While many people think of cats as low-maintenance pets who just require the odd brush and trim, the truth is your cat can benefit enormously from a regular checking, grooming, and cleaning program. This guide explains how to do a regular health check-up (to supplement regular vet check-ups) at home, and how to effectively groom and clean your cat.
Checking your cat
How and when to check your cat
Give your cat a quick check over when they hop onto your lap for a scratch, but also make time at least once a month to perform a thorough check. This allows you to detect any possible problems earlier rather than later, but keep in mind these DIY checks cannot replace annual visits1 to the vet (or six-monthly visits for older cats) for a professional health check.
Look over your cat’s ears to detect any issues including dirt lodged in ears, excessive wax build-up, bleeding, debris, sores, discharge, or inflammation. Also of concern are ear mites, which are harder to see but usually leave a smelly reddish/brown discharge in the ear, and cats with ear mites tend to scratch their ears.2
While a little bit of wax is normal, there should not be any unpleasant odours. Also look along the edges of the ears for any marks, bumps, lumps, thickening, scaling, redness, or lesions.3 If any of these are present, consult your vet immediately.
Your cat’s eyes should be clear, bright, and free of any redness, swelling, or discharge.3 If any of these symptoms are present it could be a sign of infection, in which case you should contact your vet for appropriate treatment.
A healthy cat’s nose is typically moist and smooth. Gentle touching will tell you whether or not your cat’s nose has any bumps, lumps, or swelling. Ulcers are another thing to look out for, along with any other marking or wounds that are taking a long time to heal. Any discharge coming from your cat’s nose could be a sign of infection.4
Mouth, teeth, and gums
In healthy cats, teeth are clean and white, and free of chipping. Check gums for any sores or lesions. Your cat’s gums should be pink and healthy looking without any redness, swelling, or bleeding.5
If possible, check the back of your cat’s mouth for any ulcers, swelling lesions, or lumps. Your cat’s breath should not have a foul odour, so if you find their breath is suddenly unpleasant, or if you have noticed their breath getting more smelly, take them to your vet for a check-up. Make sure you are regularly brushing your cat’s teeth; finger brushes and pet toothpastes are essential for this task.
Take note of your cat’s breathing, which should be even and effortless. If there is any wheezing or labouring as they breathe, or if they seem short of breath and have an erratic rhythm, check in with your vet about any potential problems.3
Coat and skin
You can tell a lot about the state of your cat’s health from the condition of their coat and skin. If your cat is engaging in excessive chewing, scratching or licking, it may be time for a check up.
Stress, parasites, wounds or allergies could all be having an impact on your cat’s health and should be looked into.3
Cat’s claws, especially those of indoor cats, need regular trimming. Check your cat’s claws to see if they are too long, and if you are experienced with trimming them, cut them yourself. If you are not confident about trimming your cat’s claws, take your cat to a professional groomer who can do it without causing harm.6
Body and mobility
As you pet your cat check for any lumps, bumps, or unusual swelling. Similarly, look out for any signs of pain or tension when you come into contact with certain parts of their body. Watch your cat moving around and check for any signs of stiffness or pain.
Trimming your cat’s claws
Why trim your cat’s claws?
Trimming your cat’s claws is purposed towards getting rid of the sharp points. This not only reduces the risk of damage to your furniture; it allows you to play and interact with your cat without having to worry about scratches and painful skin punctures.
There are also health benefits for your cat, as taking the sharp ends off helps him or her avoid the pain of having sore, broken claws that can result from a sharp tip getting caught in carpet or other things around the house. To remove these sharp tips you’ll need to get a professional groomer’s6 help or learn to do it yourself.
Using the clipper
When buying a nail clipper, make sure you choose a quality and appropriately sized clipper from a pet store or from your vet. Cat and dog clippers are not the same, and you should always choose cat nail clippers to prevent causing your pet harm.
You should also remember to first allow your cat to get used to the nail clipper. If your cat has been exposed to clippers since he or she was a kitten, then it should be an easy process. However if you’re starting off clipping an older cat, make sure you complete the process gradually. Start by getting your cat used to you touching and handling their paws. Make sure they are used to sitting in your lap and feel comfortable with your touch.
Gently touch their paws. At any sign of negative body language, such as ears folding back, moving tail, or other signs of tension, stop until cat relaxes again. Once you have reached the stage where they are comfortable with you touching their paws, you can progress to pressing on their paw gently to expose their nails.3
Veterinarian Dr Christianne Schelling demonstrates how to appropriately clip your cat’s nails in this YouTube clip.
If they are comfortable with this, bring the clipper and just touch it to their paw. Do this until they are comfortable with the presence of the clipper, after which you can proceed to clipping the sharp portion of just one nail tip – rather than shortening nails as you would with a dog. Sometimes your cat will only let you do one or two in a sitting. Let them be and try to do one more the next day, and so on.
Brushing and grooming your cat
Grooming your cat decreases the occurrence of hairballs and prevents tangles. Grooming also helps alert you to ticks, wounds, lumps and skin problems in your cat, so you can monitor and maintain your cat’s health effectively.7 Cats will groom themselves by licking, but you can help out your cat and keep their coat in top condition by contributing to their grooming routine.
When to brush your cat
It’s best to start from an early age as this allows your kitten to get used to the brushing.8 Younger kittens are less experienced at grooming themselves, so they will benefit from your help. Older cats might need extra help to reach certain places. As such, you should help with grooming your cat throughout their lifetime, from kitten-hood to the senior years. Longhaired cats might need daily brushing to prevent matting3, while shorthaired cats generally require less maintenance.
