Grooming Essentials for Dogs and Cats

Grooming, whether batheing or just brushing, is healthy for your pet for many reasons. It also helps strengthen the human-animal bond while allowing you to keep a close eye on your dog's or cat's physical condition to prevent small problems from turning into larger ones. Whether you do all the grooming yourself or take your pet to a professional groomer or veterinarian for certain procedures, here's what you should know to keep your pet clean and healthy.
Cat Grooming Basics
For the most part, a healthy cat will take care of grooming herself. In fact, cats are fastidious about cleanliness! But there are specific things you can do help her stay in tip-top shape.
  • Brushing: Regular brushings will help keep your cat's fur and skin healthy. For short-haired cats, a weekly brushing will suffice. For longer-haired cats, you might need to plan for a daily brushing to prevent painful matting. Brushing with a metal comb will loosen the hair and help break up any clumps. Follow that with a rubber brush to collect the hair. Be very gentle with your cat and stop brushing if she becomes agitated.
  • Bathing: While most cats don't enjoy or need regular baths, there are certain times when it might be necessary. If your cat gets into something sticky, oily or potentially harmful if ingested, you'll want to give her a bath to keep her from getting sick trying to lick herself clean. It likely will take more than one person to bath the cat safely. Use a shallow tub and specially formulated cat shampoo. Be sure to offer plenty of praise and treats as you go through the process. If your cat absolutely will not tolerate bathing, you can try a waterless foaming cat shampoo instead.
  • Nail Trimming: It's important to keep your cat's nails trimmed to prevent damage to both furniture and human skin. As with most unpleasant hygiene habits, it will be easier if you start while the cat is young. Most cats can be coaxed into accepting a nail trimming by taking it slowly and offering lots of treats. Don't try to trim all your cat's nails at the same time. Do one paw and then give kitty a break. Always use an animal-safe nail clipper and only cut the white part of the nail to avoid causing the cat pain.
  • Ear Care: If you bathe your cat, be sure not to get water in her ears. Ears should be cleaned separately using a moistened cotton ball or cotton swab. Be very, very careful not to put a swab down into your cat's ear. Only clean the cartilage right around the opening of the ear. If your cat suffers from recurrent ear infections, ask your vet to recommend a medicated cleaning solution to help prevent them. If you notice black wax that looks like coffee grounds, that could be a sign of ear mites, and you should see your vet for treatment.
  • Long-Hair Care: Long-haired breeds may need extra grooming to head off problems. Keep paw hair trimmed to prevent matting from kitty litter. You should also keep the hair around your cat's behind short to prevent a build-up of trapped feces. Keep a close watch on facial hair to make sure it’s not growing into her eyes, hindering sight or even irritating her corneas.
Dog Grooming Basics
Dogs typically require more grooming than cats, but the amount of work required varies by breed. Here are the basic grooming requirement that will help keep most dogs healthy.
  • Brushing: For short-haired dogs, a weekly brushing will help keep his skin and coat clean and healthy. Start with a rubber brush to loosen hair and dirt and follow that with a bristle brush to remove dead hair. For dogs with dense fur that's prone to matting, start with a slicker brush and then use a bristle brush. If your dog has a long, silky coat, he'll likely need daily brushing. Remove tangles with a slicker brush and then use a bristle brush. (Ask your vet or groomer for advice for your dog's specific breed requirements.)
  • Bathing: While there are no rules about how often you should bathe your dog, a good rule of thumb is at least four times a year or whenever he really needs a good cleaning. In fact, bathing your dog too often can cause his coat and skin to become dry and rough. Regular brushing can minimize the need for baths, but when you do wash your dog, be sure to use only a gentle dog shampoo (dogs' skin is a different pH from humans). If your dog will tolerate a human hair dryer, only use it on the lowest setting and don't blow it directly onto his skin.
  • Nail Trimming: Unless your dog spends a lot of time walking on concrete, his nails will require regular trimming. As soon as you hear that tell-tale clicking on the floor, it's time. Use only dog-safe nail clippers or a pet-nail grinder and only remove the white part of the nail. If you accidentally cut too far, you can stop the bleeding with styptic powder. For dogs with black nails, be especially cautious. You might want to have your vet or an experienced groomer do the trimming.
  • Ear Care: When you bathe your dog, don't forget to clean his ears, too. During the bath, you can keep his ears dry by gently putting cotton balls inside them. Afterward, wipe the inside of the ears to remove dirt and wax build-up. You can use mineral oil or a special ear-cleaning solution from your vet. (Never insert a cotton swab into your dog's ear canal.) Also keep an eye out for any usual discharge, swelling, redness, crustiness or hair loss, which should be examined by your vet.
  • Breed-Specific Care: Dogs with wrinkly, loose skin around their faces (like pugs and shar-peis) need to have their skinfolds cleaned and dried regularly. It's most important to keep the folds dry to prevent infections. Dogs with droopy ears (like basset hounds and cocker spaniels) should have their ears checked weekly to prevent wax build-up. Dogs that shed heavily can be brushed with special tools to prevent their fur from matting and to speed up the natural shedding process.
If you notice any unusual lumps, bumps, lesions or discolorations on your pet's body during a grooming session, it might be time for a visit to the vet. Your vet likely also offers "medical" grooming services, including nail trims, hair trims around delicate eye and ear areas, treatments for skin conditions (from mange, mites and ringworm to simple dry skin) and parasite infestations (like fleas and ticks). Your vet might also offer grooming services under sedation for pets that won't tolerate professional groomers.

This article has been reviewed and approved by Kristi Snyder, DVM.
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