Should I Brush My Cat or Do They Clean Themselves?

by K Marie Alto December 22, 2021 10 min read

Should I Brush My Cat or Do They Clean Themselves?

We're all familiar with the sight of a cat licking themselves, using those barbs on their tongue to comb through their fur. This grooming behavior helps them remove loose hair, comb out mats, clean their fur, and spread protective oils throughout their coat. It's a natural behavior.

We've also all seen cats who seem to love being brushed. A simple bristle brush can be both helpful and pleasurable for your feline fur baby. Some love it, some tolerate it, and some might avoid it, so the question becomes: does your cat need help, or are they good enough at cleaning themselves?

What Grooming Does for a Cat

Cats groom themselves to stay healthy and comfortable. They also groom as a soothing mechanism.

What Grooming Does

  • It helps with wound care. Cats lick at scratches, cuts, and wounds to help remove dirt or debris, and to help fight certain infections.
  • It hides their scent. In particular, they tend to hide the scents of feeding, so predators aren't attracted to them smelling like food.
  • It spreads sebum and oil throughout the coat. This helps keep your feline's coat healthy and shiny.
  • It's comfortable and pleasant. Cats groom themselves because it feels good, similar to a nice massage or running fingers through your hair. Cats also groom one another (and their human friends) as a way of building emotional bonds.
  • It helps them regulate their temperature. Saliva on the coat evaporates and carries heat with it, helping cool them down in warmer climates.

Of course, sometimes grooming can go wrong. Behaviors made for outdoor environments might not adapt well to a sheltered and cared-for kitty, and evolutionary differences can change the effects of behaviors over time.

The Problem with Cats Grooming Themselves

Modern cats may develop a few problems from grooming.

The biggest and most frequent issue you've likely seen is a hairball. When cats groom themselves, their brush-like tongue traps shedding hairs. Some of those hairs are pulled free and left to the environment, but others are swallowed. When your cat swallows hair, some of it passes through their digestive tract, but some can end up tangled or stuck. Over time, this builds up into a hairball, which they then need to get rid of on the most difficult to clean soft surface. 😣  Any pet parent who has stepped in one or had to clean one up from the carpet knows exactly what we're talking about!

While typically just a nuisance to us pet parents, hairballs can cause bowel obstructions.

Problem Cats Grooming Themselves

Some cats can develop obsessive grooming habits. Psychological triggers such as anxiety and stress can lead to over-grooming. Neurological diseases can as well, including some compulsive behaviors, which can lead to them picking and pulling at their hair until they leave themselves with large bald patches. Food allergies, fleas, and ringworm can all trigger this as well.

While you generally don't want to try to prevent your cat from grooming themselves, you may want to supplement their behavior with grooming of your own, as well as watching for obsessive grooming that can indicate problems you need to solve in other ways.

When a Cat Stops Grooming Themselves

There are a handful of reasons why your fur baby might not groom themselves. We'll give you a rundown of those possibilities and whether or not they're a cause for concern.

They never learned how.

Never Learned How

Cats might seem like they have grooming built into them at a genetic level, but that's not actually true. Like many behaviors, kittens learn grooming by watching the adult cats around them do it, and being groomed themselves.

This means that cats with developmental issues or, more commonly, cats that are taken from their parents at too young an age will often not learn those behaviors. They will need to be taught in other ways if they're still young enough to learn. Otherwise, you need to groom them when they don't do it themselves.

Growing up we had a kitty that didn’t seem to know how to groom.  As a kitten she needed help cleaning after using the litter box and throughout her life she always had to be brushed to keep her fur from matting.  She was not a willing participant with brushing, so during the summer her long fur was shaved to keep her comfortable.

They're getting old.

Old Unconcerned Cat

Senior cats develop issues as they get older. While these issues can range from mildly inconvenient to debilitating, one of the common problems is that they no longer care to groom themselves as much as they may need. Younger cats spend as much as half of their waking hours in various states of grooming; older cats tend to prefer simply sleeping in the local sunbeam. Unfortunately, this means that older cats tend to develop issues with their coats that need more attention.

