Cat Hygiene: Grooming Care for Cats

By Elizabeth Racine, DVM January 30, 2019

Cats are experts at keeping themselves clean, but nevertheless there are some things you need to do at home to keep them looking and feeling their best. Ideally, grooming care should begin when your cat is a kitten. The more your kitten is exposed to things like brushes and nail clippers, the easier it will be to groom him as an adult. If your cat is already an adult, never fear! By working with your cat slowly and offering positive rewards, you can still help him learn to love grooming. Below are some regular grooming tasks you can perform at home to keep your cat healthy.

Brushing Teeth

Dental disease is very prevalent in pets, and the only way to prevent it is by brushing your cat’s teeth daily. The type of toothbrush you choose is entirely up to you – some owners like to use a standard toothbrush with a handle, while others find it easier to use the kind that fits over your finger. Whichever kind you choose, the goal is to gently brush all of your cat’s teeth, particularly along the gum line. The mechanical action of brushing helps loosen plaque and wipe away bacteria. Because the mechanical action is most important, using toothpaste is not necessary. However, some owners find flavored toothpaste helps make the process more enjoyable for their cats. Look for toothpaste that is specifically made for pets. Never use human toothpaste because the high fluoride levels can be toxic for pets. Another option is to make your own toothpaste at home using baking soda and a small amount of hydrogen peroxide.

Dental treats, prescription oral care diets, and water additives can help prevent dental disease, but they are not nearly as effective as daily brushing. Unfortunately, once tartar has developed there is nothing you can do at home to reverse the problem. At that point, your cat will need to see a veterinarian for a dental cleaning. This involves putting your pet under anesthesia so that the entire mouth can be examined and cleaned. This can be a costly process, so good preventive care is essential! Never allow your cat to receive an “anesthesia-free dental” from a groomer or other pet professional – this is not only terrifying for your cat, but can also damage your cat’s teeth and make dental disease worse.

Brushing Fur

Brushing your cat’s fur is not only useful for removing loose hair, it is also a great way to bond with your cat! Many cats enjoy brushing and look forward to it. Short-haired cats often maintain their coats well enough on their own and do not necessarily require regular brushing. On the other hand, brushing is an absolute necessity for long-haired cats. Regular brushing can prevent mats, reduce hairballs, and decrease the amount of cat hair on your furniture! Ideally, long haired cats should be brushed at least twice a week.

Always brush your cat in the direction of his fur growth, from head to tail. Never brush the hair backwards from tail to head because this can be uncomfortable for your cat. Brush slowly and gently, and never tug at the hair. If you encounter a mat, gently work at it with the brush to loosen it. If the mat is large or tightly woven, you may not be able to remove it with brushing alone. This requires a visit to the veterinarian or groomer to have the mat shaved away. Never try to cut off mats with scissors at home – it is very easy to cut too deep and lacerate your cat’s skin! If this occurs, your cat should see a veterinarian right away to evaluate and suture the wound.

The occasional hairball is a normal occurrence for most cats. If your cat is having frequent hairballs, however, it may be necessary to brush him more often to prevent them. You can also purchase hairball medications such as Laxatone at most pet stores. These products typically contain flavored petroleum jelly, which coats the hairball in your cat’s stomach and allows it to pass through the digestive tract. If your cat’s hairballs are particularly frequent or if your cat hacks without ever bringing up a hairball, it is best to bring your cat to a veterinarian to ensure that there is no underlying medical issue.

Trimming Nails

Outdoor cats rely on their nails as a means of protection. Sharp claws not only help cats defend themselves, but also allow them to climb quickly to escape predators. For this reason, an outdoor cat’s claws should not be cut unless absolutely necessary. Most outdoor cats will naturally wear down and maintain their claws, so trimming is not required.

Indoor cats, on the other hand, tend not to wear down their claws as readily as their outdoor counterparts. An indoor cat’s claws can be problematic, often destroying furniture or accidentally scratching their owners if the claws are not properly maintained. Claws that are not naturally worn down on a regular basis can also grow so long that they puncture the cat’s paw pads, resulting in pain and infection. Thus regular trimming of your indoor cat’s nails is essential to prevent these problems.

When trimming your cat’s nails, it often helps to have two people involved. One person can hold the cat and offer a tasty reward, such as treats or canned food. This helps your cat associate the nail trimming process with a positive experience. He may even learn to look forward to his nail trims! While your cat enjoys his snack, hold his paw in one hand. Gently press on a toe to extend the associated nail. You’ll notice that the nail has two parts – a pink part closest to the toe, and a white or clear part beyond that. The pink part is called the “quick” and contains the blood vessel. Cutting the quick is painful for your cat and will cause the nail to bleed. When trimming your cat’s nails, always cut on the white part. Leave yourself a few millimeters of space away from the quick to ensure that you do not cut it by accident.

If your cat starts wiggling or becomes distressed during the nail trim, put him down and let him have a break. You can always come back and trim the rest of his nails later. Some pet owners will only trim one or two nails a day, completing the process over the course of a week to avoid putting too much stress on the cat. The more you can work on this when your cat is a kitten, the easier it will be when he is an adult! Providing plenty of appropriate scratching surfaces for your indoor cat will also help him keep his nails worn down naturally.

Ear Cleaning

Many cat owners try to clean their cat’s ears, with varying degrees of success. However, it’s recommended that you avoid cleaning your cat’s ears at home. Cat ears are very sensitive. Cleaning inappropriately can cause damage to internal structures or push debris deeper into the ear canal. This can result in neurological issues such as a head tilt, dizziness, stumbling, and circling. For this reason, it’s best to leave cleaning the ear canals to a professional. If you notice that your cat’s ears look dirty, or if your cat is shaking his head and scratching his ears, you should bring him to a veterinarian. Common causes of ear problems in cats include ear mites, infections, and polyps. Your veterinarian will be able to fully examine and clean your cat’s ear canal, and will prescribe medication to treat the source of the problem. Never use any “home remedies” such as coconut oil, vinegar, rubbing alcohol, etc in your cat’s ears. These products are not intended for use in the ear and can cause permanent damage.


Regular grooming care for your cat can help keep him looking and feeling his best. By practicing simple grooming tasks with your cat from a young age, you can help him learn to see grooming as a positive experience. Always remember to choose products that are labeled specifically for pets, and take your time to decrease the amount of stress on your cat. Before long, your cat will be the most pampered feline in town!

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