Cat Grooming Essentials

Written by Steven Appelbaum and Michelle Metzger

Upon hearing "Grooming Essentials," many people automatically think of dog grooming. This is understandable, given that more pet owners have their dogs professionally groomed than their cats. That doesn't mean cats can't or shouldn't be groomed, and even if you don't consider taking your kitty to a grooming salon, it doesn't mean you can't perform essential grooming with your cat at home.

For this article, let's define pet grooming. The Oxford Dictionary defines grooming as "The practice of brushing and cleaning the coat of a horse, dog, or other animal." 

I don't pretend to know more than Oxford, but I would modify that to include basic cleaning of the animal's ears and teeth and trimming the pet's nails.  

So, with the above definition in mind, let's talk about what kinds of things a cat parent should consider when grooming their feline companion.

  1. Brushing
  2. Nail trimming
  3. Bathing
  4. Brushing teeth
  5. Keeping ears clean

When speaking with people about this topic, I am sometimes asked, "Why bother? Cats don't require this kind of care. After all, don't cats self-groom?" 

While cats do indeed self-groom, I have never seen one clean its ears as well as their human companion can. Yes, indoor cats are usually cleaner than outdoor cats. Still, regular grooming keeps your cat much more sanitary but that’s not the only benefit. It allows you to identify potential skin problems, discover parasites or sensitive areas on older cats before they cause real discomfort or health problems. Add tooth care, which can sometimes alleviate gum or other dental challenges, ear care to reduce ear infections, and you are well on your way to having a more sparkling and healthier cat. 

If performed gently and with patience and love, grooming is a positive experience for your cat and an excellent way to strengthen the bond between you. Most kitties come to love being groomed, and some even demand it!  


Most experts, including the National Cat Groomers Institute of America, suggest bathing your cat every 4-6 weeks. Outdoor cats require slightly more frequent bathing, so might long-haired cats. Also, when I refer to bathing, I do not mention specific skin care regimens prescribed by a veterinarian or professional groomer. Those might require more treatments and are outside the scope of this discussion.

Most cats don't love being bathed. While not all cats dislike getting wet, I suspect if 1,000 kitties were asked if they liked getting wet, the results would be pretty overwhelming against it. Indeed, almost no cat will naturally enjoy getting wet against their will. This means it's vital to gradually get your cat used to getting wet with as much positivity as possible. Avoid spraying them and try to keep water off their faces and out of their ears. Cats that already tolerate being bathed can learn to associate the bathing experience more positively. To accomplish this, try to be as gentle as possible in the lead-up to the bath and the bath itself. Let the water run and get the items you need out, and then instead of scooping the kitty up and getting down to business, try just sitting with and petting them. If your cat is food motivated, give them special treats before bath time. For some cats, additional petting and treats combined with less spray and a gentler approach while bathing can change their attitude toward being groomed.  

Some cats won't tolerate being bathed. If you have one, don't despair; many can learn to accept or even enjoy the experience. However, it could take some time to change feline hearts and minds. How you ask?

Rather than simply filling a tub (the sound of gushing water from the bath alone can trigger avoidance for many cats) and putting them in it, take a container of warm water, sit next to your cat, soak a washcloth, and rub it on the cat while praising your feline friend's fantastic patience and tolerance. Avoid getting water in their ears or on their face. 

While this isn't a real bath, the more your cat gets used to this, the easier it will be to graduate to wetter conditions. After a couple of minutes, dry the cat and call it a day. You can do this a few times a week and since you are not using shampoo, it won't dry out the cat's fur or skin. After a couple of weeks, increase the amount of water you transfer from the washcloth to the cat. Most people can progress to getting their cat pretty wet without them protesting or trying to escape. When you reach that point, use a gentle shampoo specifically formulated for cats. Again, avoid the eyes and ears, gently massage the shampoo into your cat's fur, and gently use your wet towel to rinse it all away. While this method will take a lot longer than dunking them in a bath, it's far less traumatic, and depending on your cat, you might find they like or at least tolerate the procedure. No human or dog shampoo, please. At this juncture, try using the washcloth method with shampoo every 4-6 weeks for the subsequent 2 or 3 baths. In bath 4, put the cat in a dry tub or sink, and use the same washcloth method. By bath 6, start putting a little water in the tub and using some of that on your washcloth. From there, you can add gently running water to the process.

