Skip to Content

How To Teach A Cat To Clean Themselves?

How To Teach A Cat To Clean Themselves? may earn a small commission when you use one of the links on this page to purchase.

Our cats can spend hours on end grooming their fur and some are so into cleaning that they’ll even groom each other.

However, some cats need our assistance when it comes to grooming. Whether this is caused by their age, breed, medical condition, or weight you’ll need to figure out how to teach a cat to clean itself?

While grooming is instinctive, some cats require assistance, but first, you should take your cat to the vet to eliminate any medical causes. You can teach a kitten to self-groom by brushing and patting them with a damp cloth mimicking their mother’s tongue.

A well-groomed coat is a sign of health, so let’s take a look at the reasons your kitty might not be up to the task and how you can step in to help your cat clean themselves?

Why Do Cats Groom Themselves?

The feline tongue is quite magical if you think about it. It’s covered in tiny spines, called papillae, that can transfer large amounts of saliva from the mouth to the fur and act as a comb.

They’re also the reason while your cat’s tongue feels like sandpaper on your skin!

According to Dr. Wailani Sung, “cats typically spend anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of their time grooming themselves, and this is considered a normal behavior for them.”

The reason behind this grooming dedication has to do with your cat’s need to keep their fur clean and free of knots.

Dr. Alexis Noel explains that “when the tongue glides over fur, the hooks are able to lock onto tangles and snags. As the snags pull on the hook, the hook rotates, slowly teasing the knot apart.”

But aside from their tongue’s detangling qualities, not only do they manage to remove the dirt from their fur, that can cause allergies and infections, but they also help keep their fur and skin healthy as they distribute the natural oils from their skin.

Grooming also helps regulate their temperature, especially during the warm months as the saliva they transfer all across their fur evaporates.

Let’s not forget that part of a cat’s grooming routine is also cleaning their eyes and ears, as well as their paws. They’ll also chew on their claws to let the new nail come through!

Finally, cats can use grooming as a relaxation technique, that’s why you will often see them clean their fur before going to bed.

Some cats of course use grooming to combat stressful situations. Some even end up overgrooming a condition known as psychogenic alopecia, and others use this coping mechanism by licking everything around them.

Why Your Cat Isn’t Grooming Themselves?

Every cat has their own grooming ritual, and some are lazier than others. I have two cats and I can confidently say that they both have different cleaning standards.

But there are cats that seem to have no grooming instincts whatsoever, and the question is whether being stinky is normal for some cats.

Reason 1: Your Cat Is A Kitten

It’s easy to think that the animals around us just know how to do things instinctively, but for the biggest part, being successful at surviving in this world also depends on their parents.

Cats learn how to hunt, play nice with their siblings, and even go to the toilet, from their mother and the same goes for grooming.

The cat cleans her babies regularly and the kittens also learn how to clean themselves by observing how their mother is cleaning her fur.

Just look at this wonderful cat mama cleaning her sweet babies!

If you adopted a kitten that was separated too early from their mother or the mother neglected their grooming, then they will have a hard time turning grooming into a habit.

It’s also possible that your kitten is too young and energetic to demonstrate first-class grooming skills. Most kittens are too occupied with playing and exploring the world, that they simply forget to clean themselves thoroughly.

Some are also too fragile, and if you’ve adopted the runt of the litter you might notice that they need more time to learn new things.

When I found my second cat, he was just six weeks old, and while I never had to teach him how to use the litter box, he didn’t bother to cover his poop.

After each use, he would just run out looking for something fun to do instead of thinking about how smelly his uncovered poop was.

For the first month, I had to clean his paws if he did step into his own poop, or simply clean him from the constant food particles that were stuck to his face.

As he grew older his grooming technique improved, and while I still think he’s on the lazy side, he does spend a good portion of the day cleaning his fur.

Reason 2: Your Cat Is Old

If on the other hand, you live with an older cat, then their sudden lack of grooming could be caused by their age.

As our cats get older, they go through physical changes and develop certain conditions like arthritis, certain mobility issues, and painful gums that can affect their regular grooming.

The same goes for cognitive decline that according to ASPCA  “affects more than 55% of cats aged 11 to 15 years and more than 80% of cats aged 16 to 20 years.”

Aside from being forgetful, you might notice your senior cat being overall less active, they’ll spend less time grooming themselves and might even stop completely which can result in smelly, matted, and dirty fur.

If this is the case, you should take your kitty to the vet and see if there’s an underlying condition that causes this grooming aversion.

You will most likely have to take over the care of their fur, by regularly brushing it, cleaning certain areas, like their eyes, ears, and clipping their nails.

Reason 3: Your Cat Is Overweight

Just like old age can cause mobility issues, overweight cats can face the same problem.

Not only it is more difficult for an overweight cat to move, but since grooming requires flexibility, they might also find it difficult to reach certain parts of their body.

For some cats, this can be enough of an obstacle that they’ll end up not cleaning themselves altogether, even easily accessible areas.

According to Jennifer Coates, DVM, “when cats are sick or aren’t flexible because of arthritis or obesity, they can’t groom themselves well and may develop a greasy, unkempt coat that has a slightly “funky” odor.”

Poor grooming can have even worst results in long-haired breeds, where dirt gets stuck in the long fur, creating knots that your cat can’t get rid of even if they try.

A dirty fur creates its own risks, allergies, rashes, and skin conditions. Itchy skin can lead to excessive scratching, which can lead to wounds and infections.

Aside from treating your cat’s skin and fur condition, you’ll also need to deal with their excess weight with the help of a professional veterinarian.

Once your cat is back to their healthy weight, they might begin to groom their fur but this doesn’t mean you should stop brushing them regularly.

