Skip to main content

Keeping Up with Your Cat's Hygiene

Find out how to keep your cat's skin, coat, teeth, and ears in healthy shape.

In this article, you will find:

Grooming and bathing
Caring for the ears and teeth

Grooming and bathing

Keeping Up with Your Cat's Hygiene

Healthy skin and coat begin with good nutrition (see Feeding Your Cat) and parasite control (see Vaccinating Your Cat Against Infectious Diseases), but good grooming helps, too. With regular brushing or combing and perhaps an occasional bath, your cat will be the best-coiffured feline in the neighborhood.

Brushing and Combing

Cat Nip

Hairballs, formed of indigestible hair in the cat's stomach, can cause vomiting, constipation, and loss of appetite. Cats usually cough them up, but in severe cases, hairballs must be removed surgically. You can prevent or reduce the incidence of hairballs in your cat by grooming him regularly, especially when he's shedding, and by feeding him a hairball-control cat food. If the problem is severe or frequent, speak to your veterinarian.

While brushing is essential for a longhaired cat to remove tangles and prevent matting, it's good for all cats. Brushing removes a lot of hair before it falls on your furniture and carpets or is ingested by your cat and converted to a hairball. The close attention you give “the outer cat” while grooming can also mean early detection of lumps, bumps, sores, or parasites or changes in skin or coat that could indicate a developing health problem.

You'll find lots of brushes, combs, and other grooming gadgets at your pet supply store, and the right tools make the job a lot easier. For long, thick fur, a pin brush works well. If your cat has long, silky fur, a soft-bristle brush will do the job. A rubber brush is good for removing hair from short coats. Metal or Teflon coated combs are useful for the finishing touches, especially on long coats. A flea comb, which has small, very closely spaced teeth, is useful if you suspect that your cat has passengers.

Begin grooming at the front of your cat, lifting small sections of hair with the brush and brushing them forward, toward Felix's head. Be sure you pick up the hair at skin level—without poking your cat's skin—to prevent matting of undercoat hair near the skin. Work your way back to the tail, one side at a time. Brushing against the hair growth may excite your cat, so go slowly, and if necessary groom him in small sections at a time until he gets used to the procedure. After the hair has been brushed forward, beginning at the rear, brush sections of hair back into the right direction. Repeat on the other side. Don't forget his chest and tail and, when your cat is comfortable with being groomed, his belly. Follow the brushing with a metal or Teflon-coated comb if you like.

Cat Nip

When humidity is low, your cat might turn into a walking static electricity transmitter—quite a shocking development for both of you! If that happens, consider using a humidifier to add moisture to your home.

Brushing a completely dry coat can create static electricity and can also break hair. If your cat will allow it, lightly mist his fur with water from a spray bottle (one spritz of fine mist per area is plenty) before brushing. Most cats won't allow such rude behavior on your part. If this sounds like your cat, spray the brush instead.

Matted fur tends to hold moisture and skin oil, which can lead to skin inflammations and provide nesting places for fleas and other parasites. Mats can be very hard to remove, and it's all too easy to cut skin when trying to cut them loose. If your cat's fur develops mats, you might want to take her to a groomer to have them removed. Once his coat is free of mats, regular brushing will help keep it that way.

Can You Bathe a Cat?

Most cats don't need to be bathed very often, but there are times when a bath is in order. My cat Malcolm used to “help” me in the garden by digging and rolling in the mud. (I wonder if it was because he grew up with a Labrador Retriever?) Luckily, he didn't mind having a bath afterward. Show cats are bathed regularly as they prepare for competition, and they learn from kittenhood to accept water, shampoo, and dryer as part of the routine. So yes, you can bathe a cat and live to tell about it.

Kitty bathing is essential at times for health reasons. Baths can be helpful for cat lovers who are allergic to cats (see Cats and Allergies). If your cat is exposed to a toxic substance—say she's been on grass treated with lawn chemicals or she's gotten motor oil on her fur—a bath is imperative to keep her from ingesting the poison as she cleans herself. We once had a major flea invasion following a major mouse invasion, so everyone got bathed. If you take in a stray or bring home a shelter cat, she might need a freshening up. All in all, it's good to know how to go about bathing a cat (hilarious Internet versions of cat bathing aside).

Preparation will go a long way toward making Felix's bath go smoothly. Brush him before you bathe him. This is especially important with long coats. You want to remove tangles and mats, because once they're wet, they're nearly impossible to comb out. Trim his claws, too (see Cat Pedicures)—the less well armed he is, the better for you.

Cat Nip

I've found that diluting all pet shampoos to half to two thirds their normal strength makes them easier to apply and easier to rinse out without impairing their cleansing ability. It also saves money!

Choose a shampoo formulated especially for cats. The pH of our skin is different from a cat's, and human shampoos will dry out your cat's skin and coat, leaving the skin susceptible to irritation and possible infection. Use shampoo sparingly. Read the directions. Some pet shampoos are concentrated and need to be diluted.

Special shampoos are available for special purposes. No-rinse shampoos go on wet but don't need to be rinsed out, which can be handy for quick clean-ups. Dry cat shampoos can be useful if you don't want to wet the cat, and some are effective for treating naturally oily skin. Dawn dish detergent is said to be effective for removing petroleum products from fur—it's often used to clean up victims of oil spills. It might be drying, though, so follow up with a moisturizing conditioner. There are also special shampoos said to help alleviate human allergies. They tend to be pricey, though, so you might want to try regular cat shampoos first.

Be sure all your supplies are close at hand before you begin. You will need the following items:

  • Shampoo
  • One or two towels
  • An unbreakable container for rinsing if no sprayer is available
  • A mat or screen for the bottom of the tub (for kitty traction)

The kitchen sink will work for all but the largest cat and is easier on your back than bending over a bathtub. Place a towel or bath mat on the bottom for traction. I've heard that a piece of metal screen on top of the towel or mat gives the cat a place to cling to with his claws. I've never tried it, but it might be worth a shot if your cat is prone to fighting in the bath. Pet supply stores also carry “bath sacks” that envelope the cat's body up to the neck, allowing you to bathe her through the sack while maintaining control.

Use warm—not hot!—water. A spray attachment makes it easier to wet and rinse your cat. As an alternative, fill a pressurized garden sprayer (the ordinary hand-pump type) with warm water. Be sure to use a sprayer that has never been used for any toxic chemicals. Or use an unbreakable cup to pour rinse water over your cat.

Get a firm grip on your cat's scruff, wet her thoroughly, apply shampoo, and work it gently through her fur. Be very careful not to get water in her ears or soap in her eyes. Rinse thoroughly, and check the tricky spots—belly, groin, and armpits—for remaining soap. You shouldn't feel any “slimy” spots after rinsing.

When your cat is well rinsed, squeeze excess water from his fur, then wrap him in a towel. I like to use one towel for the initial wrap, to absorb the bulk of the water and to secure the cat while he settles down, then switch to a second towel and—keeping a firm grip—gently rub to remove as much water as possible. Give your cat a special treat before you release him—reward him for being held, not for getting away.

You can use a hair dryer set on low or cool (never hot) to dry him further if your cat will allow it. If your cat has long hair, brush it while it's still damp. And if your cat is an indoor/outdoor kitty, keep him inside until he's completely dry.

Join the Family

Your partner in parenting from baby name inspiration to college planning.