I’m going to disappoint you right off the bat by saying, when handling cats, there’s no one “magic” hold or position that will make every cat into a sweet, compliant, cooperative participant.
However, there are substantial differences between grooming dogs and cats—and cats absolutely know when you are not treating them how they would prefer! Choosing the wrong technique in the wrong moment can spell disaster for both cat and groomer.
There are a variety of ways to approach cat grooming, but understanding how to balance gentle and supportive comfort with firm and confident handling will greatly improve how cats respond during every groom.
In general, cats cannot be “sweet talked” once they have a meltdown or if they are swatting, hissing and trying to bite. The most important thing is to prevent them from escalating to one of these situations. Nervous and withdrawn cats can absolutely benefit from a groomer being slow, calm and soft–spoken. But, while all cats should be treated with respect, being too passive or light–touched can have the opposite effect on a cat who responds to new experiences with aggression.
For the shy cats, the focus should be on introducing loud sounds or services slowly and as quietly as possible. This can include using a Happy Hoodie over their head, muffling loud equipment noises like the blow dryer, slowly turning on the water in the tub and any vacuums or grooming vacuum systems, and providing them a place to curl up and feel comfortable. Many young and nervous kitties can benefit from a break during the groom if they are getting overwhelmed, or even some cuddling in our laps or wrapped in a large, fluffy towel. This can build trust and help them to be brave during a new and scary experience.
But not all cats will appreciate those things! If you attempt these slow, quiet, comforting techniques on a bold or impatient cat, it can cause the cat to respond in the completely opposite way. This type of cat doesn’t want to be coddled; they want you to be done. Instead, they need a confident groomer who can get each phase of the groom done quickly and with little agitation.
The opposite end of the spectrum is being too heavy–handed or rough when handling cats. This can include having too many hands on the cat at a time, pulling or prodding more than one part of the body at a time, using rigid loops or harnesses that the cat struggles against, or using firmer techniques (like scruffing) repeatedly on a cat that doesn’t need them. A cat that is otherwise cooperative can become impatient and annoyed with too much moving, lifting and manipulating of body parts. This can cause a previously compliant or even shy cat to start behaving aggressively.
There is a notable difference between being firm and confident versus being rough or overdoing it. Those impatient and bold cats mentioned above respond best to limited ways they are moved or manipulated around, because they want to do it themselves. So, successfully grooming them includes a combination of working around what they will do themselves and deliberate holds that allow you to do what you need to do safely, but also in as short a time as possible. For example, a cat who prefers standing and walking around the table should be groomed as much as possible on the table, versus forcing them to have all shaving, combing, etc. done in the lap or while being held down. You’ll be able to get a lot more done and prevent the cat from becoming agitated early on by working with these preferences.
A cat who is aggressive right off the bat but requires specific services (like mat removal and/or shaving) will rarely get better for grooming if they are forced into positions for an extended period of time. For these cats, I typically will hold them more firmly in my lap so I can remove the mats quickly while being able to see the skin and matted areas (which limits the risk of nicks, cuts or skin irritations). Then when I bathe and blow–dry them, the handling is much less and the cat typically does well for the rest of the groom—or at least until the very end/final comb–out when they’ve reached the end of their patience.
Comfort of Both You and the Cat
While the comfort and positioning of the cat should be a top priority for a cat groomer, it is also important to consider your own body and what techniques you are most familiar with. The reason to consider both is time and safety. Even if a cat prefers certain positions, if you aren’t able to efficiently complete the groom, then it needs to be a balancing act so time isn’t wasting unnecessarily. I see this in cats that prefer laying down on their bellies for blow drying. At some point I need to access their underside, even if they hate it. So, I might roll them over or put them in my lap with a bit more firmness to prevent them from flipping back around so that I can dry those areas of the body as quickly as I can.
The number one thing to remember is that each cat will have different preferences and the techniques used may need to vary slightly. This can include the order you perform services, if the cat is standing unassisted, encouraged to lay on the table, supported in my lap, secured and laid down, or a combination of those, depending on what needs accomplished.
Respectful and confident handling is what leads to a successful groom with each cat that you choose to work with. Adapting to what each cat prefers and tolerates prevents them from escalating in both undue stress and aggressive behaviors. Always limit or avoid what you know aggravates them, but also focus on finding that “sweet spot” in handling that combines safety, comfort and efficiency. ✂️