Friday, May 20, 2011

Spotlight: Grooming

As we all know, cats are obsessive about their grooming. It's an essential part of their "catness" and one of the chief things that differentiates them from dogs. Mother cats groom their kittens and teach them the behavior. Cats of all ages seem to enjoy both grooming and being groomed. So it stands to reason that understanding grooming behavior is important in having a happy, healthy cat.

Reasons for Grooming Your Cat

No, your kitty doesn't have obsessive-compulsive disorder! There are several good reasons cats groom for their health.
  1. After a meal, your cat will likely wash its face and whiskers to remove any traces of food from them. This is accomplished by licking the paws and using them just as we would use our hands to wash our own faces. The cat will often groom its entire head and ears likewise. Many times, this face washing is the precursor to a full-body grooming session (usually followed by a nice, long nap).
  2. Although it's a little disgusting to think about, cats also often groom their hindquarters after using the litter box. They don't like walking around with a stinky, dirty hiney any more than we would. But how else would they clean it, without hands or toilet paper? Bleah!
  3. In addition to removing dead hair and fleas, grooming helps keep a cat's coat waterproof. You've noticed that a little bit of water tends to bead up and roll off your cat when he's well groomed, right? That's why. Grooming moves oil from the skin level out onto each hair shaft. This thin coating of oil keeps the hair supple and repels water. It won't keep the cat dry in a deluge, but a light sprinkle should just roll off the back of a healthy, well-groomed cat.
  4. Removing mats from the fur is also important for regulating body temperature. A cat's coat is its insulation against both cold and heat. It does this by trapping air in between the individual hairs. If the hair gets matted, it doesn't allow this air cushion that keeps the cat's body temperature moderated. Grooming removes the excess hair that can become matted, freeing the living hairs to trap all that insulating air.
  5. While grooming its fur, your cat is doing her own little health check. If there are any injuries or sores on the skin, these are given extra attention during grooming. By keeping any breaks in the skin clean, the cat is trying to help them heal. Fleas and ticks that are discovered during grooming are quickly dispensed of, as well. If you see kitty nibbling at places while grooming, check him for fleas and ticks, and check your calendar to see when you last applied flea protection.
  6. Grooming is a way for cats to spread their scent. The importance of scent to animals is something a lot of humans have trouble understanding. Cats have a far more sensitive nose than we do; that's why a lot of our highly scented cleaning products are offensive to them. They are intensely aware of their own scent, as well as ours and those of all the other animals in the household. When companion cats groom each other, it's a sign of acceptance and trust. A cat that rubs its face on your hand is marking you with its scent glands as a member of its trusted inner circle.
  7. Cats will use grooming as displacement behavior. You've surely seen a cat who's embarrassed or uncertain of what to do next begin to groom. This type of grooming may be more abbreviated or frantic than normal. It's actually a comforting behavior for the cat. It could mean, "I meant to do that." Or "Who, me? I've just been sitting here grooming. I have no idea what that crashing sound was, or where that broken lamp came from." As long as it doesn't happen to the point that the cat is losing fur and developing hot spots, there's no harm in it. And admit've laughed at your cat for grooming in embarrassing situations!

The Mechanics of Grooming a Cat

Okay, so now that we know why cats groom during about half their waking hours, let's examine how they do it.
  • You may have noticed that when your cat licks you, its tongue feels like sandpaper. That's because it's covered with little "teeth" that are ideal for combing its hair. All cats, regardless of breed, have this trait in common...even the wild ones. In the wild, it also comes in handy for removing every morsel of meat from the bones of prey. But in our domesticated kitties, unless they're avid hunters, it's mostly used for grooming. Using their tongues to comb their hair means that they'll inevitably get hairballs, which are a whole other joy unto themselves for cat owners; we'll address those in a separate post.
  • Cats also use their teeth when grooming. They can help remove tangles or mats in the hair and pull off any ticks discovered. Cats who like to rub their faces on a comb may also do this to clean their teeth. If your cat does this, chances are he'd be receptive to having his teeth brushed, once you show him the practice a few times. The key to getting the cat to accept this is to let him be in control of the teeth brushing. It's a natural behavior that he'll accept if you present it in the right way.
  • Something many people overlook as part of a cat's grooming regimen are the paws. Front paws are used to wash the face, ears, and head, while back claws help clean behind the ears. The cat may gnaw on its claws to clean them where things get lodged in between the toes, or actually pull on them to remove old claws that are being shed. You'll often see a grooming cat stretch out her front paws and scratch a little. This exercises the muscles in the front legs and can keep the claws filed down, if the scratching surface is a little abrasive. Outdoor cats will use trees or concrete surfaces to file their nails, but an indoor cat must either have such surfaces available or get their claws trimmed or filed by you.

When Kitty Needs Grooming Help

That cats groom themselves, thus removing the need for us to bathe them weekly, is one of the things we love about them! But that doesn't mean that we're absolved of all responsibility in helping kitty to stay well groomed.

Providing the necessary tools to help kitty keep clean is an important part of being a cat owner. This means scratching posts and/or pads (depending on whether your cat prefers to scratch vertically or horizontally) for the claws, as well as something to keep the teeth clean and the right kinds of brushes and combs for your cat's coat, in the event that you need to step in and help with the grooming. This is especially true for longer-haired cats.

