How to Groom a Cat - Cat Info Detective

How to Groom a Cat

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Greetings curious humans! Skye Blake here discovering how to groom a cat.

Lick, lick, lick… we felines love to groom our fur, paws and faces, especially after we eat.

We even groom our pals, whether they be cats, dogs, horses, or humans! That’s how much we love to be clean!

paw prints coming in from a distance

Do we felines need people to groom us? Let’s discover more…

The information here is for general knowledge… always see your vet with questions about your cat’s individual needs.

Who Is Skye Blake?

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Skye Blake, Cat Info Detective, is a curious cat researcher (not a vet or behaviorist) who sniffs out expert, reliable sources about cats, studies their information, then passes it on to you! 

Sometimes there’s not enough evidence for easy answers, so Skye gives you all sides, explains the situation as thoroughly and clearly as possible, and links you to experts on each page.

Sources are at the bottom of each page so you can do more snooping.

What Is Grooming?

orange tabby, white kitty washing ear with paw

To every cat, grooming is cleaning their entire body using paws and teeth.

This is done as part of the daily ritual of “hunt, catch, kill, eat, groom, sleep” that makes up the core of every feline.

In fact, along with providing food and litter box care, grooming is one of the top three responsibilities of cat guardianship.

The Grooming Ritual

siamese cat licking front paw

When you watch a cat groom, you’ll see her work her way down her body and legs, carefully cleaning between her toes, and using her front paws to clean her face, whiskers and outside of ears.

tabby cat licking, grooming back leg

A cat’s tongue is perfectly made for cleaning because it has tiny rough barbs on it… ever had a cat lick your arm?

Cats do various types of grooming and can even have grooming behavior problems.

Discover more about how we groom at “Cat Grooming Behavior & Training“.

Do I Have to Groom My Cat?

grey kitty being combed

The short answer is… Yes! Even though we felines groom ourselves, we can’t do it all.

Along with feeding, maintaining litter boxes, and playing, grooming your cat is one of the main responsibilities of caring for cats.

Good news, though… it can be fun and relaxing for you both!

Grey, white tabby on table sleeping next to plastic figure

Grooming that requires help from humans is…

  • Daily coat brushing/combing
  • Clipping claws as needed (one per session is fine)
newborn, young kitten having face wiped, cleaned
  • Brushing/wiping teeth (what?!)
  • Wiping ears and eyes (only when necessary)
  • Baths (only when necessary)
2 cats by a window, one grooming the other

Cats with double and triple coats must have daily surface brushing and full grooming at least 2-3 times a week to prevent painful matting.

Daily brushing and combing, even massaging the skin gives you the opportunity to feel for lumps and look for flea dirt and ticks.

Clipping keeps claws at a safer length for both you and your cat.

calico cat being combed, groomed

Brushing or wiping teeth helps prevent painful and costly dental disease.

Bathing regularly isn’t necessary and is typically reserved for extreme situations like flea infestations, skunk spray, or something on the fur like motor oil.

But hairless breeds do require frequent baths and skin care because they have no coat to protect their skin.

sphynx in bucket with duck shower cap

If in doubt, talk to your vet for guidance about your cat’s individual situation.

Unless there’s an extreme situation, there’s normally no need to take your cat to a professional groomer… most cats will be traumatized by it.

Many dog groomers aren’t used to dealing with cats and don’t know how to handle them properly.

Hairballs… Yuk!

sick cat vomiting the food

What is a hairball, anyway?

A cat’s tongue has tiny hook-like structures that catch loose and dead hair.

When she grooms herself, the fur is swallowed and sometimes forms matted balls in her stomach.

tabby, white cat grooming himself

The fur usually goes through the digestive tract with no problems.

But sometimes it stays in the stomach and the cat will try to vomit up.

A cat getting rid of a hairball gags, makes hacking noises, and retches, which sounds dramatic and terrible, but does what it’s supposed to do… eliminate the problem.

Tuxedo cat sitting on paper tablet washing face, grooming

Cats have a narrow esophagus so when the hairball goes through it, the shape changes to something like a tube.

The hairball comes up rather quickly, she’s fine again… and you get to clean it up!

At least you didn’t step in it this time…

Yellow-eyed tabby cat lounging on rug

Typically, a hairball doesn’t look like a ball when you see it on the floor (or your expensive rug).

The mass of hair will still be obvious, though… an important, though gross, thing to notice.

