cat grooming

How to Groom a Cat (Step by Step)

Cats don’t always do as they’re told. You know it’s in your cat’s best interests to brush it, but your cat might not, and it might hiss, bite and scratch to make you stop. So how do you groom a cat for the first time, or a cat that hates you?

How do you groom a cat? Start by picking the right brush or comb for your cat breed. Brushes with pins that are far apart are best for grooming long-haired cats because their fur is so thick. To groom your cat for the first time, start when your cat is relaxed. Show it the brush, and brush it somewhere that it can see like on its chest, so it understands what you’re doing. Progress to other parts of its body, but only move on to its belly, paws and other sensitive areas once it’s fully comfortable. If your cat has matted fur, trim it if you can’t brush it out.

The guide below is short and easy to follow; if you go through it step by step, your cat will be much more comfortable when groomed. There are also sections with useful info on why cats need to be groomed, how to groom a cat with dirty and matted fur, and how to groom a cat that hates you!

How to Groom a Cat Step by Step

If you’ve never groomed your cat before, don’t worry. If you teach your cat to enjoy it, it will never be a problem. It’s only if you force it to sit there and be groomed, and turn it into a negative experience, that it won’t.

1) Pick The Right Cat Grooming Tools

Not all cats benefit from being brushed with the same kind of brush. That’s why there are around a dozen different popular kinds, and many more manufacturers.

Slicker Brush

When your cat grooms, it rids its coat of loose hairs, dried blood and dirt. This is a basic slicker brush, and is perhaps the most common kind used.

The slicker brush is one of the most common pet grooming tools on the market. It has a relatively long handle with a curved rectangular panel at the end. The panel is covered in thin metal pins. Slicker brushes work well to remove debris and loose hair from any cat’s coat.

Pin Brush

Pin brushes are the exact same as the brush you use on your own hair (if you have any). They are a good general-use tool for grooming cats: they can tease out knots, get rid of old loose hairs, or just neaten your cat’s coat.

Bristle Brush

Bristle brushes have even thinner pins which are called bristles. On some brushes, these are stiff, while on others they’re softer. The softer kind are kinder to skin, but the harder kind make for a better brush.

Dual-sided Brush

Dual-sided brushes have two functions. They look like regular hair brushes. On one side of the hair brush are generic hair brush pins, like the kind you would brush your own hair with. On the other side of the brush are softer bristles. The brush side is for normal brushing, while the soft bristles are for improving the coat’s condition by spreading its natural oils.

Rubber Brush

Rubber brushes are typically smaller than other brushes, and fit in the palm of your hand. Instead of plastic pins, they have thicker rubber ones. While the pins aren’t long and thin, their rubberized surface helps catch hold of loose hairs instead. The thick, rounded ends of the pins are also kind to a cat’s skin.

Mitt Brush

Mitt brushes are like thick rubber gloves. They have short rubber pins instead of longer plastic ones like normal brushes have. The point of mitt brushes is that they combine petting and grooming, so if your cat enjoys being stroked but not groomed, a mitt brush might work.

The FURminator

The FURminator looks a little like a squeegee, except instead of a long rubber panel at the end, it has a long metal comb. The point of a FURminator is to remove undercoat hairs while leaving topcoat hairs in place. It should be used carefully; if used incorrectly, it can cause bleeding, too much fur loss, and uneven topcoat growth.

Grooming Comb

A grooming comb is like a comb with the handle of a brush. These are good at detangling knots. Some have pins far apart, which are good for long-haired cats, while others have them close together.

Moulting Comb

Moulting combs are like regular combs, but crucially, they have pins of different lengths. This means they can penetrate through to the undercoat at the same time as grooming the top coat. As the name suggests, these are good for when a cat (or any other furry pet) is moulting.

2) Start When Your Cat Is Relaxed

cat meowing a lot
When your cat is at play, it’s more likely to try and get away from you when you try and brush it.

Grooming is a cooperative process. If you live with someone, you probably wouldn’t brush their hair or pluck their eyebrows without asking, or at least checking that they’re in the right mood. You should treat your cat the same way.

