Ever wonder why some cats always look sleek and beautiful and others look like...well, like something the cat dragged in? While it's true that some cats (like some people) are just born with "good hair," a lot of it has to do with grooming. Now, cats are fastidious critters. They tend to take care of themselves pretty well, always licking their fur to keep it clean and in its proper place. But any cat can go from Fluffy to Scruffy without a little help from her human pals.
Longhair vs. Shorthair Cats
The magnificent coat of a champion Persian is truly a work of art. But you'd better believe that it took hours of regular grooming to get it -- and keep it -- that way. It's common sense that the more hair there is to take care of, the more work that goes into it. The fluffier the cat's hair, the more likely it is to form mats, too. These thick tangles of hair can be painful and even tear a cat's skin if the mats get bad enough. Mats get embarrassing for a cat, too, since the only way to get rid of really bad ones is to shave them off. Nothing looks more uncomfortable than a cat who has been shaved.
It's not that shorthair cats don't need regular grooming or never get mats -- they do. It's just that their shorter, coarser outer coat requires lower maintenance than a long, silky coat. A shorthair cat who's diligent about her own grooming routine can do a lot to make up for an owner who's a little lazy with the brush and comb. But regular grooming is still a must for both longhair and shorthair cats.
Cats use their tongue and teeth for grooming. Every time Tabby goes into her contortionist bathing routine, she's swallowing hair. The more hair she has (and the more grooming she does), the more hair she swallows. Hair doesn't digest and can clump up in a cat's stomach and intestines to form hairballs. The least dangerous, but still rather unpleasant, side effect of hairballs is your cat coughing them up -- quite often at times or in places you'd much rather she didn't. On a more serious note, a lot of swallowed hair can actually block your cat's intestines, calling for an operation to save her life. The bottom line, as they say in the city, is to invest a few dollars in a brush and comb -- and use them.
Do I Need a Professional Groomer?
Because longhair cats need regular grooming (with daily grooming really being the best), you might want to consult your budget before answering this question. But even if you have the means to bring your longhair cat to a professional groomer weekly, you should still have grooming tools on hand at home -- and know how to use them. You never know when your cat might get into something that needs to be combed out right away or when she might need a touch-up between trips to the groomer.
The main advantages of a professional groomer are training, skill, and experience. A good groomer can get your cat's coat looking spiffy quickly and humanely, with a minimum amount of trauma. Really bad mats and tangles can be dealt with at home, but if you've never done that sort of thing before, you run the risk of injuring your cat -- an injury that will probably need veterinary attention. Such grooming problems are probably best left to the professionals, too.
Even folks who learn to wield a slicker brush and metal comb with a good amount of expertise will turn to a professional groomer from time to time. It could be for a bad mat or tangle, during a particularly heavy period of shedding, or just to get the full treatment so that Tabby looks her best.
Tools and Tips for At-Home Grooming
Every cat owner needs some grooming supplies. A metal comb is the most essential basic grooming tool. Sturdy stainless-steel combs with wide-set, round teeth are widely available and reasonably priced. A slicker brush has bristles that look like dozens of tiny bent nails. They resemble the rasps on a cat's tongue and serve the same purpose in grooming. Most cats enjoy the sensation of the slicker brush and the metal comb -- unless, of course, you hit a tangle or mat.
You may also want to invest in a flea comb, particularly if you let your cat outdoors, live in a year-round flea climate (like southern Florida or Louisiana), or have other pets who go outdoors. Flea combs look like metal combs but with very fine teeth set close together. Flea combs can be used for regular grooming, as a "touch-up" after the slicker brush or metal comb. Grooming mitts fit over your whole hand and let you work a larger surface while petting your cat.
Here are a few tips for home grooming:
Make it fun. Most cats love being stroked and enjoy the feeling of light grooming. It's good social behavior -- cats who get along well will blissfully groom each other for long periods of time. When it's time to do some grooming, approach your cat in a friendly way, and intersperse the grooming strokes with some regular petting.
Use restraint. It's okay to restrain your cat (gently!) as long as she doesn't start to panic, but be sure to restrain yourself, too. Don't try to force your cat to sit still or stay in an awkward or uncomfortable position for too long. And be careful not to get too exuberant in your grooming strokes. Think about how much you don't like having your hair pulled, then imagine what it's like to have hair getting pulled all over your body.
Know when to quit. You may not be able to groom your cat completely in one session. That's okay. If you get her back and tail, and then she starts to fight you, give up and try finishing in a day or two. It's better to have a half-dozen five-minute grooming sessions spread out over a week and a happy cat than one 25-minute battle and a cat who runs and hides at the sight of the brush.
Get professional help. If your cat has a bad mat or tangle -- or gets something nasty on her fur -- put a call in to your veterinarian or professional groomer. If your cat just doesn't seem to be cooperating with home grooming, schedule an appointment with a professional. While you're there, ask for some tips and a demonstration of basic techniques. Groomers are usually happy to do this for clients; there's nothing more annoying for a groomer than having to constantly shave out and untangle bad mats. The cat suffers, and the groomer is more likely to get bitten or scratched.
Grooming is only part of the story, however. In the next section, we will look at some tips for bathing your cat.