They have a medical problem that makes grooming unpleasant.

Cat with Medical Problem

Many medical issues can lead to grooming becoming an unpleasant task for your feline friend. They might develop sensitive skin, or their fur might start to fall out in clumps. They may have dry skin that cracks or flakes as they lick. Or, they may simply have internal issues or joint pain that makes twisting to groom harder or more painful. Even something like dental disease can make it unpleasant to groom.

They're overweight and can't reach everywhere.

An Overweight Cat

Obesity in cats is a problem for many reasons, but did you know it affects grooming as well? As amusing as it can be to watch a chonky cat trundle around the house and fail to make leaps from furniture to furniture, it's quite detrimental to their health. The extra mass gets in the way of their ability to twist and bend to groom parts of their body and can result in them no longer trying.

Any of these problems can be serious enough to warrant a vet visit and extra care.

Do You Need to Brush Your Cat?

Brushing Your Cat

Brushing your furry friend brings with it many benefits.

  • You help remove dirt and spread their natural oils, leaving their coat healthier (and preventing them from swallowing those contaminants themselves).
  • You help remove shed hair, so it doesn't end up all over your furniture, gathering in the corners, or forming hairballs in your fur baby's stomach.
  • You help stimulate blood circulation to their skin, which keeps their skin healthy and their coat growing well.
  • You help remove dead skin and dry skin flakes which, again, can cause problems in your cat's digestive system.
  • You build a stronger emotional bond with your furry friend. Since grooming is a bonding behavior, grooming your cat (and allowing them to groom you) helps to build that connection.
  • It gives you a chance to look for problems with their skin or coat, and identify if fleas have infested your poor fur baby's coat. You can use this as part of a larger grooming process as well, to also check for toe and nail health, look for ear mites or other problems, and check for eye issues. A lot can go into comprehensive grooming beyond brushing.

Waiting to start brushing your kitty until they’re much older and need assistance is setting yourself up for resistance.  If your kitty isn’t used to being brushed, they may bite at the gadget not understanding what it’s for.  If you’re also working to remove matts, they may associate brushing as an unpleasant experience.  The simple answer here is yes; you should be brushing your cat on a regular basis, and you should start early. The question is, how often?

How Often Should You Brush Your Cat?

The main variable determining how often you should brush your cat is their coat.  

"Hairless" cats like the sphynx breed do not need regular brushing. However, some of them may grow jealous of other cats if you brush them and might demand to be brushed as well. You can brush them with a very soft-bristled brush, or a lint brush, that won't scratch or damage their skin.

How Often Brush Cat

Short-haired cats tend to need brushing about once a week. A soft-bristled brush is usually a great option. If you leave it lying around, your feline friend may take the opportunity to occasionally rub against it or even carry it to you, asking to be brushed. You may also consider a stiff-tined comb to help loosen fur before brushing, to more fully clean their coat.

A long-haired cat will need more maintenance. They tend to shed a lot, and the longer fur is a greater risk to your fur baby's digestive system. Many long-haired cats, including breeds like Maine Coons and Persians, should be brushed daily.  

How to Make Brushing Your Cat a Great Experience

Brushing and grooming your cat can be made into an enjoyable experience, or it can be anxiety-inducing. It all depends on starting young, getting your fur baby used to the tools you use, and rewarding them when all is said and done.

Use the right kind of tools.

Tampico Bristle Brush

Using a brush like our Tampico bristle brush is a great option for kitties with short hair. The plant-based bristles distribute the skin’s oils while removing loose fur. This brush is also a great option for kitties with sensitive skin as the tightly packed bristles won’t scratch the skin.

 Brushes by toe beans

If your kitty has a longer coat, using a more loosely packed bristle brush will do a better job at getting deeper into the coat to remove loose fur from the under coat.