As such, before you groom your cat, check to see that it’s relaxed. Pick a time when your cat has had its food, is in its bed, and is half asleep. There is the chance that you would disturb your cat by brushing it, and it wouldn’t like what you’re doing as a result. But it’s much more likely that your cat will run away or dislike being groomed when it’s in the middle of playing, eating, or wanting to go outside.

Best is when your cat is relaxed in your lap. It’s already geared toward being petted and stroked, so it should take grooming in its stride.

3) Introduce Your Cat To Its Brush

Cats are reasonably intelligent, and can recognize objects that they spend a lot of time around. They recognize whatever box or tube its treats come in, for example. In the same way, your cat can recognize its brush, and know that when the brush comes out, it’s time for grooming. You want your cat to make a positive association with the brush rather than a negative one, as this initial perception will color how your cat feels about being groomed.

This isn’t complex. Put the brush near your cat’s head. Let your cat do what it wants—whether it wants to sniff it or ignore it, that’s fine. In particular you want to show your cat the brush side of the brush, i.e. the bristles or pins.

What can help is making the brush smell like your cat. Cats use their senses of smell more than we do, and use pheromones to mark their territory and objects. That’s why your cat rubs its cheeks against furniture or against your hand. To help it feel more secure with the brush, rub it on your cat’s bed or on one of its toys. Your cat produces pheromones in several places, so anything it spends a lot of time around will smell like it on a pheromonal level. This familiarity will make your cat more comfortable with its brush.

4) Start Where Your Cat Can See

Grooming may not necessarily feel nice for your cat, for example if it has knots in its fur. Matted fur is even worse, and is very painful to comb or brush.

To help your cat get used to being groomed, start doing so where it can see. Brushing your cat’s chest works well: this isn’t one of your cat’s most sensitive areas, and it’s somewhere that your cat can easily see and understand what you’re doing. If your cat seems comfortable, you can then move to places it can’t see, like its back.

The point is that if your cat has never been groomed before, it won’t understand the feeling of what you’re doing to it. Brush bristles or comb tines against the skin can be an odd sensation, even a painful one. Your cat will be able to see what you’re doing, and that it isn’t some kind of threat it has to deal with, putting it at ease.

5) Avoid Anywhere Your Cat Is Sensitive (At First!)

Ideally, you would want to groom every inch of your cat’s coat. Matted and dirty patches can form anywhere.

But for now, it would be best to only stick to certain areas of your cat’s body. Almost all cats have parts of their body that they don’t like being touched. Some don’t like being touched on their paws, many don’t like being touched on their tails, and most don’t like being touched on their bellies.

When you’re grooming your cat for the first time, avoid these areas unless your cat seems very relaxed. The first time you groom your cat is all about building up trust and getting your cat used to the feeling of the brush or comb, rather than getting your cat’s coat entirely clean and neat.

If your cat enjoys its first ever grooming session, you can test the waters by starting with one of its less sensitive areas. If your cat hates having its belly touched, but only dislikes having its tail touched, finish the session by gently grooming its tail. If it responds badly, you don’t have to carry on, but if it doesn’t mind, continue briefly. Then over the course of the next few grooming sessions, you can move on to each of its sensitive areas to see if it will allow you to groom there (e.g. its paws and its belly).

6) Check for Signs That Your Cat Is Unhappy

The bristles on a brush can hurt your cat, or it might just not like physical contact. There are several signs to look out for that your cat is unhappy.

Again, grooming is a cooperative process. You should continually check that your cat is happy to be groomed.

The problem is that if your cat is the kind to be unhappy, but suffer through whatever you’re doing, it will have a bad experience. It will then be more likely to avoid you the next time you want to brush it. There’s also the chance that your cat could lash out if you do something it doesn’t like. Signs that your cat is unhappy being groomed include:

  • Your cat turning its head abruptly to stare at what you’re doing
  • Your cat lashing its tail from side to side
  • Your cat freezing and tensing up
  • Your cat flicking its ears or turning them to face backwards
  • Your cat growling, yowling in a low voice, or hissing

There are two schools of thought on what to do when your cat is unhappy during grooming. On the one hand, if you carry on, you teach your cat not to like being groomed; you also teach it not to like you. You may also teach it that you’re going to groom it anyway, no matter what it does. On the other hand, if you stop grooming, you keep your bond with your cat intact. You ensure that it doesn’t grow to hate being groomed. But at the same time, you may be teaching it to complain to get you to stop.