How to brush your cat
When approached gently and in short sessions, grooming can be comfortable (or even enjoyable) for both you and your cat.7 Start slowly, aiming to eventually brush the entire body, including the back legs, behind the arms, and other areas that might seem hard to reach. If your cat resists the brushing session, don’t try and force them if they seem unhappy or want to move away from the brush. Instead, you could try brushing just one section at different times of the day for as long or short a time as your cat is comfortable.
Some great tips for successful grooming include the following:
- Start your grooming routine when they’re young, as this way your cat will learn to accept brushing from infancy.8
- Try using different combs and brushes, and choose ones that are appropriate for the length of your cat’s coat. Bristles can be hard, soft, wire, or pin, and you can also use grooming gloves that you wear over the hand. Softer brushes tend to make cats more comfortable, so consider starting with soft brushes and working your way up to the harder ones, which tend to be more effective.7
- Keep brushes next to where your cat likes to nap so you can quickly seize the moment to groom your feline friend.
- Use human toothbrushes for hard-to-reach areas such as the spots around the ears.
- Start with gentle strokes to get your cat in the mood, and start with the back of the brush to get your cat used to the brush.
- Make sure the room or space is silent, relaxed, and free of other stimulations such as playing children, other pets or excessive noise.
- Give your cat treats afterwards so they will learn to associate grooming time with positive outcomes. Always end on good terms with a rub and treat.
Bathing your cat
Cats have in-built grooming tools in the form of their tongue and teeth, and usually they are fussy about self-cleaning, so regular grooming by brushing is usually sufficient.
However, there will be times when your feline friend needs a little extra help in the cleaning department – for example, when he or she has come into contact with something sticky or smelly, or has become very dirty.3 Most cats hate bathing and will find the process stressful, so make sure you do it right – and only do it if necessary – and prepare by having the right tools and supplies ready.
Shampoos to use
Never use human shampoo on cats as they are unsuitable for cat hair and may dry out their skin.3 For a water bath, use a cleansing and deodorising shampoo formulated with natural ingredients.
For cats with dry skin, try a dry skin and conditioning shampoo. Other types of shampoo that you might consider using depending on the condition of your feline friend’s coat are flea or tick control shampoos that have been designed specifically for cats, and shampoos for shedding and hairballs. It’s important that you don’t use flea or tick shampoos that are designed for dogs on your cat, as they can prove dangerous to your feline’s health. It’s recommended that pet owners always check the label of any pet product to ensure that the product is safe for their species of pet, whether that be cat or dog.
Getting your supplies ready
Make sure you have everything ready before bringing your cat in for a wash. The supplies that you will need include:
- Cat shampoo (and cat conditioner if necessary).
- Comb, or brush for longer haired cats.
- Jug or other container for rinsing.
- Rubber mat or towel, placed in the sink or tub to prevent slipping.
Start by brushing your cat and getting rid of much dirt as possible then fill the bath or sink with just enough warm – never hot – water to wash your cat.
Sometimes food treats and/or the help of another person to hold your cat can make the process easier for both you and your cat. If your cat is biting or scratching a lot during bathing, or appears to become distressed, stop bathing your cat and check with your vet for advice. You might be able to get someone else more experienced such as your vet or a groomer to bathe your cat without issues.
Next, apply a small amount of cat shampoo and warm water to the dirty or stained area only. If you are washing the full body, avoid the head area and only soap up the rest of the body. This includes your cat’s neck, underside, and tail.
If you want to clean their face, use a damp towel to wipe it down. Never dunk their head into the water or splash water into their face. Only a damp towel should be used on your cat’s face and ears.
To rinse your cat, fill the jug with some warm water and cover your cat’s eyes and ears as you gently rinse the rest of their body. Repeat with a conditioner if you are using conditioner. Make sure you rinse off any shampoo and conditioner thoroughly as you don’t want your cat to be swallowing any residue shampoo when they next groom themselves.
Finally, set your cat on a towel and allow them to shake off excess water. Help them along with towel drying rather than a hair dryer, as the sound might frighten your cat.
Alternatives to water bathing
Getting a professional groomer to bathe your kitty is one option if your cat absolutely hates baths, but another alternative is to use bath wipes specifically designed for cats. These wipes are designed to clean your cat like a bath, but without the water. You can also use cat bath wipes to clean your cat in hard-to-reach areas, do spot cleaning if your cat’s fur has a dirty spot, or if your cat has been unable to groom himself or herself due to illness.
When purchasing a cat bath wipe, always choose one with natural ingredients and without harsh chemicals. Do spot testing to make sure your cat isn’t allergic before using the wipe. Only use these when needed, as you can dry out your cat’s coat when you use them too often.
Tips for successful cat bathing
- Determine if washing your cat is really required. Most cats will clean themselves and don’t require bathing, however some will need an extra hand such as older cats.
- Set up all your equipment and supplies before bringing your cat in. This way, they spend minimal time in the water.
- Brush your cat before the bath to get rid of as much dirt as possible.
- Always use cat-friendly shampoos and conditioners only.3
- Check that the water is warm and not cold or hot before bringing your cat into the tub.3
- Rinse thoroughly to ensure all shampoo and conditioner is rinsed away.
- Do not use water or soap on your cat’s head area. Only ever wipe with a damp towel to clean this area.
- Reassure your cat by talking to them gently during the bathing.
- Leave them to dry in a warm space without drafts after their bath, and make sure they are comfortable with a hair dryer if you decide to use one.
- Be patient and calm throughout the process.
- Starting early with baths gives your cat the best chance to get used to bathing.8 Older cats will find it much harder to adjust to water baths.