Vomiting can signal many different problems, so you should always check what comes up to see if there’s a hairball.

If not, there may be trouble brewing that you should have checked by your vet.

Intestinal Blockage

cat grooming a toy cat

On a rare occasion, hairballs can cause dangerous digestive blockages by getting too big to either go through the intestines or vomit up.

This doesn’t happen often, but can occur, so if you see these symptoms, get your cat to a vet immediately…

  • Vomiting, gagging, retching, or hacking that continues without producing a hairball
Black, white photo of tabby cat sleeping - closeup
  • Not wanting to move much
  • Lack of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea

Reducing Hairballs

calico cat being combed, groomed

Hairballs cannot be completely prevented but you can help your cat have less of them by brushing and combing your cat daily.

The fur is caught in the brush and comb instead of going into your cat’s stomach.

This is especially helpful for long-haired breeds and even medium-haired cats.

Maine Coon longhaired black cat sitting on a chair

Breeds like Persians, Himalayans, Maine Coon, Norwegian Forest, and Siberian cats are more likely to have problems with hairballs.

Not only do they have longer hair, but also layers of it… double and even triple coats!

Hairballs can also be a bigger problem for cats who shed a lot or are overgrooming.

Kittens & Hairballs

ginger, orange tabby kitten

If you got your cat as 12-week-old kitten or older, you may have noticed he didn’t have hairballs until he became an adult.

This is normal because kittens are still developing their grooming skills.

By the time they’re an adult, they do a better job of licking off the dead hair, resulting in more hairballs.

Training a Cat to Enjoy Grooming

cat being petted at animal shelter, rescue

The key to both you and your cat having a pleasant experience that doesn’t ruin your relationship is…

  • Get your cat used to gentle touch, especially in sensitive areas
  • Give your cat the control… end before or at the first sign of resistance
Tabby, white cat lounging on table
  • Train slowly, gently, and in short sessions
  • Use treats as a reward (not play, since you want him to remain calm while grooming)

Discover how to train your cat at “Cat Grooming Behavior & Training.

Kittens

black, white kitten playing with fuzzy wand toy

Grooming kittens is different depending on their age. Most people have kittens that are over 8 weeks old.

They’re already grooming themselves, although they’re still learning.

This is the perfect time to get them used to brushing, cleaning teeth, clipping claws, and anything else you may have to do for their care.

3 kittens in a basket

Kittens catch on quickly, especially if they’re already used to being handled by people.

Just keep the sessions short and relaxed, rewarding her with treats and praise… then let her scamper away to play.

Newborn to 2 Months

newborn kitten being bottle fed

If you’re dealing with very young kittens, the queen will take care of all their grooming.

Kittens in their first month of life are completely dependent on their mother.

If they’re orphans or need extra care, consult your vet for help.

baby kitten wrapped in towel

If you’re stepping in to be their mom, it’s a 24/7 commitment and you need to know what you’re doing, including their grooming.

Unscented baby wipes are useful for wiping their faces, back ends, or anywhere else that needs wiping.

newborn, young kitten having face wiped, cleaned

A soft toothbrush makes a great brush that you can use in place of the mother’s tongue.

Using short, gentle strokes imitates how the mother would lick them.

I highly recommend any of Hannah Shaw’s (a.k.a., “Kitten Lady”) videos and her book “Tiny But Mighty“, the bible of kitten care.

I make no money from any products or brands mentioned on this page.

How Do I Bathe My Cat?

cat wrapped in orange towel with white cloth on head, bathrobe

Most indoor cats won’t ever need a bath, but there are times when it’s necessary.

If your cat has gotten into something sticky, has fleas, or was sprayed by a skunk, a bath will be necessary.

Hairless breeds need special care for their skin and regular bathing is part of it.

Bathing Tools

folded towels

If your cat ever needs to be bathed, be sure you’re prepared ahead of time to avoid disaster. Have on hand…

  • Rubber bathmat – to keep your cat from slipping and panicking
  • Lots of towels!
shampoo, body wash, cream
  • Gentle shampoo specifically made for cats
  • Cotton balls to protect ears while bathing
  • Flexible shower attachment to control water spray – allows you to get all soap out well and keep water out of eyes
“To bathe or not to bathe your cat – that is the question!”, Jackson Galaxy, April 18, 2020
“Persian Cat Grooming”, Love of Grooming, December 26, 2016

How Do I Clip My Cat’s Claws?

grey cat paw, claws, scratch furniture

When it comes to clipping claws, many people throw up their hands and give up.

