Grooming and Coat Care for Your Cat

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Tammy Hunter, DVM; Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH

The general condition of your cat's skin and coat are good indicators of her health. Although health and nutrition influence the shine and texture of your cat's coat from the inside, regular grooming and skin care on the outside will help keep your cat's coat clean and free of tangles, no matter what type of hair coat she has.

What are the different types of hair coats that a cat might have?

Selective breeding has led to cats with several coat characteristics ranging from the hairless Sphinx cats to fluffy, long-haired breeds. Some cats shed very little, such as the Sphinx and the Rex breeds. Most other breeds of cats have a smooth outer coat of guard hairs and a fine undercoat of soft hairs that provide additional insulation. Long-haired breeds of cats often have very fine silky outer coats that may tangle very easily.

Some cats that live in cooler climates, particularly if they frequently venture outdoors, undergo two heavy seasonal shedding cycles per year (late spring and late fall), during which much of the undercoat falls out in clumps. However, many cats that share our homes shed their undercoat and guard hairs at low levels all year round.

How often should I groom my cat?

All cats benefit from regular brushing to remove loose hairs and dead skin cells, keep the coat free of dirt, debris, and external parasites, and distribute natural skin oils along the hair shafts. Cats with long, silky, or curly coats require daily brushing to keep their hair from becoming tangled or matted, especially around the ears, in the armpits, or along the back of the legs. Cats with short hair coats may require less frequent brushing.

Daily brushing will reduce the amount of hair a cat swallows during self-grooming with her tongue, therefore helping to reduce the number of hairballs your cat may develop.

"Daily brushing will reduce the amount of hair a cat swallows during self-grooming with her tongue, therefore helping to reduce the number of hairballs your cat may develop."

In addition to benefiting your cat, daily brushing will dramatically reduce the amount of loose hair and cat dander floating around the home. For some people with mild cat allergies, daily brushing may even reduce the number of airborne allergens enough that they can share their home with a cat.

Regardless of the type of hair coat, you should inspect your cat's coat daily to ensure there are no tangles or clumps that have developed under the armpits, in the groin, or behind the ears. If you regularly check your cat's coat and skin, you will also have a better chance of detecting any unusual lumps, bumps, or areas of sensitivity on your cat's body.

What type of brush or comb should I use?

Different styles of brushes work better on certain types of hair coats. Stiff bristle brushes will help remove loose hairs from cats with short coats or sparse undercoats, while long-toothed metal combs or brushes, especially ones with rows of offset tines, are helpful to remove loose hair and smooth minor tangles in medium and long-haired cats. Some combs are designed to remove clumps of loose undercoat if your cat is undergoing a heavy seasonal shedding or gently teasing out smaller mats behind the ears or along the back legs of long-haired cats.

Whatever the choice of brush you use, it is important to be gentle when using it and to avoid excessive pulling on tangles. Your veterinary health care team can give you specific recommendations for grooming tools that will work particularly well for your cat's coat type.

How should I remove tangles, mats, or burrs?

If a tangle is small or relatively minor, or if your cat has just picked up a burr or grass awn, you may be able to remove it by brushing or combing it out gently. If the tangle is extensive or there is a large clump of burrs or grass awns forming a mat, it may be necessary to cut out the clump of hair. In this case, you need to be extremely CAREFUL that you do not accidentally cut your cat's skin. For this reason, scissors are never recommended, and clippers should be used. When tangles are severe or extensive, it is strongly recommended that you seek professional care from a groomer or your veterinarian. If a mat has caused any skin irritation, take your cat to your veterinarian so that the appropriate treatment can be prescribed.

If you are planning on bathing your cat, make sure that you brush out as many burrs or tangles from the coat BEFORE bathing since tangles can become impossible to remove after a bath!

How often should I bathe my cat?

Most healthy adult cats are fastidious groomers and rarely require a bath. How often your cat needs to be bathed will vary with age, lifestyle, and underlying health status. For example, an arthritic or overweight cat that has difficulty grooming herself may need the occasional bath to remove loose hair and objectionable odors. If your cat has allergies, your veterinarian may prescribe frequent bathing as part of the treatment regime.