Other bathing tips:  

  • Cats feel insecure on a slippery surface; lay a thick towel at the bottom of the tub to give your cat something to cling to.
  • Perform a nail trim a few days in advance; if your cat clings to you for safety, the nails will be dull.
  • Don't try to bathe your cat when they are excited. Regular brushing will make bathing more effective.  
  • Once you graduate to using lots of water, consider cotton balls for the cats' ears to prevent water from getting inside them.


 Consistent brushing is a vital component of proper feline grooming, and many cats truly cherish this interaction. Brushing stimulates blood flow to the skin, catches loose hair (less ingestion results in less hairballs) and helps remove dirt from your cat's coat. Brushing also makes bathing more effective, and allows you to identify parasites and possible skin or coat problems. Experts, including the ASPCA, recommend brushing your kitty a minimum of twice a week, while long-haired cats may need extra help with daily brushing. Some cats are pretty sensitive, brushing gently is important. So is selecting the right tools for this task. Here, you have many choices. For long haired cats, I am a big fan of dual-sided brushes because I like the option of soft bristles on one side and pin bristles, which help detangle and deal with matted fur on the other. Some long-haired cats can be hard to groom with a pin bristle brush, which is where a cat shedding comb comes in handy. Long and short-haired cats benefit from being both brushed and combed. A rubber curry, like the Safari® Cat Soft Tip Massager, is a must for short-haired cats. I also really like grooming mitts. These are gloves with rubber bristles used for brushing and work fantastic with young cats who are too “busy” to sit for a grooming session, or cats who otherwise react to a brush.

Remember to be patient and gentle when brushing, regardless of your tools. Start slowly and brush areas where they are most comfortable being touched (i.e., don’t start with the belly!) Avoid going over the same spot too many times, you can accidentally leave a “brush burn” (metal bristles without a soft bead at the end, like a slicker brush, tend to be the main culprit with this). Also, don't be afraid to praise and even offer treats to your cat while brushing them. The more positively they associate the experience of being brushed, the better.

Although it might sound strange, finding a groomer that works with cats in your area is a good idea. Schedule a time to have the cat professionally groomed, and make it clear that you would like the groomer to coach you on basic brushing techniques you can use at home to make your job easier. You might be surprised how many groomers will be receptive to this, depending on how busy they are.

Ear Awareness

It is NOT necessary to clean your cats' ears on a scheduled basis. Instead, look inside your cats' ears once a month or so. If the inside of the ear is dirty, cleaning might be in order. Additionally, if your cat is constantly rubbing their ears or scratching at their head, smell the inside of your cat's ear. A rank or rotten odor can be a sign of infection, so it's best to take your cat to the veterinarian if you detect an odor or see a lot of dark debris. Outdoor cats tend to have dirtier ears than indoor cats, and also risk getting ear mites. Be careful what ear cleaner you use. Find something formulated for cats or dogs and cats. I prefer wipes over a solution because most cats (and dogs) will tolerate a wipe on the inside of the ear better than a liquid, which can be less comfortable. Please check with your veterinarian for a recommendation. To use ear cleaner wipes, go about it gently with lots of praise and treats if the cat is food motivated. Wipe the inside of the ear gently using your finger (never stick something in your cat’s ear, it’s easy to puncture an ear drum this way) with gentle swabbing and avoid going too deep inside your kitty's ear.  

Tooth care

 This is another item that some people consider funny when brought up. 

"Brushing my cat's teeth? Really? What's next? Cat clothes? Isn't this taking things a little far? Cats don't brush their teeth in the wild, right?"  

