I’ve always been more of a dog person than a cat person. While I like cats, I had this idea that felines weren’t as smart, affectionate or trainable as dogs. It wasn’t until I added a cat to my family that I discovered that I was flat out wrong.
Seven years ago, a beautiful little kitten entered my life and my heart—and changed everything that I thought I knew about cats and how to deal with them. It’s been an interesting journey learning about cat behavior and how to approach training and grooming a cat versus a dog, but I learned along the way that you have to change the way you approach the situation.
Dealing with cats takes a very different mindset than dealing with dogs. But why is it so different?
To answer that question, one needs to understand the history of cat domestication in comparison to how long dogs have been a part of our lives. It’s estimated that dogs have been human companions for somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 years, whereas cats have been domesticated for only about 8,000 years. It’s believed that both began their relationship with early man by way of wild ancestors learning that living near humans gave opportunities to scavenge food, and could provide shelter and safety from other predators.
As the humans and dogs formed trusting relationships, the journey of selective breeding for loyalty, trainability and specific traits began, resulting in the variety of breeds and types that we know today. Dogs were selectively bred to perform various tasks such as guarding, hunting and working, or simply for companionship.
Cats were a bit different in their affinity with humans. It’s believed that about 8,000 years ago, cats likely self–domesticated by hanging around farming communities and settled into a mutually beneficial relationship with humans. With their keen hunting skills, they provided rodent control while their human counterparts provided food, safety and shelter.
Over time, not much has changed with cats other than color, coat types and slight physical traits. Cats have served primarily as pest patrol and companions, therefore very little has changed with regard to physical structure and appearance. Whereas dogs have been selectively bred to perform so many different tasks, their size, structure, coats and temperaments have changed so greatly over time, which has made dogs more easily trained and useful to humans.
Because of this history, another interesting fact about cats versus dogs is that because dogs have had such vast physical changes over a longer period of time, it takes many generations of selective breeding to create a new breed. The variety of DNA makes creating desired physical attributes a longer and more difficult process than cats. Since cats have not changed all that much through time, new breeds are able to be established within a few generations, as compared to the decades it can take for a dog breed to become established.
But even with these established breeds in the cat world, cats across the board remain more similar to one another in their behaviors than dogs, and cats have retained much more of their instincts and behaviors of their wild ancestors. For this reason, one has to approach training cats from a very different mindset. In short, dogs perform for us because it pleases them to make their humans happy, whereas cats perform for us to benefit themselves, in most cases.
When I brought my Abyssinian cat, Abyna, into my family, I had done my research. I wanted a cat that was the most “doglike” that I could find. I knew that I wanted a cat that would tolerate bathing and brushing to reduce shedding, and I wanted a cat that would allow me to fuss with her without her fighting me.
This is the approach that we, as groomers, need to employ when we take on kitty clients. Early conditioning is key to a cat tolerating the grooming process. I started bathing my kitten weekly when she was 12 weeks old. I always trimmed her nails before the bath to avoid injury to myself, and I made it a positive experience—even though I’m convinced she thought I was trying to drown her.
The one thing I learned with cats is that you really can’t dominate them. This is a recipe for an angry cat that will fight until you’re either bleeding or bitten. I always used light flowing water, I massaged her and talked to her softly, and after the bath, I wrapped her in a warm towel and tried to towel–dry her as much as I could before the blow dry. I never used a high velocity dryer in the beginning, always a light stream of air, and I used the towel to keep her “swaddled” to avoid being scratched. I was surprised to find that, rather quickly, she became quite content with this process and each bath got easier.
If you groom cats, it’s always best if you can start them early and repeat the process frequently because kittens can become conditioned to things more easily than an adult cat. And where a dog may respond to corrections or even a simple “no,” a cat will not. Keeping a calm demeanor and using a gentle touch goes much further with both dogs and cats, but especially cats.
Another thing to consider is that many cats we encounter have not been conditioned to accept grooming from an early age. The experience of coming to a salon with dogs barking, dryers blowing and strange people handling them can put a cat into a very frightened state of mind, and put them on the defensive. A good idea for those of you that groom cats is to have a specific day or half day set aside exclusively for cats. This gives you the opportunity to create a more relaxed and calm environment for the cats, and a calmer cat is always easier to deal with.
Sometimes the assistance of another groomer may be required to help hold the cat in order to avoid injury to both the cat and the groomer. There are also many products available for groomers to use to aid in the safe restraint of cats during grooming. With that being said, not all cats are candidates for grooming. Some that may have been feral or have had a negative grooming history may need special equipment, or possibly need to be groomed under the supervision of a veterinarian.
As far as training a cat, the approach is very different than that of a dog. Training a cat is about learning how to sway them rather than trying to dominate them. It’s very similar to being in a relationship—you get much further being sweet than you do being sour. I apply the same philosophy when grooming cats.
Cats can be frustrating and even scary to groom at times, but with some patience and a calm approach you can turn those tigers into purrfect pets! ✂️