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To groom or not to groom: What is necessary for our feline friends?


Exploring what factors impact the decision whether or not to groom a cat

cat grooming

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Content submitted by Basepaws, a dvm360® Strategic Alliance Partner

Cats are promoted by the internet as the easy-to-care-for companion that fills the void for wanting a pet, without the responsibility that is put into owning a pet such as a dog. However, this type of thinking could not be more wrong.1 Having a cat as a companion comes with many responsibilities that we tend to take for granted, including grooming. After all, they are supposed to be mostly self-sufficient, and that includes them having a built-in shower. This is a constant and heated debate in the animal industry.

This brings up the question: “Do cats actually do a decent job of grooming themselves, or should cats routinely be bathed and brushed by either the owner or a trained professional groomer?”

Scientific fact: cats do groom themselves

In veterinary medicine we can break it down scientifically2 and justify the statement that yes, a cat “grooming” itself achieves many important factors in their health. Grooming after all is defined as an act of brushing and cleaning a coat. Their 12 tiny incisors have a function for assisting in grooming such as picking up ectoparasites from their fur or chewing on their toenails to remove old husks.

What about the tongue’s 4 unique types of backward-facing barbs3 that essentially act as a comb of sorts? Those papillae stimulate circulation, help provide a feeling of comfort when caring for kittens and other cats when allogrooming occurs, distribute oils4 and saliva5 into the fur, and helps release pheromones from certain areas of the body on the cat. This proves the fact that cats don’t “just lick themselves;” they are purposefully caring for themselves or another cat. However, in medicine, we know that obsessive licking or self-grooming can indicate underlying problems in the cat.

Cats don’t groom; they lick!

However, some feline professional groomers may passionately inform you that cats only lick themselves and simply distribute saliva all over their fur, thus needing regular bathing and brushing by a human. As cat lovers, we have all witnessed at one time the long-haired cat struggle with grooming its coat’s length. Their tiny tongue struggles to sweep up the length of the coat only to stop mid-lick, stuck in a section of fur that will never be cleaned properly on its own.

While we see this cat physically attempting to clean itself, it cannot get the job done properly thanks to its genetics of being blessed with fur far longer and denser than its tongue can handle. While this can be amusing to humans, it can be a genuine struggle for the cat to take care of itself.

In reality…

Like most answers for our feline friends, it depends on the cat’s personality, and demographics of its living conditions (indoor only, indoor/outdoor or outdoors only) and is absolutely coat-dependent on what is possible for caring for the cat’s fur. Every cat is going to be different and should be evaluated on an individual basis.

Your business model can be affected by this, especially when your livelihood is grooming on a professional scale. Many veterinarians, internet feline experts,6 professional groomers, “feline influencers,” and even pet owners agree to disagree on this topic. They either think cats do fine on their own and there is no need for intervention, or there is no question that intervention is absolutely necessary for all cats regardless of how clean they appear.

In other situations, however, many experts and cat owners feel you only need to take care of the coat when a problem arises, which is when a cat tends to see the groomer the most. As a feline-centric veterinary technician for twenty-plus years and one who performs professional grooming at my clinic workplace, I can see both sides of the argument. Ultimately, it comes down to the cat and their human companion’s decision for care.

In veterinary medicine, coat health is one of the important factors that we tend to overlook beyond the obvious: dandruff, parasites, skin diseases and matting. We tend not to focus on coat health prevention but instead on the problem presented with the coat. After all, the cat should be cleaning itself, right? When was the last time you asked a client, “Do you regularly groom or brush your cat at home, if so, what are you using to groom them and how often?”

Many veterinary clinics see the value in routine pet grooming and offer the service as part of their business model beyond a “mercy groom’ when the cat is essentially shaved, as the coat cannot be salvaged. It's part of their medical care we can provide to enhance their quality of life. While grooming takes time, it is worth it for cats that need the additional assistance.

Smelly Cat, smelly cat, it's not your fault.

Normally a cat’s coat should smell, “neutrally pleasant” and odor-free. However, their coat will pick up the odors of the environment in which they reside. In particular, they will absorb cigarette/cannabis smoke, potpourri scents from plug in room devices or sprays, essential oils from lotions and perfumes, and the mouth odors from a partner cat’s saliva from allogrooming. Not only does this cause the coat to smell unpleasant and changes the texture, but the cat is also ingesting microscopic particles from their coat that may lead to many of the diseases they present with today in the veterinary office.

There are cats that can have gorgeous, well-maintained coats their entire life and these coats may not need anything beyond buffing or combing out several times per week let alone bathing. Then there are cats that will need some assistance grooming regardless of coat length to keep them clean and comfortable. This is when educating the client on their cat’s coat health and maintenance is important, gathering additional information such as:

  • What your client can afford with routine grooming either at home or professionally—Grooming can demand a large portion of a client’s pet budget. Preparing the client ahead of time during a consultation and what to expect can help alleviate some of the issues and help them plan for future care.
  • The amount of emotional effort they are willing to invest in their cat’s coat—The client has to actually want to be involved and made to feel they are capable of following recommendations for maintenance care. After all, many cats do not enjoy grooming and it is just as emotionally stressful for the owner as it is for the cat.
  • Are they physically able to perform any recommended upkeep at home to maintain the coat between grooms, or are capable of bringing the cat in routinely for grooming if needed?—This allows for an open-ended conversation on expectations and outcome for the care of the cat. One thing to remember is no judging. Every client, including the cat, has limits for what can be done for care.

