Different Strokes for Different Coats: How to Care for Your Cat’s Coat


Cats are known for their fastidious cleanliness. Nature has provided them with the perfect grooming tool: a barbed tongue that gets rid of loose hair and dead skin cells. Cats also use their teeth to dig out tougher dirt. They moisten their front paws to groom areas that the tongue can’t reach. However, sometimes, cats will need some help with grooming. The extent to which they may need grooming assistance will vary with the type of hair coat.

The Different Types of Cat Coats

The domestic cat will fall into one of three categories: short, medium, or long haired. Purebred cats range from the almost hairless Sphynx cat to fluffy-haired breeds like the Persian. Some breeds have crimped, wiry hair, which is also known as permed.

All cat hair originates in the epidermis. Most cats have three different types of hair in their coats. The undercoat consists of soft, short, downy fur. Its purpose is to keep the cat warm.

Guard hairs are coarse, long, straight hairs found in the outer coat. These guard hairs are designed to keep the cat dry. The intermediate coat is made up of medium length hairs known as awn hairs. The part of the awn hair closest to the skin functions much like the undercoat, the part further away from the skin has the same function as the guard hairs.

Benefits of Grooming

Most cats will benefit from regular brushing to remove dead skin cells and loose hair and to distribute the skin’s natural oils evenly along the hair coat, giving the coat a healthy shine. Grooming can also improve muscle tone by providing a mini massage. Another benefit is that it provides an opportunity for a quick physical health check, which may help detect any lumps and bumps early. Grooming can also be a wonderful way for cat groomers and owners to bond with the cats.

A Word About Hairballs

Daily brushing will also reduce the amount of hair that cats may ingest during grooming, which can help prevent hairballs. Although contrary to popular belief, ingesting hair is not the primary cause for hairballs. Most hairballs are caused by compromised intestinal motility. A healthy cat with a healthy gut system should be able to eliminate hair ingested through grooming in her stool. Vomiting as a daily or even weekly method to eliminate hairballs is almost always an indicator of a more serious health problem.

Grooming Tools

Different types of grooming tools will work for different types of coats. Brushes with stiff bristles or wire slicker brushes work best at removing hair from cats with short coats or sparse undercoats. Long-toothed metal combs, especially those with offset tines, work well to remove loose hair and smooth minor tangles in medium and long-haired cats. Grooming tools like the Furminator, which is essentially a clipper blade mounted on a brush handle, can safely remove large amounts of undercoat without cutting the skin. Grooming gloves can work well for cats who don’t like being brushed. They are designed to remove loose hair while petting the cat.

Regardless of the tool used, it’s important to always be gentle and avoid excessive pulling.

How to Remove Tangles and Mats

Minor tangles can usually be removed with gentle brushing or combing. Mats require a different approach. Mats form when dead hairs, combined with dirt or other debris from the cat’s environment, stick together to form hard, tangled areas. Depending on the location on the cat’s body, these mats can be very uncomfortable for cats, since they will tug on the surrounding skin.

A wide-toothed comb may work for safely untangling some mats. Care should be taken to not tug too hard on the mat while working on it. Applying corn starch throughout the fur can help loosen mats, making them easier to comb out.

Never use scissors to cut a mat – it’s too easy to cut a cat’s skin when using scissors. Electric clippers can be used to gently shave off smaller mats close to the skin. Since clippers or shavers can create quite a bit of heat, they should be tested against your own skin before using on the cat, since a cat’s skin is very thin and extremely heat sensitive. In some severe cases, cats may need to be anesthetized for shaving.

To Bathe or Not to Bathe

Most healthy cats will not require bathing. Older, arthritic cats may have difficulty grooming themselves and may occasionally need a bath. Veterinarians may prescribe bathing as part of a treatment plan for cats with allergies. Always remove any tangles and mats prior to getting the coat wet, as they can be impossible to remove after a bath.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of Groomer to Groomer magazine, and is republished with permission.

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