How to groom your cat (part 8)

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Step-by-step guide to help your cat relax and enjoy the feel of grooming.

Regular grooming is an important part of cat care, particularly for cats with longer or thicker coats. It prevents their fur from tangling, removes twigs and dirt that may have become caught in their coats during outdoor adventures, and can help minimise hairballs. 

Even if your cat washes himself regularly, it gives you an opportunity to check for external parasites, wounds and lumps. Grooming can also be an excellent way to help develop the relationship you have with your cat.

Using the principles that we have discussed in previous articles, you can help your cat enjoy this experience.

Start young

If you have a kitten or a young cat with limited experiences of grooming, begin by creating a positive association with the brush so that your cat has many reasons to feel relaxed and enjoy being around it, and you. You can start by placing the brush close to you on the ground and rewarding your cat for investigating it. Then build to holding the brush in your hand when you are interacting with your cat in a calm way and allow your cat to rub against the brush. Avoid rubbing your cat with the brush at this point but instead provide opportunity for your cat to rub against the brush when he wishes.

When you get to the stage where you wish to move the brush along your cat, start by stroking your cat while holding the brush but without it making contact with your cat's coat. Then stop the stroking and hold the brush out still towards your cat. If he investigates the brush by sniffing it or rubbing on it, reward this by immediately providing something your cat likes, such as a food treat, praise or more physical affection.

Once your cat is actively seeking the brush, you can start to gently move the brush against your cat's face as he rubs against it. Initially keep each stroke short and use gentle pressure in the direction of your cat's fur. You can start to extend the period of a grooming session to a few minutes, 15 seconds at a time, if your cat is relaxed and enjoying the experience.

Take time to build up to grooming different areas and consider how you stroke your cat and the areas he likes being stroked. These are most commonly the head and neck region, and for some cats along the back and base of tail. Therefore, when you move on from just grooming the cheek area, move to these areas first. Do not feel you have to groom the entire cat in one session as this will be too much for most cats. Little and often is much better. Set out to focus on one area - the head and neck area, for example - and just focus on this. Do not be tempted to prolong the session and cover all areas.

Brushes come in various shapes, sizes and materials - it is a good idea to start with a brush with soft bristles when first introducing cats to being groomed, or if your cat is sensitive to being groomed. Avoid brushes with exposed metal prongs as these can be sharp against the cat's skin. If you use metal-pronged brushes, make sure the tips are plastic coated to reduce sharpness.

Rewards and grooming

If your cat already enjoys being groomed, your task is to maintain this throughout his life. It's easy to take such behaviours for granted but one negative experience can change this. However, if you have trained your cat to enjoy regular grooming then this will help minimise any slip-ups - such as accidentally getting the brush caught in thick or long fur - causing grooming to become uncomfortable and therefore negative. Do this by associating grooming sessions with things your cat enjoys such as small pieces of fish or chicken.

Many cats enjoy working for their dinner because this is what they have evolved to do (hunting is hard work!), so it is sometimes good to plan a short grooming session daily before mealtimes. However, if your cat is the type that knows what time dinner is and is quite excited around this time, he may be less tolerant of being groomed. If this is the case, pick a time when your cat is usually content and relaxed - after a meal, for example.

Often a good time to groom is when the cat is grooming himself as he is giving a clear signal that he is in the right mood for grooming. The act of brushing mimics the actions of another cat grooming his coat (known as allo-grooming) and some may lick your hand or arm while you brush them. Such behaviour is really positive as it shows that your cat has a good bond with you.

Changing negative associations

If your cat does not enjoy being groomed or has already had a negative experience associated with grooming, it may take slightly longer than making a pleasant association for a cat who has never been groomed or a cat that finds it relatively neutral. It can be done - it just requires you to break the training steps into smaller goals.

First, present a soft bristle grooming brush to your cat (different from one you have used previously so that he has no negative associations with this new brush) held at a distance that your cat is relaxed with. You may wish to rub your cat's scent on the brush before using it so it smells familiar to him. Do this by rubbing a cloth around your cat's cheeks and chin when stroking him when he is in a good mood and then rub this cloth onto the brush. Remember to reward your cat with treats or praise to associate the presence of the brush with positive experiences.

A syringe filled with meat paste can often be an excellent reward. It is important to remember the order in which you present the brush and the reward. Present the brush at a distance first so that it does not bother your cat, then link it with the reward by rewarding afterwards. Never present both at the same time or food first.

As your cat starts to appear expectant of a reward on seeing the brush, you can progress your training. This is often a good point to turn this training exercise into a game by bringing out the brush and as soon as your cat looks at it or takes a step towards it, you reward him. Over time this will shape his behaviour so that he wants to approach it and get closer to it of his own accord when it is presented. Always present the brush in a way that will not upset your cat or cause him to flinch - do it gently, slowly and in his line of sight.

Build up slowly to stroking your cat with the brush in your hand. Just remember to work at a slow and steady pace rather than expecting too much too soon. In the beginning you may simply be touching your cat with the brush without it actually combing through the hair - this is not a problem as you can build slowly up over time at a pace your cat can cope with so that eventually, the grooming action will begin. If your cat appears uncomfortable, you have probably gone too far too quickly. Step back and work towards smaller goals with more steps between them, and start with this new plan. Always observe your cat and pick up on what he is trying to tell you.

Claw trimming

We recommend you train your cat so that he finds claw clipping not strange or scary, but perfectly acceptable and even something that brings food! Although it is often a painless procedure, your cat may not enjoy some aspects of it if he is not used to them.

In the last article (part 7), we discussed preparing your cat for the vet, and this is the first step to getting started in this training. Practise touching the claws between finger and thumb, then reward him. Build this up to using a little more pressure as this is often the part of claw clipping that cats do not like. Always reward after the touch.

Once your cat is relaxed about having his claws extended, introduce him to the claw clippers. If he has had a previous negative experience with them, it may be worth using different clippers. You may also need to work at a slower pace. Present the clippers near your cat and allow him to investigate them. Reward him with a treat for doing this.

Once he does not appear bothered by the clippers being around, get some uncooked spaghetti and trim bits off as you would a claw. This will get him used to the sound of the clipping. Clip the pasta (making sure it doesn't touch your cat!) and then give your cat a treat. Soon, he will learn this funny new noise means food!

Once he is relaxed with this, start to take the clippers towards your cat's foot but stop before you touch him. Reward him for allowing this and repeat. In small steps, build up to touching the claws with the clippers and pretend to clip them. We would recommend you practise many pretend clips where you go as far as applying pressure to a claw without clipping. You should do three pretend clips to every real clip so you can maintain a strong positive association.