If you’ve found some matts in your kitty’s coat, use a pin brush to break them up.  The EarthCare Dematter pin brush is specially designed with rounded tips for a gentler experience.  We highly recommend pet parents avoid the use of so-called slicker brushes. These tools if not used properly may injure your cat’s skin thus making brushing an unpleasant experience.  The use of slicker brushes is better left for professional groomers. If you have a slicker brush at home, you should try it on your own head first and we promise you’ll never use it on your kitty again!

In addition to getting the job done while being gentle on your cat’s skin, you can feel good about the source of the EarthCare dog and cat brushes. The handles of all three brushes are made of FSC sustainably sourced wood, as opposed to  petroleum derived plastics common in most,if not all other similar pet brushes.

Additionally, both of The EarthCare dog and cat bristle brushes fibers are 100% natural which allows for a superior job of spreading those natural oils for a healthier shinier coat. Synthetic fibers simply lack this feature. The pin and bristle brushes have a plant derived rubber pad that allows the brushes to contour to your kitty’s curves for a thorough and gentle brushing.

Test their mood first.

Testing Cats Mood

As every pet parent knows, just like us humans, cats have different moods and attitudes, so you’ll need to watch for their body language. Are they curled up or loafed, in posture indicating they don't want to be bothered? Is their tail flicking around, indicating they want to play? These are signs that they might not be in the right mood to be groomed. If you try to brush them, chances are they're more likely to avoid the brush or even try to play with it, which is obviously counter-productive.

Start in "safe" areas.

If you've never brushed your cat before, or you're new to grooming cats in the first place, make sure to start slow. You want to move the brush slowly through their fur and stick to less sensitive locations like their back and sides. Between the ears, across the back, and under the chin are all good places to start.

Safe Starting Area

Make sure you move slowly when you brush. You don't want to hold your kitty down and yank the brush through their fur. Instead, mimic the smooth, shorter movements of a cat's tongue. After all, cats don't groom one another in long single strokes.

Gradually work towards "unsafe" areas.

A cat's belly is often considered a "trap" because of how likely they are to attack if you go in for some pets. Sometimes it's a play attack, and sometimes it's more serious, depending on their mood and attitudes, as well as how much they trust you.

Brushing Cat Belly

The first several times you brush your cat, unless they're very clearly receptive to it, don't try to brush these areas. Always pay attention to their body language, and if they pull away, swat at, or try to bite at you or the brush, stop trying to brush that area. You need to build up trust with them first.

Work in an inspection.

Grooming time is a good time to check your fur baby for issues. Things to look for include:

  • Checking their eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and tail for signs of mites, infection, or other issues.
  • Watching for flinching or signs that their skin is sensitive or in pain.
  • Looking for patchy areas in their coat, or mats and dirt that shouldn't be there.
  • Checking their toe beans and claws to watch for problems, broken nails, or nails that need trimming.

Inspecting Cat Health

All of this helps you get a "status update" on the overall health of your fur baby, so you can spot problems before you need to rush to an emergency vet.

Reward their good behavior.

Part of grooming is the positive reinforcement that tolerating you messing with their coat (or ears, nails, or face) is a good thing. After every grooming session, reward them with something they like. It might be playing, it might be fresh organic catnip, or it might be a tasty treat. Giving them a small reward after grooming helps teach them that, even if they don't particularly enjoy the experience, they'll get something nice out of it at the end.

Rewarding Cat With Treats

So there you have it. Should you brush your cat? Yes! It's a great opportunity to check on the health of your fur baby while also building a stronger emotional bond with them, and even minimizing the potential for health issues like hairballs (or even allergies in your human friends.)

Now let's turn to you, our cat parent readers! Do you have regular grooming sessions with your furry feline friend? If not, have you considered starting? Additionally, have you given any of our brushes a go while grooming, such as our Tampico bristle brush? If so, what were your thoughts about it? Be sure to leave all your comments, stories, or thoughts down in the comments section below!

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 19K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).


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