Kitten Grooming Basics

Give your kitten a head start on looking great with these grooming tips.

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Start grooming your kitten early so she gets used to the process. Ivan Mikhaylov/Hemera/Thinkstock

“What a mess!” If you’ve ever owned kittens, you’ve probably repeated those words on many occasions. I became personally acquainted with the needs of kittens when a young stray cat we rescued in our neighborhood gave birth to a litter of six kittens under our couch. It was “kitten care crash course” time for me! I’ve spent most of my life in the company of cats, but believe me, kittens are an entity all their own. For the following several months, I frequently repeated the aforementioned phrase.

Welcome To The World Of Kittens
Although feline tongues are, by design, effective at removing some dirt and debris, a little human help can go a long way toward improving the general health and comfort of our furry friends. For the first few weeks of life, Angel Momma (the stray cat who became our permanent family member) did a fine job of cleaning her litter of kittens from nose to tail several times a day. Once the kittens reached around 3 to 4 weeks old, they began autogrooming, or self-grooming. It was adorable to watch them licking their tiny paws and giving their best efforts to imitate their mom. Soon after, they began to groom each other. This is also referred to as allogrooming, an important social ritual that carries on throughout their lifetime.

At 4 to 5 weeks old, the kittens, now getting much bigger and faster, began eating solid food and using the litter box. That’s when things got especially messy! They stepped in their dishes and decorated their living space in poop-painted paw prints. Simply wiping them down with a dampened, wrung out washcloth was fine for the little messes that happened throughout the day. Unscented wet wipes were convenient to use, too. The wipes were even better if kept in a warmer; warm wipes feel good and work more efficiently. At this stage, they didn’t require much more coat upkeep than this. If the kittens got into something really messy, though, they needed a gentle, warm water bath using fragrance-free, kitten-safe shampoo.

How To Make Grooming Fun And Interesting
After more than a decade as a professional cat groomer, I can attest to the benefits of having a cat who is used to and enjoys being bathed, versus a cat who’s terrified because it only happens in stressful situations. The best plan is to start kittens on a grooming routine at the earliest age possible so that it becomes a normal part of life for them.

How they’re introduced to each step of the coat care process makes a big difference in whether kittens will enjoy it or feel threatened by it. Allowing kittens a chance to use their sight, smell and touch senses to investigate the various products and tools beforehand appeals to their natural curiosity. Before addressing coat needs, playing with kittens for several minutes is beneficial for a couple of reasons: It’s fun and it tires them out. Giving them a small snack can be helpful, too. A full belly makes for a sleepy kitten.

Treats, petting and praise given often throughout the experience are excellent operant conditioning techniques that will pay off big time in the short and long term. Incorporating more play with cat toys is a good distraction and helps expel excess energy while keeping the focus off of the grooming tool being used. Clawing and biting at hands or tools should not be encouraged or permitted.

For my own safety as well as theirs, I made sure to check the kittens’ fast-growing claws weekly, and trimmed them as needed. Not only did this help keep them from catching on the carpet and everything else, it also accustomed the kittens to having their paws handled frequently, which is invaluable.

Within a few weeks, we noticed that all but one of the kittens were short-haired. The tuxedo girl’s coat was sticking out everywhere. Long-haired kittens, especially Persians, Himalayans, and other dense-coated breeds, may benefit from keeping the fur around the sanitary (potty) area short.

Tools Of The Trade
It’s essential to create a diverse cat grooming kit with a range of tools and products. Introducing kittens to a variety of brushes and combs is a good way to discover their individual preferences and what’s ultimately best for their coat. Although you may not need to use all of these tools every day, it’s better if the kittens are already familiar with them. Some excellent tools for grooming maintenance include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Stainless steel fine-tooth comb (to prevent and remove small tangles)
  • Flea comb (for parasite removal)
  • Soft bristle brush (to distribute natural oils)
  • Soft-pin slicker brush (for the cheeks, tail and paws)
  • Rubber curry brush (for deshedding)
  • Cat-sized claw trimmer (choose from scissor or guillotine styles)
  • Styptic powder (emergency care if the claws are trimmed too short)
  • Cornstarch powder (absorbs excess oils)
  • Soft cotton gauze pads (for eye secretions and ear cleaning)
  • Saline solution (to rinse the eyes and clean nasal debris)
  • Favorite toys (for distraction and entertainment)
  • Favorite treats (for positive rewards)

Getting Down To Grooming
Every breed of cat benefits from assisted grooming, with only slight variations of techniques and products based on coat type and length. Begin by stroking the bristle or slicker brush along the cheeks and around the head. Move over the body and through the coat with the comb(s). A gentle massage with the rubber brush along the back and sides will be sure to get the purrs flowing. Inspect the paws, ears and teeth every time. This helps establish what is normal and what may be of concern.

Healthy kittens have clean ears and should require very little upkeep. If there’s noticeable debris in the ears, a veterinarian should check for mites or infection. Alcohol should never be used to clean the ears. Witch hazel can be used, as long as it is alcohol-free. Most often, I just put a few drops of saline solution on a cotton gauze pad or ball to wipe the visible parts of the ear. Cleaning with cotton-tipped applicators can easily injure kittens’ delicate ears and is best left to a professional.

The kitten life stage passes quickly. This is the time to seize the opportunity to impart valuable lessons. A cat who is accustomed to being handled, combed and fussed over is typically more laid-back and easier to handle in different situations, including for veterinary exams and professional grooming sessions. Coat and skin care is a maintenance commitment that lasts a lifetime. By helping kittens enjoy grooming early on, their health and happiness is positively affected for all the years to come.

Article Categories:
Cats · Grooming · Kittens