Kitten getting a bath
Many people expect that their cats will self-groom — after all, feral cats do fairly well without the help of brushes and baths. But if you’re planning to cut corners on grooming, your cat will need to have short hair and be entirely free of skin problems. A self-grooming approach also eliminates a regular opportunity to check your cat for external parasites or make sure that he is more pleasant to cuddle with.

Chances are, you have different expectations for your cat, so you need to lay the foundation for grooming during kittenhood, before your cat decides routine grooming is an evil plan to torment him. Start with short sessions and gradually lengthen grooming time as your kitten becomes more comfortable.

Grooming Basics

To accustom your kitten to grooming, you’ll need a soft-bristle pet brush and a metal pet comb. If your cat has long hair, you can introduce a wider-tooth comb or a pin brush as needed.

Begin when your kitten is drowsy and relaxed. Grooming is not supposed to end up being a mock fight with the brush, but more of a relaxing massage. Settle your kitten into your lap when he’s ready to doze off and let him fall asleep as you stroke him with your hand. Once he’s asleep, substitute the brush for your hand.

Start by gently brushing down the length of his back and sides. Use long, gentle strokes rather than short choppy ones. If he accepts this, move on to stroking his legs and the top of his head with the brush. Once he’s comfortable with that, move downward to his feet and rearward along his tail. Use a comb to rub behind his ears and under his chin. Then move on with the comb to his head, back, sides, legs and tail. Leave the chest and abdomen until last, because if he’s at all playful, there’s a good chance he’ll take this as an invitation to grab the comb! Also, some cats can be touchy about having their tummies handled, so be especially gentle in this area.

If you encounter a tangle, don’t just rip through it. Stop the brushing and ease the tangle apart with your fingers, starting at the edges and taking care not to pull at his skin. Give him a treat for being good.

In general, long-haired cats will need more frequent grooming than most short-haired cats.

Bath Time

Now is also the time to introduce your kitten to the concept of bathing. Although not all cats need regular bathing, it’s possible that your cat may roll in dirt or grease, so you don’t want him to be afraid of bathing in the future. To start, use tap water that’s about the same temperature as you’d bathe in or slightly cooler. You don’t have to bathe his entire body. Just wet a foot or leg the first time and let him earn a lot of treats. It’s a lot easier if you have a helper who can steady him.

Place a plastic mat or towel on the bottom of the tub to prevent slipping. Use a pet shampoo designed for kittens or cats.

Be sure that he doesn’t get cold afterward — you want him to enjoy the experience. Dry him with a towel and keep him in a warm place.

If he has long hair, you’ll ideally want to get him used to a blow-dryer. Just turn it on near him at first and let him get used to it. Then let the blown air hit his back from a distance, gradually moving closer. Use a low heat setting and be careful not to burn your kitten’s skin. When using a blow-dryer, start with the cat’s back and sides, saving the tail, abdomen and hind legs for last as these are the areas most likely to evoke protests. If he’s cold, he’ll quickly learn that the blow-dryer is nice! But give him treats to further convince him. Never place a cat in a carrier with a blow-dryer aimed inside.

Nail Trimming

Kittenhood is also a good time to get your pet accustomed to having his nails trimmed. Start by applying gentle pressure to the top and paw pad areas simultaneously to help extend the claws. Clip the sharp tip of the nail off, avoiding the blood vessel or "quick" that runs through the center of the nail. If you accidentally hit the quick, you can apply styptic powder to help stop the bleeding.

You may want to start by trimming a single nail each day and gradually work your way up to more nails as your cat grows more comfortable with the process.

More Than Just a Clean Cat

Grooming isn’t just about making your cat look his best; it’s important, because it gives you an opportunity to detect the presence of skin problems or parasites, such as ticks and fleas. "Flea dirt" refers to black grains of flea feces. If you place some of these grains on a white surface and add a little water, they will turn red, because they are actually digested blood. Look especially carefully around the tail base, head and neck for flea dirt.

During each grooming session, look for any areas of hair loss or reddened skin. Ringworm, which is not a worm but a fungal infection, can be fairly common in kittens. Your veterinarian can diagnose and treat the condition.

Grooming is good for your feline’s health, but it also allows you to spend some relaxing time with your cat, engaging in a bonding activity that you both should enjoy. Of course, that time will be much more relaxing if your cat’s coat is in good condition and if you’ve taken the time to accustom him to being groomed while he was still a kitten.

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