Overall, the best course of action is to continue grooming briefly on a part of the body that your cat is comfortable with, like its back. If it carries on complaining—if it really hates being groomed—then it’s best to stop. But if it stops fussing, you can carry on.

7) Check Your Cat’s Eyes, Ears, Nose & Mouth

With your cat relaxed and happy, now is a good time to give it a once-over health check. This is easy enough to do, and can identify health issues before they get bad. In particular, you should check your cat’s eyes, ears, nose and mouth as cats can develop issues like ear mites or gum disease without you noticing. You don’t need any special tools to do this.

  • To check your cat’s eyes, stroke its head to pull its ears and ears backwards slightly. This should open them up a little, and you can see any conjunctivitis, corneal ulceration, swelling or anything similar.
  • Play with your cat’s ears and fold them back to check for ear mites. They leave behind an obvious brown crusty mess.
  • Your cat’s nose should be pink and can be wet, but shouldn’t be runny.
  • Your cat may not want you to poke around in its mouth. Wait until it yawns and you can get a good look at everything.

Making these basic checks can save you lots of money in vet’s bills, and of course, improves your cat’s health.

8) Trim Your Cat’s Claws (Optional)

Your cat’s coat isn’t all that needs to be groomed. You may also need or want to trim your cat’s claws. To do this, you should use special cat claw trimming tools rather than the nail clippers you use for your own nails. You should also take care to avoid cutting into the quick, which is the triangular section of nail close to the paw. All you need to cut is the very thin section that pokes away from the main body of the nail.

Bear in mind that most cats don’t like having their claws trimmed, so if your cat doesn’t like being brushed, it definitely won’t like this.

Trimming your cat’s claws also isn’t necessary if you have some other way of managing them. One way is to let your cat out. Your cat will wear its own claws down walking on hard surfaces, or scratching and climbing trees. If you can’t let your cat outside, a scratching post achieves the same end. Teaching your cat to use a scratching post is better than trimming its claws, because it’s easy to accidentally trim too much claw away, which is painful for your cat.

Do You Need to Groom Your Cat? (Benefits of Grooming Your Cat)

If your cat won’t let you groom it even when you follow all these steps, don’t worry.

Most cats can groom themselves well enough that they don’t need your help. Cats with short coats of fur can keep their fur clean enough and free enough of loose hairs without you brushing them. They’re also not likely to develop knots because their fur is so short. It’s cats with longer coats of fur that definitely need to be groomed. Long haired breeds like Persians or Maine Coons are highly susceptible to developing knots and matted fur. If you don’t groom your long haired cat regularly, especially if it’s an outdoor cat, it will eventually get matted. You’ll then have an even tougher grooming job on your hands than if you just stuck with the guide above.

That being said, grooming does have benefits even if your cat doesn’t need help keeping its coat clean. If you frequently groom your cat, it ensures that:

  • Your cat develops fewer hairballs
  • You spot fleas before the infestation gets out of hand
  • You spot other health conditions before they get serious (e.g. ear mites or gum disease)
  • Your cat won’t shed as much on your furniture or on you
  • You build a better bond with your cat

If your cat still won’t let you groom it, you could try buying a new brush that it likes that better. Alternatively, you could take your cat to see a groomer, who will groom them for you. Either you could do that regularly, or they could show you how to do it.

How to Groom a Cat with Matted Fur

If your cat has a dirty and matted coat, regular grooming won’t help it. Brushing out all of the knots and mats would cause your cat significant pain, and take a long time to do. You therefore have to take a different approach than the one above.

Should You Bathe a Cat with Matted Fur?

Bathing your cat might be your first instinct. If you had a severe problem with your hair, then you would do the same.

However, bathing a cat with a matted coat is a bad idea. Matted fur can’t revert back to normal fur. You can’t untangle it by bathing and shampooing your cat. This would clean your cat’s dirty fur, but not untangle it. As such, it’s recommended not to bother, and to bathe your cat after removing its matted fur.

