow her to work with little or no protest, and she’s able to keep the amount of loose hair inside her home to a minimum. “I like to do it outside when it’s warm because it’s a messy job with all that hair – and they’re so distracted looking at the birds and the trees they don’t know what I’m doing,” she says.
Almost before the cats know it, the grooming session is nearly over. Their longhaired coats are once again luxurious and tangle-free and their nails have lost their sharp edges.
Inside, Salzberg uses a cotton ball and warm water to clean the buildup from Ling-Ling’s tear ducts; part of a Persian’s required daily maintenance. “If I don’t, he looks like a dirty-faced little boy,” she says. Next, she may trim a little of the hair around the cats’ hindquarters, a routine part of grooming longhaired cats. “With all that coat, their personal hygiene leaves a little bit to be desired as they get out of the litter box,” Salzberg says. Four times a year, she gives each cat a bath.
Sound daunting? It doesn’t have to be. Done correctly, grooming can be quick, painless and a powerful bonding experience for you and your cat. It requires more than technical expertise and knowing which brush to use, says Pam Johnson-Bennett, a feline behaviorist, veterinary technician and author of Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat, Not a Sour Puss (Penguin USA, 2000, $16.95) from Nashville, Tenn. How you approach the cat will largely determine the stress level of the session.
“Watch your attitude. Sometimes cats will pick up on your nervousness. If they know you’re dreading it, they will too. You have to be very calm,” she says.
Johnson-Bennett initiates grooming sessions with her own three domestic shorthairs while they’re stretched out in the sun. Sometimes she even plays soothing music to relax them further. She pets and talks to her cats while she brushes their coats, checks ears, cleans teeth and clips claws. She stops as soon as she notices them tense up, even if it means certain tasks, such as clipping nails, must be performed over the course of two days or bathing is put off for another day.
“I know my cats, and I know what makes them fidgety,” Johnson-Bennett says. Whatever routine works best for you and your cat, do it quickly. “Make it over before the cat even knows what you did,” she says.
The following step-by-step tips and advice help ensure pleasurable grooming sessions – for both you and your cat.
Salzberg sees many cats with a low tolerance for grooming. However, thanks to her speed and gentle touch, she’s only been bitten once in more than 20 years of work. She starts by clipping their nails, which she recommends doing once a month. “This eliminates scratching and lets us know if the cat is manageable,” Salzberg says.
Keep in mind that few individuals can clip their cat’s claws as quickly as a professional, so you may need to do one or two paws a day according to the cat’s stress level. This strategy takes more time, but it is a better solution than holding the cat down and trying to clip all the claws at once.
“The cat will remember the struggle the next time it sees you coming with your clippers and head for safer territory – out of your reach,” Johnson-Bennett says.
Follow these steps for effective nail clipping:
1. Start young. Kittens tolerate new procedures more easily than adult cats and will become accustomed to the procedure.
2. Approach your cat with an air of confidence, using a small pair of clippers designed specially for cats.
3. Get a partner to help hold your cat, or use a grooming noose to keep it on the table or countertop. Holding your cat gently by the scruff of the neck, the way its mother would carry it, immobilizes it while you work.
4. Start with the front paws, pressing on the footpad to unsheathe the claw. Salzberg says this gives her more of a sense of control to begin in the front. “I think it’s easier,” she says.
5. Clip only the clear, hooked portion and avoid the visible, pink quick, the vein that runs the length of the nail. Clipping the quick will make it bleed and is a painful experience for your cat. If you do cut into the quick, use styptic powder to stop the bleeding.
6. Move on to the back paws, talking to your cat while you work. The whole clipping procedure should take only a few minutes, Salzberg says. “People are amazed. Before they know it, it’s over. The more confident you are, the better you can do this job.”
Brushing and Combing
The amount of grooming you need to do varies with each breed. Therefore, when looking for a cat, consider the time you are willing to devote to its grooming regimen. Persians and Himalayans, such as Woobie, Maximillian and Ling-Ling, need daily brushing and combing to keep them mat-free. If you’re unwilling or unable to put this amount of time in, pick a shorthaired breed or arrange to have your cat professionally groomed.
Salzberg says you should brush and comb out the cat to eliminate mats before you bathe it. “Once the mats get wet, they’re beyond brushing,” she says. “These cats have to be shaved down.”
Gentle brushing encourages a cat to welcome your touch. “I work on building trust,” Johnson-Bennett says. “I find out what the cat likes. I may hide a currycomb in my hand and run it over the cat’s head. This gets it used to the feeling.”
Cats require the most brushing in the spring, when they shed their winter coats, and in the fall, when they grow a new one. During this season, even cats that are fastidious groomers need your help in reducing hairballs, says Drew Weigner, DVM, of The Cat Doctor, in Atlanta. “When cats groom themselves, they ingest hair and develop temporary blockages in the stomach. Then they throw up. It’s a common complaint.”
Although hairballs are simply unpleasant for 99 percent of cats, some develop serious intestinal blockage requiring surgery to remove. Hairballs can adversely affect older cats, which often have other illnesses. Vomiting may cause them to become dehydrated or to stop eating.