Here's the thing: cats don't brush their teeth in the wild. They also don't live as long in the wild, and when their teeth decay, or they have any oral disease as they get older, they are unable to hunt and usually die. While people have kept cats for thousands of years without giving much thought to preventative oral measures, the simple fact is that brushing your feline friends' teeth might be one of the most effective preventive actions you can take to help the cat maintain oral health. Fun fact: cats are prone to cavities while dogs are not. By keeping plaque to a minimum, not only will they have fresher breath, if that's important to you, but better oral hygiene results in a long life for your cat. Most people ignore breath until their pet is older and then can't figure out why breath is increasingly rank, starting around age nine or so, however, studies report that 40% to 80% of cats four years or older have some form of dental disease.1 Accumulated plaque is one of the main culprits. This topic is one I freely admit to being not entirely objective about. I have had numerous clients whose pets had dental issues, and the results were difficult to handle. Gum disease can cause all sorts of challenges if left untreated, including possible heart issues. I also adopted a 10-year-old dog with significant dental challenges, and this poor boy was in pain for the better part of a year before we were able to get them all handled. 

Expensive too. Next incarnation, I am coming back as a pet dentist.  

So, is it strange to brush your cat's teeth? No, but use some common sense when you do it. 

A few tips. First, do NOT use human toothpaste. Fluoride is to toxic to cats (they can’t rinse/spit). Use a toothpaste formulated for cats. Second, I am less a fan of toothbrushes than of finger brushes. Some folks may disagree, but I find using a toothbrush with a cat (or dog) invasive and more difficult. Instead, I use a soft finger brush and include this in my daily regimen of petting and praise. Start by leaving the finger brush out to let the cat explore it on their own terms. Put a dab of toothpaste on your finger and let the cat lick it off. Give a delicious treat each time kitty licks it. Next, smear a bit of toothpaste on the cat’s canine tooth (fang). Pet the kitty, praise the kitty, treat the kitty, play with kitty, and then move to using the finger brush.

Consistency results in prevention, use 1x per day or at least 3x per week.

Added Bonus: Nail trimming

Cats maintain the health of their nails by scratching items. This can lead to some pretty impressive points, particularly for indoor cats, which can increase the risk of ingrown nails (ouch) or catching on items unintentionally. Nail trimming might sound intimidating and if you find yourself nodding right now, consider taking your cat in to your vet’s hospital and ask the staff to show you how to safely cut your cat’s nails. If done incorrectly, you might cut the quick, which can be painful to the cat, cause bleeding and maybe erosion of trust. However, nail trimming at home is certainly doable with the right tools, and a trick or two! Unlike dogs, where the goal is to get the nail as short as possible, we just want to take the sharp tips. Cats’ claws are typically clear, so begin with good lighting so you can visualize the quick. Do NOT use human nail clippers, you will run the risk of accidentally cutting your cat’s paw pad. Cat specific nail trimmers, such as the Safari Cat Deluxe nail trimmer, are designed with blades that close in a circle to be able to cut cylindrically shaped nails without cutting the pad. It’s always prudent to have styptic powder on hand, which is applied to the nail if the quick has been accidently cut.

One effective trick is to cut nails while your cat is sleeping. You’d be surprised at how many nails you can cut before they even notice what’s going on. You might start by just tipping a nail or two, followed by yummy treats and lots of pets. Keep going!

I hope this information helps all cat parents keep their feline companions healthier and that more cats come to enjoy the experience of being bathed, brushed and loved.

Steven Appelbaum is the President of Animal Behavior College a school where animal lovers find animal careers.  Steve has been in the pet and education business since the 1980’s and is an author, consultant and lecturer.

Michelle Metzger is the Program Operations Manager at Animal Behavior College.  A retired Registered Veterinary Technician (RVT), cat expert and kitty parent.  She has been in the pet and education business since 1993.