Try Combing & Brushing First

Before trimming your cat’s fur, you should at least try to brush/comb the knot out first. That’s because using scissors to trim your cat’s coat could result in cuts to its skin, at least when not done correctly. You should therefore exhaust your options before resorting to doing so.

Work Corn Starch or Talc Into the Coat

This step helps prepare the coat to be trimmed. A matted coat will be dirty, greasy and difficult to work with. Starch or talc will wick up most of the grease in the fur so that it’s easier for you to handle and cut through.

All you have to do is take a little starch or talc and apply it to your cat’s coat. You can either do that by shaking it over the affected area, or putting it on manually with your hand. Work it in as much as you can, although if your cat protests too much, don’t force the issue (as matted fur can be very painful).

Trimming a Cat’s Matted Fur

Slide the scissors underneath the matted fur and trim it away. Hold them level with your cat’s skin rather than at an angle, as this reduces the risk of injury. Once you cut away the worst of the matting, try brushing away any knots that are left. You want to make as few cuts as possible, and brush out any knots/mats that you can.

Trimming matted fur can be dangerous and should only be done as a last resort. That’s because you have to trim close to the skin to get rid of the core of the mat, but when you lift the mat, it pulls the skin upwards. If you pull on some of the hairs on your arm, you can see the same effect. There’s therefore the chance that you cut your cat’s skin accidentally. Follow these tips to keep as safe as possible:

  • Pull at the mats as little as possible. Matted fur is very painful for a cat, especially when it’s pulled on.
  • Use blunt-nosed scissors to trim your cat’s fur. This will stop the ends of the scissors from poking into and cutting your cat’s skin.
  • Use sharp scissors. It may seem better to use blunt ones, but sharp scissors and knives are always safer. That’s because they’re predictable, and you can make your cut in one go rather than taking several hacks.
  • Stop cutting if your cat is behaving unpredictably. Otherwise your cat could twitch at the wrong moment and you could cut its skin.

Give your cat some treats for good behavior once you’re done. It could take several days to get through all of the mats, because your cat won’t want you to keep trimming its fur.

Brushing a Cat with Matted Fur

When you’ve got rid of all of the mats and knots in its fur, brush your cat as you would brush any other cat. This will improve the condition of its coat.

If the coat is still very dirty and greasy, you could consider bathing your cat. Not all cats would allow you to do that, so only do so if it won’t cause too much stress. There are also detangling sprays that may work. Talk to a vet if the problem seems to be one you can’t deal with.

How to Groom a Cat That Hates You

cat meowing a lot
Not all cats like grooming. This one certainly doesn’t.

If your cat won’t let you groom it no matter what, it can help to think from your cat’s perspective. Try to understand why your cat hates being groomed. Potential reasons include:

  • Your cat had a bad grooming experience in the past
  • The grooming tool you’re using hurts your cat
  • Your cat has lots of knots in its fur, which is painful
  • Your cat generally doesn’t enjoy being handled
  • Your cat doesn’t like you

There are several fixes you could employ depending on the reason your cat doesn’t like being groomed.

Try a Grooming Mitt

If the brush you’re using hurts your cat, or your cat is afraid of brushes, try using a grooming mitt. Your cat may not even realize that it’s being groomed, and think it’s only being petted. You could also try using one of the other dozen kinds of brush, as maybe your cat just doesn’t like yours.

Build Your Bond with Your Cat

The level of trust your cat has in you influences how it behaves around you. Your cat might let you scritch its belly, for example, if it trusts you; but if it doesn’t, it might lash out.

The same applies to grooming. Grooming feels odd and can be painful. If your cat doesn’t trust you, then every nick with a brush or tug on knotted fur will make it react badly. It will think the worst of you and expect you to keep hurting it. But if it trusts you, it won’t think that, and will be more forgiving of your grooming skills!

Building a better bond with your cat is as simple as spending lots of time with it. Always respect your cat’s wishes, and keep an eye out for both positive and negative body language. These are things you should do whether or not your cat ‘hates you’, though.