Follow these simple steps for fast, easy brushing and combing:
1. Use a soft baby brush the first few times you brush your kitten or cat. Find out where your cat likes and dislikes being touched. If it enjoys being brushed or petted behind the ears, start with that; you can always go back there if it starts to get agitated. “You have to do it so it’s all positive,” Johnson-Bennett says.
2. Always start in the same place and work your way around the cat’s body, Salzberg says. “If the cat is not thrilled with this, do one quarter of the body [one night], and do the rest the following night.”
3. Pick the type of brush that best fits your cat’s coat.
Slick-coated cats, such as the Burmese and Havana Brown, do best with a grooming glove, which has little nubs, Salzberg says.
Double-coated shorthairs, such as the American Shorthair, British, Manx, Russian Blue and Scottish Fold, may have more intensive grooming needs. Start with a slicker brush to eliminate dead hair, then proceed to a curry brush. Use a flea comb to check for any of the little critters. Finally, a light brushing with a soft chamois cloth lends luster to your cat’s coat. These cats probably need to be groomed once a week, Salzberg says.
Shorthaired, glossy, single-coated breeds, such as the Siamese and Oriental Shorthair, may only need a weekly chamois cloth rub, Salzberg says. Dr. Weigner recommends brushing the cat’s hair against the way it grows with a soft slicker brush, then brushing it flat. “It’s a good way to get rid of undergrowth,” he says. If your cat rebels at such thorough brushing, simply brush the cat in the direction the fur lies.
Longhaired breeds normally require more grooming, but how much care differs among the breeds. Persians and Himalayans need daily brushing. But others, such as the medium-coated Balinese, Javanese and Turkish Angora, need only twice a weekly brushing, Salzberg says.
4. Gently comb out mats as you find them. Thick mats can constrict a cat’s movement as they tighten, causing the cat a great deal of pain. Mats may also contribute to skin problems because they prevent air from circulating beneath them, trapping moisture next to the body and providing the ideal climate for bacteria to grow.
Sprinkle cornstarch on mats to help loosen the hair. If the mats are dense, have the cat professionally groomed or take it to a veterinarian.
“Each year we see a few cats that require stitches after their owners tried to remove mats with a scissors,” says Anne Sassen, DVM, of Cats Preferred Veterinary Hospital, in Plymouth, Minn.
After the cat has had its claws clipped and mats brushed out, it’s ready for its bath. The need for bathing varies. Show cats may require a bath a day or two before showing. Indoor-only cats rarely, if ever, need one, unless they get into something they need your help in removing. In fact, Dr. Weigner says he hasn’t bathed his own two indoor cats since 1993. But whenever bath time comes, try following the routine Salzberg has perfected over the years to make nervous cats comfortable. Remember, starting a bathing routine when the cat is still a kitten helps reduce its fear when grown.
Follow these short steps for clean, sudsy shampooing:
1. Place the cat in a tub or sink filled with only a couple inches of water. You may want to enlist the aid of a partner.
2. Use a portable shower head or the sink’s spray nozzle to feed the tepid water (test the temperature with your hand before putting your cat in the tub) gently into your cat’s coat. Hold the water source close to your cat’s skin so it doesn’t spray and startle it. “They can panic and hurt themselves and you,” Salzberg says.
3. Apply shampoo designed specifically for cats or kittens. Do not put any shampoo on your cat’s face.
4. Use a sponge to lather the shampoo deep into your cat’s fur.
5. Hold the head of the shower head or spray nozzle against your cat’s body and rinse out all of the shampoo.
6. Towel thoroughly. Avoid using a hairdryer, because you can burn your cat’s skin and hair.
7. Comb out the coat. “[Your cat will] probably be in a mood for a while, but it’ll get over it,” Salzberg says.
During any thorough grooming session, check to see if your cat’s ears, face, teeth and gums need cleaning. If your cat is fussy, do this over the course of several days.
Use a cotton ball and an over-the-counter solution made for cats to clean the ears. Swab out any honey-colored wax, Salzberg says. If you notice an odor or see a dark discharge from the ears, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian, because the cat may have ear mites or an ear infection.
Use a cotton ball and warm water to clean discharge from under your cat’s eyes, a common problem with “flat-faced” cats such as Persians and Himalayans. Brown or clear discharge is healthy, but a yellowish or green discharge requires a visit to the veterinarian.
Gently lift your cat’s lip for a quick glance at its teeth and gums. If you notice excessive amounts of tartar (yellow or brown material accumulated on the teeth) or detect a strong odor, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to have its teeth cleaned. Dental problems can lead to lung, heart, liver or kidney problems because bacteria from the mouth may enter the bloodstream and attack these organs. Red or bleeding gums are signs of serious problems, such as infection, and require a veterinary consultation.
If all of this grooming advice sounds like too much, simply remember the key to a successful grooming session or sessions is to relax. Take your cues from your cat, and make it fun for both of you.
“The minute you’re done, give them a treat or play with that cat, or the next time you want to groom them they’ll dive under the bed, out of reach,” Johnson-Bennett says.