Ask a Vet: What Can Go Wrong When Grooming a Cat?


When I was seven years old my family adopted a Burmese cat whose loyalty and many years of loving companionship inspired me to become a veterinarian. We obtained her from a pretty sketchy house; I realize now that she had been born into a hoarding situation.

She had never been in a car before the night of her adoption. On the way home she got carsick. By the time the trip was over she was covered in vomit and diarrhea. She promptly received a bath. And that was the last time she required any sort of grooming or bathing in her life (other than occasional nail trims).

Many cats, however, are not like my childhood cat. Some have long hair that can form painful mats. Others have mobility concerns that preclude them from engaging in their natural grooming behaviors. Others still simply don’t have the drive to groom themselves as much as they need to. Long story short: Some cats need humans to groom them.

My editors at Catster recently asked me a question: What can go wrong when people groom cats? The answer is: plenty.

First, however, let me say that the overwhelming majority of cats who are groomed do not suffer any adverse effects. This is especially true when professional groomers do the work. However, most home grooming efforts also go well. And cats that need grooming are definitely happier and better off when they are clean and free of mats.

However, in my line of work I get to see the things that go wrong. So, to reiterate: Although usually things don’t go wrong, there unfortunately are plenty of ways for grooming episodes to head south. Here are some of the tools involved and how things go wrong.

When things go wrong with scissors

When a cat has mats that cannot be combed out, it is tempting to take out a pair of scissors. I recommend that you resist that temptation. Using scissors to groom a cat is an act of brinksmanship. If the mats are tight and close to the skin, it is very easy to cut through the skin rather than the mats. I regularly treat accidental lacerations that occur in this way.

Be aware that the tail — especially the end of the tail — is a place from which scissors should be kept away. Over my career I have treated several cats whose tails were partially amputated by their owners (or in some instances professional groomers). The scenario almost always plays out the same way in my office: A distraught owner brings the cat and the portion of the tail that has been cut off, asking for it to be reattached.

The owner becomes even more distraught when she finds out that the detached portion of the tail has been devitalized and cannot be reattached. After a brief procedure, the open wound on the tail is closed. The hair grows back over after a few months and the cat has a slightly shorter tail, and the owner becomes less distressed.

When things go wrong with clippers

In general, I recommend use of pet clippers rather than scissors as grooming tools. However, cat owners should be aware that clippers aren’t 100 percent safe either. Over the years I have seen my share of clipper injuries in cats.

One of the first clipper injuries I ever saw or treated in a cat made me especially sad, because I was the person operating the clippers when it happened. I was a third year veterinary student, and I was preparing a young cat for a spay surgery. I didn’t have much experience with clippers at that time, and as I clipped the hair from the cat’s abdomen I managed to remove three of her nipples with one stroke of the clippers. I was quite aghast, and I felt terrible.

My angst was tempered a bit by a few things, however: The cat was under anesthesia at the time and later received pain killers for her spay that controlled the pain from the clipper injury. Also, shortly after accidentally removing the cat’s nipples, I intentionally removed her ovaries; this ensured that the ducts in the nipples would not be necessary to drain milk from the cat’s mammary glands. In other words, the incident did not lead to any serious harm to the cat. But I still felt terrible.

Clippers can cause problems in other ways. Cats with sensitive skin may suffer from clipper burn, which is a bit of a misnomer. Clipper burn, in fact, is a mechanical irritation of the skin that is caused by the abrasive action of the clippers. Serious cases can lead to significant and painful dermatitis.

Clippers also can overheat during prolonged use. This can lead to true thermal burns if the person using the clippers isn’t sufficiently careful.

When things go wrong with nail trimmers

Feline grooming usually involves trimming the nails, and nail-trimmer accidents are a risk. I am a proponent of using human fingernail trimmers on cats. The guillotine-style pet nail trimmers are strong enough to cut deeply through the quick if the cat moves her foot at just the wrong moment. This can lead to bleeding and pain, but fortunately is not likely to cause serious trouble.

When things go wrong with shampoo

Some cats are prone to adverse reactions to shampoos used during grooming. Medicated shampoos seem in my experience to have a higher likelihood of triggering such reactions. However, allergic reactions can occur unpredictably with regular shampoos as well. Cats who react to shampoos may suffer from swollen, red, inflamed eyes or significant itching and dermatitis. Over my career I have seen a few instances of cats who developed significant hair loss and severe dermatitis when they reacted to shampoos used during grooming. I recommend that all cats (and dogs) be bathed with hypoallergenic shampoos unless they have a specific dermatological need for a medicated shampoo.

When things so wrong with flea baths

Also, be aware that flea baths generally involve use of shampoos with pesticides that have relatively low safety margins. Cats are at risk of toxicity from these pesticides, and I therefore don’t recommend flea baths. A far safer option is to wash the fleas and flea dirt off with a hypoallergenic shampoo, and then use a safer flea product such as Advantage or Comfortis to kill the remaining fleas.

Other concerns

Special care must be taken when grooming elderly cats or cats with medical conditions such as feline asthma or heart failure. Let’s not mince words: Most cats find grooming stressful. Cats that are already in a weakened condition may not be able to tolerate the stress. I have seen several sad cases of sick or elderly cats who passed away during baths or grooming.

Please know that drying cats after baths can carry significant risk. Blow dryers and heated drying cages have the potential to lead to heat stroke, especially if the cat is elderly or sick, or if the cat is not carefully monitored during drying. My preferred method for drying cats is to towel them off very thoroughly and then keep them in a warm, cozy place — but not to blow hot air on them.

Finally, remember that although there is plenty that can go wrong during grooming, most of the time nothing does go wrong. Cats, like people, are happy when they are clean and their hair is not tangled and matted. Cats who can’t keep themselves well groomed generally benefit from having humans step in to help. But the humans who step in need to remember that grooming is not risk free, and they need to be careful.

Have you ever had a bad thing happen during grooming? Let us know in the comments!

Read more on grooming:

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

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