Cats come in 3 basic flavors for grooming and each cat will respond differently. Many times, you won’t know what type you are working with until you start physically handling them. However, the language and better handling techniques do need to be changed on how cats are perceived in the animal industry as a whole, not just in veterinary medicine. Fear Free and Feline Friendly Handling certifications are available for anyone in the animal industry to learn how to modify their handling techniques, reducing stress for the cat. Here are the 3 types of behavior responses to grooming:

  1. Cats that love being groomed and enjoy the attention they are receiving—However, this cat can have its limitations and that needs to be respected before ruining a great relationship with the person grooming them.
  2. Cats that are in fright mode the entire time and leave you wondering if they may attempt an escape or choose to hide and accept its fate—These cats need to be groomed as quickly and as quietly as possible to prevent an unwanted incident from occurring in the facility. These cats do benefit from anxiolytics before their grooming procedure.
  3. The reactionary and defensive cat—This is the cat that requires an anxiolytic or full sedation to prevent escalation when handling. You have invaded their personal space and are causing unnecessary stress. Cats do not “get used to aggressive handling” such as scruffing.

It is okay for a cat to be given either an anxiolytic or full sedation for grooming, if necessary, regardless of what the latest internet groomer sensation tells you. Cats are a species of prey and predation. They are a reactionary species and have a limit on what they will tolerate, and that limit needs to be respected. If not, the cat can either hurt the person(s) grooming the animal or themselves, some cases even resulting in death due to stress, a comorbidity or accidental harm with grooming restraints and equipment.

This is where understanding their body language and stress levels are important for success. The language for describing the reactionary cat negatively as “aggressive” in the animal industry as a whole needs to be changed as well as seeing it being normal to force an animal into a situation that can cause not only physical but emotional distress to both parties. It's okay to set boundaries when working with these cats.

As feline professionals, we aren’t here to break their spirit to simply get a task performed because we are paid for the service, we are here to enhance their quality of life. What we need to do better in practice is speak up for the cat’s mental well-being equally as their physical self.

Which cats should be groomed?

As I said earlier, each cat is case dependent, however, there are some case examples that need more assistance than others:

  • Cats with severe dental disease that either cannot groom themselves due to oral pain or lack of teeth that are simply distributing thick saliva that’s teeming with bacteria all over themselves causing a dull, stinky, less than healthy looking coat.
  • Senior cats, cats with known hyperesthesia and arthritic cats will need special, gentle attention as they tend to be more sensitive with their skin and joints.
  • Cats with longer hair that do not have the patience to be groomed at home or even ones that enjoy grooming may need professional attention to remove excess fur throughout the year.
  • Obese cats may need to be regularly groomed, especially if they cannot clean their hind end—These are the cats with raw bottoms from urine and fecal scalding that require regular bathing and sanitary shaves. Not only do we need to maintain the coat, but this helps prevent skin infections. They also tend to have a dull, greasy coat from skin oils and coat build up over time as they are not able to care for themselves causing matting.
  • Hairless breeds—One of the overlooked breeds that require regular maintenance for healthy skin. How many times have you seen these particular breeds come into the clinic having greasy, stinky skin, questionable nail beds, and gunky ears? These cat breeds require routine bathing at home. Are you routinely educating about skin care for these particular breeds during their exam?
  • Cats with known medical conditions such as heart disease or another comorbidity that need additional veterinary monitoring to prevent injury or a cardiac incident.

Regardless, at the end of the day the debate will continue to be differences of opinion regardless of the known facts. However, we can agree many cats need help due to comorbidities, age, and coat condition due to the inability for home care as well as breed specifics.

Grooming can be an incredibly intimate bonding experience for the cat and owner enhancing their human-animal relationship. At the clinic, it's up to us to start educating early at the first kitten exam, which should include the importance of regular grooming supporting this bond beyond the basics of care.


  1. Thinking of getting a cat? International Cat Care. October 1, 2022. Accessed October 19, 2022. https://icatcare.org/advice/thinking-of-getting-a-cat/
  2. Lick away: The science behind cats' self-grooming. The Jakarta Post. November 20, 2018. Accessed October 19, 2022. https://www.thejakartapost.com/life/2018/11/20/lick-away-the-science-behind-cats-self-grooming-.html
  3. Wilson J. Cat Tongue – All About Your Cat’s Tongue. Cat World. Accessed October 19, 2022. https://cat-world.com/cat-tongue/
  4. Why cats groom themselves. Hill’s Pet Nutrition. January 1, 2018. Accessed October 19, 2022. https://www.hillspet.com/cat-care/behavior-appearance/why-cats-groom-and-lick-themselves
  5. Noel AC, Hu DL. Cats use hollow papillae to wick saliva into fur. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018;115(49):12377-12382. doi:10.1073/pnas.1809544115
  6. How often should I bathe my cat? Jackson Galaxy. Accessed October 19, 2022. https://www.jacksongalaxy.com/blog/how-often-should-i-bathe-my-cat/
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