Brush Your Cat for Bonding, Beauty, and Better Health


As soon as my cat, Oliver, sees his brush, he perks up in excitement. When he came into our home two years ago as a senior cat at age 13, I discovered one of Oliver’s favorite activities was being brushed. I try to brush him daily either in the morning or at bedtime. I brush him in the same location, usually my bed. I start from his head and work down his back to the tip of his tail. If he’s standing, he often raises his rear in the familiar “elevator butt” position that most cat owners know.

I try to brush Oliver every day. (Photo by Debbie De Louise)
I try to brush Oliver every day. Photo by Debbie De Louise

I’ve tried several brushes, but he is fond of the one with a handle shaped to fit between his ears. He also loves to groom himself with the brush by rubbing his cheeks against it as I brush him and afterward if I leave the brush by him.

My other cat, a 7-year-old striped tabby, won’t let me near him with a brush. Like Oliver, he’s a shorthair, but Oliver is Siamese and has softer, thicker fur. Stripey’s fur is rough and thinner. Both shed seasonally, but Oliver seems to shed more often. Stripey was once a feral and is harder to handle in general than Oliver, and I believe that’s why he doesn’t tolerate brushing the way Oliver does.

Stripey isn't so keen on the brush. (Photo by Debbie De Louise.)
Stripey isn’t so keen on the brush. (Photo by Debbie De Louise.)

I always assumed that long-haired cat require more frequent brushing than short-haired cat, as well as professional grooming.But that’s not necessarily true.

Lynn Paolillo is a certified feline master groomer and a certified feline creative groomer. She is head instructor, certifier, and groomer at the National Cat Groomers Institute of America.

“Each cat is different,” Paolillo explains, “and there are many factors that affect the cat’s grooming needs. Coat type and texture, breed, color, age, health, grooming schedule and the lifestyle of the owner.”

Short-haired cats shed, too; regular combing will help remove dead coat fur before it becomes dander. (Photo by Lynn Paolillo)
Short-haired cats shed, too; regular combing will help remove dead coat fur before it becomes dander. Photo by Lynn Paolillo

Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant, the author of Good Cat, a syndicated newspaper columnist, and a radio host. Dale maintains that brushing serves another purpose besides reducing shedding and preventing hairballs and fur matting.

“For cats who enjoy being brushed, it’s a bonding experience,” Dale said.

He says that cats, as social animals, groom one another to bond. He believes this same bonding occurs between humans and cats.

What’s the best way to brush your cat?

Paolillo advises cat owners to brush from the neck down to the tail using short, gentle strokes. The cat can then be brushed under the chin and chest. Oliver, like most cats, usually turns onto his back at this point. If your cat doesn’t, you can gently guide him into a reclining position so that you can brush his belly and underarms.

You can wind down your grooming session with strokes to your cat’s tail from the base to the tip. I always end by brushing the top of Oliver’s head and letting him rub his cheeks against the comb. Paolillo also encourages giving treats and affection during grooming as a reward. Oliver enjoys being brushed so much that I have never given him rewards, but he seems to appreciate my leaving the brush with him so he can still rub against it.

Oliver loves to have his chin and cheeks brushed. (Photo by Debbie De Louise)
Oliver loves to have his chin and cheeks brushed. Photo by Debbie De Louise

Paolillo advises that most brushes are either too soft to do a good job or too hard and can hurt a cat’s skin. She recommends a metal comb, not a flea comb, for short-haired and long-haired breeds. Although combing is preferable, she says owners can use a rubber or curry-style brush or a natural bristle brush on their short-haired cats after combing. long-haired cats should only be combed.

Is professional grooming a substitute for regular brushing?

“A cat on a four-to-eight-week grooming schedule requires very little maintenance at home,” Paolillo says. “Older or senior cats will require more frequent grooms to maintain a mat-free coat. Combing at home can help cut down on shedding and prevent tangles, but a good bath appointment with a groomer will be the most thorough.”

Persian being brushed by Shutterstock
Persian being brushed by Shutterstock

She adds that short-haired cats as well as long-haired cats can benefit from professional grooming; short-haired cats will generally shed more than long-haired cats, so professional grooming can help excessive shedding and hairballs. Dale agrees that professional grooming can be beneficial at certain times, but “there’s a social benefit to grooming a cat who enjoys it. At least some of that time should be with you.”

What about cats who don’t like to be brushed or groomed?

Dale uses a method of desensitizing to solve this issue. He suggests leaving the brush out all the time so that the cat becomes familiar with it. A good place is near the food dish where the cat will begin to associate the brush with his meals.

I leave the brush with Oliver after we've had our grooming session. (Photo by Debbie De Louise)
I leave the brush with Oliver after we’ve had our grooming session. Photo by Debbie De Louise

Dale also recommends playing with the cat near the brush using interactive cat toys such as teasers that most cats enjoy. After doing this for a week or so, you might begin to move the brush closer to the cat’s food or play toys and then gradually pick up the brush by the cat and just touch the cat with it without brushing his fur. Offer some cat treats to distract the cat while doing this. When the cat no longer seems anxious around the brush, begin stroking him with the brush, but back off if you notice resistance. Dale warns that this method of desensitizing doesn’t work with all cats.

“No matter what you do, a percent of cats just have a low tolerance for being brushed or petted,” he says.

Paolillo has a similar approach to helping a cat overcome an aversion to brushing. She also advises starting slowly and rewarding with treats as the cat lets you begin combing. A second person can help give the treats while the other combs.

“If the cat is already tangled, the cat should see a professional groomer to take care of the matting,” Paolillo says. “Then the owner can begin promoting a positive grooming experience at home.”

Stripey is still not permitting me to brush him, but I will continue to try Dale and Paolillo’s suggestions.

Why is brushing your cat necessary?

Although it certainly makes sense to brush or comb your cat for bonding, beauty, and better health, why is it even necessary when cats spend so much time cleaning themselves each day?

Paolillo explains that the licking gesture cats often do through their coats is not grooming.

“They are spreading around saliva, dander, dandruff, dust from under the furniture, and who knows what else (if they go outside at all),” she says. “Pet cats are healthier and living longer than animals in the wild. Because of this, they require help from their owners to maintain their coat. Licking their coat is the equivalent of only ‘bathing’ yourself with baby wipes. It might work in a pinch, but it is not a long-term solution.”

Although I comb Oliver daily, the comb is always full of fur afterward. If I’m too busy and miss a day, he seems unhappy. He seems to have some seasonal allergies, so I notice that he needs more brushing in the fall and spring or he’ll start coughing.

I sometimes combine brushing with playtime. Either before or after brushing Oliver, I offer him his favorite cat teaser. Stripey loves this toy, too, and he often joins in. I hope this will be a way to add brushing to Stripey’s routine.

Beyond a bright and shiny coat, there are great benefits to grooming your cat — improved health and well-being as well as a closer relationship with you.

About the author: Debbie De Louise is a reference librarian at a public library on Long Island. Her second romantic suspense novel, “A Stone’s Throw,” will be published this fall. A member of the Cat Writers’ Association, Debbie has published articles in Cats Magazine and Catnip (Tufts University Veterinary Newsletter). Her short mystery “Stitches in Time” was published in the Cat Crimes Through Time Anthology. She lives on Long Island with her husband, daughter, and two cats.

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