"How often your cat needs to be bathed will vary with age, lifestyle, and underlying health status."

If you find that your cat requires frequent bathing, discuss this with your veterinarian, who may recommend using a 'dry shampoo' or a special shampoo and conditioning rinse to prevent skin problems associated with the repeated baths.

Can I use baby shampoo?

No. Cats should only be bathed with a shampoo formulated for use on cats - their skin has a different thickness and pH (acidity) than human skin. Human shampoo, including baby shampoo, is far too harsh for their skin. A hypoallergenic shampoo without any added perfumes is the best choice for routine bathing. It is best to ask your veterinarian which shampoo is best for your cat.

How should I bathe my cat?

Bathing cats can represent a significant challenge to many cat owners because few cats enjoy the experience. If you have a new kitten, you can teach him to tolerate baths by starting when she is young, but it can be difficult to train an adult cat to accept bathing as part of her grooming rituals. Many people choose to take their cat to a professional groomer for bathing or to arrange with their veterinarian to have him sedated and groomed at the veterinary clinic.

If you attempt to bathe your cat on your own, the bath water should always be warm, partly for the cat's comfort and partially because shampoos clean more effectively in warm water. Most people find the easiest way to bathe their cat is in the laundry tub, bathroom sink, or bathtub. Since few cats will sit still in a sink full of water, some groomers recommend 'dipping' the cat into the water to wet it down, then applying the shampoo and lathering it up while the cat is on dry ground. Ideally, you should rinse the shampoo or other products using running water, but many cats become frantic when put under a stream of water. If this is the case with your cat, you may find it easier to dip her into the water until all the soap is removed. When dipping a cat into water, it is important to hold onto all four feet, so she cannot escape, AND make sure you guard against personal injuries from teeth or nails!

After applying the shampoo, work it through the entire coat to remove all dirt and debris. Some owners of cats with particularly thick coats find that it is best to dilute the shampoo in some water so that it is easier to apply and rinse out. For routine bathing, you can rinse the shampoo out right away, but if you are using a medicated shampoo, it must sit on the coat for 5-10 minutes before being rinsed out. Make sure you read the instructions on the shampoo label for the specific product you are using or follow your veterinarian's directions if you use a medicated shampoo.

Once the shampoo has done its job, it must be thoroughly rinsed out. For best results, a conditioning product should be applied afterward to restore any lost moisture to the skin and minimize the development of dandruff after the bath. Since your cat WILL groom itself vigorously after the bath, it is important to rinse out all traces of shampoo or other products. This is even more important if you are using a medicated shampoo or a flea shampoo to avoid any risk of toxicity to your cat.

Should I have my long-haired cat shaved down in the summer?

Most cats, even those with long hair, cope very well with hot summer temperatures without needing a haircut. However, long-haired cats prone to getting large mats in their fur or cats that do not groom themselves well and object to regular brushing may benefit from having their hair shaved down periodically.

In some cases, the cat will require sedation during this procedure since few cats will tolerate the noise of the clippers or the discomfort of extensive mat removal while awake and alert. If your cat requires a haircut in the summer months, it is important to leave at least 1” (2.5 cm) of haircoat to avoid sunburn or sun damage to the skin.

"If your cat requires a haircut in the summer months, it is important to leave at least 1” (2.5 cm) of haircoat to avoid sunburn or sun damage to the skin."

Are there any other recommendations?

Your take-home message is that your cat's general coat appearance may be the first indicator of health problems. A healthy animal will not shed excessively and have a shiny coat free from dandruff or greasiness. Before reaching for the bottle of shampoo, think about whether that lackluster coat could be telling you something else. If your cat is older, she may suffer from arthritic pain that prevents her from adequately grooming herself. If your cat is overweight, she may have difficulty reaching certain areas of her body. It is best to contact your veterinary clinic to arrange for a consultation so that you can help keep your cat both healthy and happy.

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