Everyone loves a cat’s whiskers, majestic eyes, and tiny toe beans. But nothing has incited more cartoons, jokes, and internet memes than the unsightly, completely disgusting, potentially harmful, and yet infinitely laughable HAIRBALL.
I hate clichés, but a hairball is the nature of the beast. Cats have hair. A lot of it. And they groom themselves. A lot. Most often the hair that is swallowed passes through their digestive tract and out in their stool. Sometimes it accumulates in their system, creating a blockage. This is a serious issue that should be addressed by your veterinarian, not your friendly neighborhood cat lady. Other times, hair hangs out in the stomach for a while, then decides to make a second appearance when kitty vomits on your brand new rug, clean kitchen floor, or the foot of your bed in the middle of the night.
For many years I had two cats that enjoyed and happily complied with regular brushing. I was able to brush them frequently without bloodshed or need of wildlife gloves and sedation. To say my male cat Smudge absolutely loved to be brushed is an understatement. The mere sight of his own miniature Goody hairbrush made him melt. He purred and squeaked and drooled while I brushed his entire furry little body.
My current Brat Pack however, is not so compliant. Despite all the affection and toe-touching as kittens, Fox and Nellie refuse to be brushed by human hands. Fox is a wee bit more of a challenge because:
He is a large cat, weighing somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 lbs
He hates to be held or restrained
He has sharp teeth and even sharper claws
He has a very thick, beastly coat
He likes to be clean
Fox spends many an afternoon lounging in the sun, meticulously grooming himself. He also grooms his bib and feet after every meal. Gotta keep those white parts squeaky clean. He is normally a happy, even-tempered guy. But even the lightest restraint makes him freak out. His overly tidy nature and extreme dislike of human grooming leads to a lot of hairballs. Sadly, he doesn’t give any warning signs or indications when the urge to purse strikes. He just blurts it out…
In the hopes of decreasing our hairball issues, Fox and I have recently been working on helping him become more receptive to brushing. Better late than never, right? Here are a few important things to keep in mind when grooming your own cat:
Start Slowly I spent a lot of time just showing Fox the variety of brushes and combs I’ve acquired in the last 20 years. I just laid them on the floor and let him sniff them. Then I picked each one up and showed it to him. We slowly worked up to him letting me actually touch him with the brush.
Timing is Everything Be sure kitty is approachable and in a receptive mood, not sleeping, playing, coming off a catnip high, or stressed. It will end badly for both of you. I like to catch Fox right before or after he’s had a good nap, when he’s in a particularly happy mood.
Watch Body Language and Signals Ear position and tail flipping are two easy ways to gauge your cat’s mood. (So are claws and teeth, but keep reading) Stay away from problem areas. Fox doesn’t like having his feet touched, so I don’t even bother going anywhere near them, not even his legs. I brush slowly down his neck and back, using gentle strokes with a light touch. If you note any sensitivity, discomfort, or muscle spasms call your vet. Some cats use aggression to hide pain.
Got Treats? Have treats readily available, the smellier the better. Fox is extremely food motivated, so he is able to tolerate 5 – 10 minutes of brushing if he is appropriately distracted. I don’t give him an entire bag of treats, just enough to hold his interest. In between treats, he sticks his big head in the bag and inhales the intoxicating aroma. Never reward negative behaviors, only the positive ones. What gets rewarded gets repeated!
Mix it Up Not all cats respond to the same types of grooming tools. If they don’t like the slicker brush, try a soft-bristle brush or a small human hair brush to start with. I’ve even used a tooth brush on Fox’s head and face to acclimate him to a brush. There are dozens of brushes, combs, grooming mitts and such available at your local pet store or online. It may take some trial and error but you’ll find something that works.
Know When to Walk Away Know when to run! Even with the promise of treats, Fox will only tolerate brushing for a maximum of 10 minutes. Try to end your grooming sessions on a good note. If claws or teeth show themselves, stop immediately and walk away. Do not smack or physically correct your cat. When Fox gets a little too feisty, I firmly say “NO” or “NO BITES”, take the treats, and walk away. That’s it. Be consistent with your verbage. Cats are smart and will learn what you’re saying but only if code words are used consistently in the same situations.
Regular brushing is an important part of keeping your feline friend happy and healthy. It not only removes excess hair that can potentially cause digestive issues, it also gives you the opportunity to do a mini physical exam, checking for lumps, bumps, and anything else that’s out of the ordinary. However, not all cats like to be brushed. Sometimes it takes weeks or months to build trust, a comfort level, and find a product that works for you and your cat. At 10 years young, Fox and I are late to the grooming party. But with consistent effort and a lot of patience, we’re getting there. Brushing sessions have strengthened our owner-cat bond and helped him look so much better! Proof that time spent with cats is never wasted.