It’s all about teaching your cat that something lovely happens when she does something.

She gets a treat or attention for doing what she previously didn’t like.

claws extended on paw of black cat

Kittens can learn to sheath their claws and allow you to clip their claws periodically.

Many adult cats can as well but may take more patience and time.

Take it in baby steps and go at your cat’s pace, always making it a positive experience instead of a negative one.

dark tabby cat arm, paw, claws scratch furniture

Start with getting your cat used to you touching her paws, both front and back.

One claw at a time with treats and quiet praise is the way to success!

Use clicker training and other methods … check out more at “How to Train a Cat“.

Claw Clipping Tools

clipping cat's claws

Set yourself up for success by having the proper tools for clipping claws…

  • Clippers made only for cats (not human or dog clippers)
  • grinder, nail clippers for cats, guillotine-type trimmer
woman clipping claw
  • Styptic powder – stops bleeding if you clip too close to the quick… avoid this by being careful when cutting
  • Cotton swabs – only for applying styptic powder
“How to Safely Trim a Cat’s Nails | Vet Tutorial, Dr. Clayton Greenway, Healthcare for Pets, October 31, 2016
“How to Trim a Cat’s Nails by Yourself (3 Step Tutorial)”, The Cat Butler, May 2

Do I Have to Clean My Cat’s Ears?

calico cat washing ear

Good news! A cat’s ears normally clean themselves, so you don’t have to do anything.

But you should check them whenever you brush your cat to be sure there are no problems brewing.

Two possible problems are ear infections and mites, which happen in both indoor and outdoor cats.

Cats with double coats and/or long hair have tufts of fur in their ears that need to be checked and cleaned frequently.

This helps prevent dirt and debris from building up and blocking the ear canal.

American Curl white cat, ears curled

If you see something you think needs to be cleaned but don’t see symptoms of infection or mites, you can carefully wipe inside the ear (pinna).

Check this page at PetMD for instructions on how to do this or ask your vet to show you.

Have some gauze pads and a cat-safe ear cleanser on hand in case you need them… your vet can recommend a cleanser.

Symptoms of Ear Infections

cat's ear closeup

Watch for these signs of a possible ear infection…

  • Ear discharge and bad smell
  • Shaking head, pain
back of cat ear and side of face
  • Scratching at ears frequently
  • Head tilt
  • Outside of ear is swollen, red, sometimes developing ulcers

If you see any of these symptoms, get your cat to the vet for a diagnosis and treatment.

Ear Mites

Oriental shorthair tabby coat cat, large ears

Signs of ear mites are…

  • “Scratching the ears, head, and neck 
  • Frequent headshaking
  • Dry, crumbly, black or red-brown discharge in the ear canal 
black, white photo of front of cat's ear

If ear mites spread to other areas of your cat’s body, you may see:

  • Skin crusting and scaling on the neck, rump, and tail
  • Generalized itching and scratching”1Ear Mites in Cats” by Leigh Burkett, DVM, PetMD, November 23, 2021

The most obvious symptom of ear mites when you look inside a cat’s ear is black gunk.

closeup of cat's ear

In this case, take your cat to the vet for a diagnosis and treatment, having her show you how to properly clean and care for the ears.

You can damage delicate tissues and even the ear drum if you’re not careful.

This video tells you everything you need to know about mites…

“Ear Mites in Cats: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment”, Sarah Wooten, DVM, Cats.com, August 25, 2021

Cleaning Eyes & Face

Normally you don’t have to clean a cat’s eyes or face… we do that just fine ourselves!

But there are breeds like Persians or Himalayans, along with any cat with a white or light face, who can have “tear stains”.

These can be wiped off as part of your grooming ritual.

close up of golden cat's eye

Keep some cotton balls on hand for gently wiping eyes and underneath them.

When petting your cat, check her eyes for anything abnormal. Some symptoms of possible illness or injury are…

  • Unusual eye movements, squinting, or fast blinking
persian cat face, eyes, tear stain
  • Tearing, crust, discharge, bleeding, or swelling around or on the eye
  • Discomfort or pain, usually shown by your cat pawing or scratching at the eye
  • The third eye becomes visible and doesn’t disappear
mysterious black cat face with glowing orange eyes
  • Changes in pupils like one larger than the other or both fixed
  • Filmy or bloodshot eyes
  • Droopy eyelid
veterinarian looking at cat's eye
  • Eyeball looks bug-eyed or sunken in

If you notice any of these things, get your cat to the vet as soon as possible.

