The skin and grooming needs of cats are vastly different from those of dogs. One of the biggest differences is that cats groom themselves on a regular basis. We do not observe this on the same level with dogs.
Cats also show quite different behaviors relative to the grooming process, which makes them a challenge, so we must approach the grooming process in a unique way.
When working with cats, the first thing to consider is the less restraint we use, the better. The more you try to dominate a cat, the more they will fight back. Another aspect to take into consideration is that water can be intimidating to cats, so a gentle, slow approach is the best way to handle them. If you are in too much of a hurry while bathing a cat, you will eventually have scars to remind you that does not work.
When it comes to products and approaching skin issues, the science is the science. The skin and skin cycles are the same as other animals so, ideally, they should be groomed monthly. This is something foreign to a lot of cat owners. In some cases, it is even dreaded by the owners because of the “hassle” of transporting the cat to the groomer. Getting cats into the salon monthly should be our ultimate goal when possible—but the good news is, since cats self–groom (not like dog owners that “say” they groom regularly), they actually will do better than dogs. Of course, this is only the case if the cat as well as its hair and skin are in good health.
If the hair and skin are in good condition, then maintenance becomes quite easy. The hair and skin need to be shampooed with a mild shampoo followed by an appropriate conditioner. Using harsh shampoos or dish soap can be very detrimental to the coat because it strips too much of the natural oils. This will leave a dry, harsh coat which tends to break easily, making it difficult for the cat to self–groom.
One extreme difference between a cat and a dog is the cat’s tongue. The cat’s tongue has barbs (papillae) on its surface which behave as a comb or brush as it is run through the coat. This process wicks saliva along these barbs, which also helps hydrate deep into the hair. This function serves very well with healthy hair, but if the hair gets dry, brittle or matted, then we have an entirely different situation.
Think about trying to run a brush through a matted dog. This is similar to a cat grooming its matted coat. It is very painful, so the cat stops grooming. Now we are left with a ratty–looking, matted cat. If we can return the hair coat back to normal hydration and eliminate matting, most of these cats will go back to grooming (if not arthritic or suffering from health issues that limit the ability to groom).
Conditioning is the key here. A great technique to help this scenario is condition, shampoo and condition again (using appropriate hydrating conditioners). By conditioning first, it will break down the old sebum and pre–hydrate the hair and skin prior to the shampoo. This will lessen some of the harshness of the shampoo and will add back some of the elasticity of the hair, reducing the brittleness. This doesn’t mean you can use harsh soaps because you conditioned first. You will still need to use mild shampoos.
Many of these cats will also present very “greasy,” so the general tendency is to reach for the degreasing shampoo. Makes sense, right? You will actually get the opposite result! The more the “grease” and oils of the skin are stripped, the more the skin will produce as a response. This may look visually appealing going out the door, but in the long run, they will be back for the same problem. If we use the condition–shampoo–condition technique and use a good hydrating conditioner, then many of these coats will be restored to having normal amounts of oil (versus excessive amounts). The conditioner must be hydrating to be successful (ideally, a humectant). If it is only an emollient that just sits on the surface, then the results may not be the same.
Luckily, we do not see the frequency of skin issues in cats as we do in dogs. This is most likely the case because of the density of the hair. The denser hair of cats works as a good barrier to toxins, allergens and parasites. It does not mean they cannot be affected by them, but it occurs at a lower incidence.
Then the question of shaving cats arises. It’s a pretty simple response; if we take away the protection, they will be more vulnerable. Just like with dogs, we must routinely maintain the coat correctly, otherwise we deal with issues and have to make choices that might not be ideal.
The most common skin and hair issue I see with cats relates back to one of the most predominant health issues in cats—especially older cats—which is dehydration. I have always said that cats are like flowers; they are beautiful when hydrated, but when they get dehydrated, they wilt like a flower. As cats age, they are prone to kidney issues, which lead to dehydration. Keep them hydrated and their health and grooming issues become much easier to cope with.
One thing to consider if you are grooming an older cat without success is that it may be time to recommend some blood work with the veterinarian. Other issues that will show similar signs in cats are hyperthyroid (too much thyroid, which is opposite of what dogs usually have), liver disease, heart disease, etc.
Things are changing very rapidly in the cat world. Cats are living much longer (I recently had a 28–year–old cat in my practice), clients are taking better care of their cats and groomers are realizing that cats can be great grooming clients (contrary to the general belief). When you learn how to approach and relate to cats, they are wonderful pets to groom. It is also a fantastic niche market because not everyone has figured this out. Cat grooming can be an extremely rewarding, lucrative area for groomers to specialize in. ✂️