Paying attention to your cat's grooming habits can be so important as to make the difference between life and death. Yes, you read that correctly! If you notice her fur taking on an "oily" appearance, clumping up as though it's dirty, your cat is likely not grooming herself. You may also see clumps of fur sticking out, or even see them on the carpet where they've fallen out. When you pet her, you will likely feel several mats in her coat. These could be in places where the cat is experiencing pain. But pain is only one possible cause. There may be several reasons a cat will stop grooming.

Older cats may stop grooming because arthritis makes it too uncomfortable for them. This will require that you step in and take over. Daily brushing is recommended, for the aforementioned reasons the cat grooms itself. The health check of the cat's skin and coat are now up to you. This also gives you some time to interact with your cat and "think good thoughts" together. Taking a little break from your hectic day is good for you, as well as the cat.

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, kittens younger than two weeks don't yet know how to groom, and their mothers teach them this behavior. So kittens who lost their mothers early on may have never learned how to groom themselves. Even if mama kitty grooms her kittens, a little gentle help from you is a good way to get them used to loving, affectionate human interaction.

Cats who are sick will also stop grooming. This is probably because they just don't feel well and can't bring themselves to do it, or they may be in pain and fear that grooming will exacerbate it. The problem with this is that cats won't show signs of illness until they are seriously ill. This is a survival instinct that remains from their wild days. So by the time your cat stops grooming, you need to get him to the vet immediately. This is especially true if you notice an odor coming from your cat, which can indicate kidney failure.

Going in the other direction, some cats can overgroom if they feel stressed or have pain in a certain area. This should also be a red-light warning indicator to you that something's not right. If kitty keeps licking the same area, or licks itself bald there (often accompanied by nasty hairballs), get to the vet. Again, odor can be a symptom of infection if the area they're overgrooming has a smell to it.

Long-haired cats often need help in grooming, as well. The sheer volume of hair they need to comb is sometimes just too overwhelming for them to get to it all. This can cause those unsightly mats that interfere with the coat's proper functioning. There are many types of combs designed especially for long-haired coats. Try to avoid the temptation to shave your long-haired cats in summer. Remember how we talked about the coat being an insulator against both cold and heat? Remove the coat and you remove this layer of insulation around your cat.

Tips for Good Cat Grooming

Whatever reasons you have for grooming your cat, there are some standard practices that work best.

The first step is making sure you have the right tools. Different types of cat coats require different types of combs and brushes. Some cats also have a preference in the type of grooming tools you use. Peruse's Grooming Time section to see the different types of combs and brushes available.

If your cat has stopped grooming, of if he's gotten into something that's made him too dirty for self grooming, you may need to bathe him. You'll find all types of shampoos, both traditional and waterless, as well as wipes, in our Grooming Time section. We even have a bathing tub that makes it easier to bathe your cat. Come even combat the allergens that cause people to be allergic to cats. When bathing kitty, you need to give his claws something to grab onto, like a towel in the bottom of the tub. Be careful when rinsing him not to use too much water pressure and don't wet his face. Make sure you get all the shampoo rinsed off, then thoroughly towel dry him and use a blow dryer if he will tolerate the noise from it.

For cleaning teeth, you'll need either a finger brush or a full-sized cat toothbrush. Never use human toothpaste for a cat, as it contains ingredients that can be toxic to cats. Use a special toothpaste for cats, which is not only safer for them, but flavored so they will enjoy it. It may take several tries for the cat to become accustomed to having her teeth brushed, but many cats actually enjoy this. And it helps keep them healthy, too!

Ears require special attention and delicacy when grooming your cat. Always use a cleaner designed especially for cleaning a cat's ears and follow the instructions to the letter. Never put a cotton swab into your cat's ear canal, as it can damage the delicate structure and lead to all sorts of problems, including deafness. Just use a cotton ball to gently clean out the residue after using the ear cleanser. I find that my little Vixen actually seems to enjoy this, leaning her head toward my hand as I gently massage her ear with the cotton ball.

And, finally, don't neglect the cat's paws and claws when grooming. Make sure kitty has appropriate scratching surfaces other than your upholstered furniture and carpets. There are countless styles of cat scratchers, in all sizes and shapes, to fit any decor. These are essential pieces of furniture if you are going to have a cat. Even with the scratchers, your cat's claws will need to be trimmed or filed regularly. Failure to do so allows the curved claws to grow right into the foot pads, causing pain and even piercing the skin to cause bleeding and sores. To trim my cats' claws, I've always held them in my lap, their head close to my body and their feet out. This lets me put an arm around them to hold them there, giving them loving pats while I'm working with them and holding the paw I'm working on while the other hand wields the clipper or file. As you trim, inspect the pads of your cat's paws for any injuries, and make sure there isn't anything stuck in between her toes that needs cleaning out. Talking or singing to the cat as you're working should make claw trimming a pleasant session for you both.

Grooming is one of the most important parts of a cat's life. While we may never understand why they feel the need to plop down in the middle of the room, hike up a leg, and clean their private parts whenever we have company, appreciating and embracing the grooming aspect of their lives is a major step to better understanding our feline companions.

Visit the "Grooming Time" section of for all the tools you'll need to keep your kitty in tip-top shape!

1 comment:

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