Pets: The self-cleaning cat

Pets: The self-cleaning cat

By Sarah Liu 

Have you ever noticed how clean and chic a happy, healthy cat looks? Over the years, I have had multiple non-cat owners ask me how often I bathe my cat. The idea is laughable. Honestly, I think she’d kill me if I tried. Moreover, as a lifelong cat lover who has known hundreds of cats, I have given fewer than 20 baths, and more than half of those were very young kittens with fleas.

We might take our cats’ impeccable grooming for granted, but thousands of years of nature and generations of nurture have gifted humans with neat and tidy companions fit to share our couches and beds.

Studies show cats spend up to 15 percent of waking hours grooming themselves. If you consider the typical cat is awake less than half a day, that’s really quite a lot. It might seem like vanity, but grooming is an innate survival mechanism. Sharp claws catch prey; clean, odorless fur evades detection by larger predators.

Grooming starts at birth

Mother cats lick their newborn kittens immediately after delivery, removing fluids and stimulating respiration. In the first few weeks, the mother cat’s tongue will keep the babies clean and reinforce a mutual bond of affection. The rhythmic pressure of abdominal grooming encourages digestion, and mom’s raspy tongue will effectively change diapers for kittens too young to eliminate waste on their own.

Kittens are incredibly fast learners

By two weeks, a newborn kitten will attempt to clean herself. By six weeks, she will spend time grooming her littermates, assisting with hard to reach places under the chin and behind the ears. This mutual grooming, or allogrooming, will continue to reinforce social bonds amongst littermates that can last into adulthood. In cat colonies or multi-cat households, allogrooming maintains good relations and follows a complex social hierarchy. For example, a 1998 study from researchers at the University of Southampton, UK and University of Leiden, Netherlands shows that higher-ranking cats more frequently groom lower-ranking cats, generally focusing on the neck and head area.

By eight weeks, a kitten is proficient at grooming herself

Her raspy tongue is barbed with tiny hooks, perfect for removing loose fur and debris, and redistributing skin oils. A full grooming session is usually systematic, going from the top down: licking the lips and nose, then a paw licked to sufficient dampness to wipe the sides of the head, ears and eyes, followed by long strokes to each shoulder and foreleg, the flanks, the anogenital area, the hind legs and finally the tail. You may also notice your cat biting her nails. This is a normal behavior to remove the worn down outer layer and reveal the sharp claw underneath.

Assisted grooming is a great bonding experience

While healthy mature cats are generally self-sufficient, gentle strokes with soft brushes remove loose fur, cut down on hairballs, and soothe nerves for a relaxing environment. Special combs and clippers remove mats and ragged nails, and pet wipes dissolve wax or secretions in inner ears and around the eyes. Like humans, each cat has likes and dislikes, so pay attention to your cat’s body language and accommodate her preferences. Many cats feel overstimulated by repeated attention to certain areas of the body, and will quickly let you know when enough is enough. Brushes, combs, clippers and other grooming devices come in all shapes and sizes and are specific to your cat’s length and texture of fur. Longhaired cats are often more prone to matting and hairballs and will especially benefit from assistive grooming. Shorthaired cats, especially those with a thick undercoat, still shed and will appreciate help removing dead fur.

Regular grooming provides an opportunity to survey your cat’s health

Healthy, stress-free cats have shiny clean coats and supple smooth skin. Grooming gives a chance to look for parasites, such as fleas or ticks, fungal infections like ringworm and allergic reactions to food or environmental irritants like household cleaners. Apart from physical condition, grooming reflects your cat’s mental state as well. Stress in cats can manifest in hair loss, often caused by over grooming, or in oily or flaky fur, sometimes caused by under-grooming. Poor grooming can be a sign of advanced age or obesity, as arthritis or body habitus may prevent the postures necessary to reach certain areas of the cat’s body.

If the terrible day comes when you do need to bathe your cat, make sure to consider the following:

First, you should not use your regular highly fragranced shampoo on your cat. Cats have different skin than humans, with different oils and pH balance. Even baby shampoo can dry out feline skin. Seek advice from a veterinarian, or in an emergency, make sure to use fragrancefree hypoallergenic formulas. In cases of flea infestation, blue Dawn dish soap is your go-to. Second, use warm, not hot, water. Work from the neck down, with gentle, soothing motions. Avoid the eyes, nose and inner ears. Work up a lather, then rinse thoroughly, removing all soap and residue. The cat will lick herself as soon as she is set free, and leftover suds can cause digestion issues or toxic reactions. Third, unless your cat is very young or very weak, she will likely be hostile. Bathing is easier with two people, one to hold, and one to lather. Frightened and angry cats will defend themselves with tooth and nail. Consider wearing gloves, and seek medical attention if bitten or scratched.

The writer is a longtime volunteer with King Street Cats. She lives and works in Alexandria, and faithfully serves her feline soulmate Chloe Huggins. For more information about King Street Cats, go to