Don’t assume it’ll clear up because eye problems in cats can quickly cause blindness.

“How to Clean Your Cat’s Eyes (7 Step Tutorial)”, The Cat Butler, February 19, 2022

Nose Health

closeup of cat's nose

Sometimes you may notice something happening with your cat’s nose… a common one is a crusty or runny nose.

This can be from an injury, foreign object in the nose, or illness.

If a cat can’t smell, he won’t eat, which can become a serious problem within a few days.

tabby cat nose closeup

Nasal problems are also a sign of dental disease so any symptoms should be evaluated by your vet.

Symptoms of nose problems are…

  • Sneezing
ginger cat sneezing
  • Runny nose, crusting or bleeding
  • Pawing at nose area
  • Difficulty breathing/open-mouth breathing
orange tabby nose
  • Swelling, lumps, or tumors, nose shape/appearance changes
  • Tooth/mouth pain and infections
  • Not eating
cat yawning, nose, mouth

Once you have a vet diagnosis and plan for treatment, there are a few things you can do to help relieve some symptoms.

Using humidifiers in social areas, especially during the winter months, is helpful for everyone in the household.

Have some gauze, tissues and unscented wipes on hand for nose wiping needs.

This video shows ways to help a cat with a cold…

“Simple at home TLC for a Cat with a Cold | Runny nose, Kitten School, March 28, 2017

Brushing My Cat’s Teeth… Seriously?

person brush teeth of black cat

Brush my cat’s teeth? Are you nuts?!

Yes, it is possible to brush your cat’s teeth but it’s not the same as brushing your own.

Often, it works fine to gently wipe the teeth with gauze, so don’t worry about using brushes if you can’t.

cat with open mouth, canine teeth

The key is getting your cat to accept touching her mouth and face.

Use the same gentle touch training that you’re using with everything else.

Clean teeth are important for cats because dental diseases are dangerous and painful, some even affecting major organs.

ginger tabby yawning, teeth, open mouth

The savings in vet bills for you and pain for your cat are worth taking the time to train your cat and clean his teeth.

The key is getting your cat to accept touching her mouth and face.

Use the same gentle touch training that you’re using with everything else.

Clean teeth are important for cats because dental diseases are dangerous and painful, some even affecting major organs.

Moving Forward

cartoon signpost, this way, that way, decision

Now that you know the basics of grooming your cat, discover what grooming tools you’ll need for his type of coat… “Types of Cat Fur” and “How to Brush a Cat“.


Sources

Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.

Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.

Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.

Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own.

However, sometimes they refer to primary sources.

When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.

List of Sources

“77 Things to Know Before Getting a Cat” by Susan M. Ewing, Fox Chapel Publishers International, Ltd., 2018, pp. 97-101

Ear Mites in Cats” by Leigh Burkett, DVM, PetMD, November 23, 2021

“Feline Grooming Behavior” by Bonnie Beaver, DVM, MS, Feline Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians, W.B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, PA, 1992, pp. 255-266

How to Clean Your Cat’s Ears: A Complete Guide” by Jennifer Grota, DVM, reviewed by Veronica Higgs, DVM, PetMD, September 26, 2023

How To Tell If Your Cat Has A Double Coat In 4 Simple Steps” by Dr. Emma Chandley, BVETMED, PGCERTSAS, MRCVS, Cats.com, updated March 1, 2023

Tiny But Mighty by Hannah Shaw, Plume, Penguin Random House LLC, penguinrandomhouse.com

“The Cat Whisperer”, by Mieshelle Nagelschneider, Bantam Books, The Random House Publishing Group, New York NY, 2013, www.bantamdell.com

“Think Like a Cat, How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat – Not a Sour Puss”, by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Penguin Books, Penguin Group (USA) Inc, New York, NY, 2000, 2011

“Total Cat Mojo”, by Jackson Galaxy with Mikel Delgado, PhD, Tarcher Perigree, Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2017

“Touch” by John Bradshaw and Dr. Sarah Ellis, The Trainable Cat, Basic Books, Hachette Book Group, New York, October 2017, pp. 181-195

What to Do About Hairballs in Cats” by Hilary Parker, WebMD®, Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM, February 26, 2023

Updated December 29, 2023

Scroll to Top