It’s important to note that even after losing weight, your cat might associate grooming with pain, and it might take time to change their perception with positive reinforcement.

Reason 4: Your Cat May Be Ill

Grooming is something that most cats partake in, but if your cat doesn’t clean themselves or they’ve suddenly stopped then they might be ill.

Cats that are suffering from a painful condition, can change their day-to-day activities and acquire new habits. Some cats might start mewing, others might begin to excessively clean their fur, while others will become more lethargic.

Since grooming requires a lot of movement and flexibility your cat might stop cleaning themselves if they experience painful joints usually caused by arthritis.

If your cat is always super active and enjoys exploring the outside world, then the pain could be caused by a muscle tear.

Rania Gollakner, DVM, explains that “The most common cause is an indirect injury, or strain, caused by overstretching during athletic activities, such as running or jumping.”

A cat that is avoiding self-grooming could be suffering from gum inflammation or disease.

Dental disease can cause serious pain and discomfort, and not only will your kitty stop cleaning their fur but they might stop eating as well.

If you’ve noticed that your cat’s coat is looking dirty or dull, that they’re avoiding cleaning it, then it’s best not to wait, but contact your vet and see if there’s a medical issue behind this sudden change.

How To Teach A Cat To Clean Itself?

Whether your newly adopted kitten doesn’t have a clue what grooming is, or your older cat simply had never learned how to clean themselves, that doesn’t mean they have to stay stinky.

All you have to do is help them evolve their grooming skills and help them in their self-cleaning journey!

Brush Your Cat’s Fur

If you’re struggling with your kitten, the best way to teach them how to groom themselves is by brushing and cleaning their fur regularly.

This is also a great opportunity to make your kitten comfortable with brushes because even when they grow up their fur will still need maintenance whether it’s short or long. Brushing is simply one of the best ways to reduce shedding and it’s a great way to spend quality time for your cat.

Tammy Hunter, DVM, also suggests that “all cats benefit brushing to remove loose hairs and dead skin cells, to keep the coat free of dirt, debris, and external parasites and to distribute natural skin oils along the hair shafts.

If your cat doesn’t partake in self-grooming sessions, it’s even more crucial to keep their fur healthy.

Not only because they can’t care for it but you will also be more aware of how much they’re shedding, you’ll notice a possible skin condition or another health issue.

A great brush will also help you get better results, and while there are a ton of options on the market, my personal favorite is this self-cleaning brush from Hertzko that you can check on Amazon along with the 60.000+ five-star reviews!

Use A Damp Cloth

Kittens are the epitome of cuteness, but they can also be quite messy since their grooming skills aren’t developed yet.

This doesn’t mean things will always be this way, but your kitten might need your help to stay clean until they get better at it, and some need to be taught the art of grooming if their mother never did.

Aside from regular brushing, another method you can use to teach your kitten how to properly clean themselves is with a damp cloth.

You can use a warm damp cloth or paper towel or a cat-friendly wipe and mimic their mother. Clean their faces, any dirt on their back and belly and you might need to clean their butt if it’s dirty.

Try to choose moments when the kitty is less energetic, perhaps right after food, or before a nap, when most adult cats actually spend time getting properly cleaned.

If on the other hand, you notice that your adult cat doesn’t spend much or any time grooming, then you can use the damp cloth or wipe to clean the dirt from their fur. This can also trigger their need to go over these spots with their tongue.

In my experience whenever it happens that I need to clean my cats, they begin to groom themselves right after, and they look quite offended!

Cats that don’t clean themselves will also neglect more sensitive areas, like their eyes and ears. You’ll need to clear out any natural buildup in these areas, check their ears for mites, other parasites, and conditions.

Another spot that can get dirty, especially with long-haired breeds is their rear. If the fur is too matted, feces can get stuck to the fur under their tail. This can cause more matting, bad smells, and of course skin irritation and infection.

Feline fecal matter can also be a danger to us. If your cat sleeps in your bed they can transfer bacteria onto your pillow.

Whenever you’re cleaning your cats behind remember to wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly after.

Give Your Cat A Bath

Sometimes a damp cloth isn’t enough to thoroughly clean your kitten or cat, so you might want to consider giving them a bath.

This might not be necessary for cats that are fastidious groomers, but Tammy Hunter, DVM, states that “an arthritic or overweight cat that has difficulty grooming herself may need the occasional bath to remove loose hair and objectionable odors.”

“If your cat has allergies, your veterinarian may prescribe frequent bathing as part of the treatment regime,” she adds.

Baths might also be necessary for lazy groomers that are also allowed outdoors, and kittens that can easily have an upset tummy from time to time.

You should also consider their safety by asking their vet how often you need to bathe them and they might also prescribe you a medicated shampoo if needed. If not, avoid baby shampoos and go for a shampoo designed for cats.

Since your cat isn’t much into grooming, you’ll have to be their personal groomer. In that case, you’ll also have to turn their bathing into a positive experience.

Not only you might need to use treats during this process but also choose the right water temperature. Take advantage of the moments when your kitty isn’t agitated, and most importantly don’t rush this process.

Go To A Professional Pet Groomer

I understand that we all want to do what’s best for our cats, but sometimes we don’t have the time to keep up with their regular grooming.

In certain cases, we might not have the skills to deal with severely matted fur, or we need some guidance on how to clip our cat’s nails, clean their eyes and ears without hurting them.

No matter what might be holding you back, you may want to seek the help of a professional groomer.

Certain long-haired breeds might need their back fur clipped so the poop doesn’t get trapped in there. It can cause irritation, infections, and stress when using the litter box which can lead to litter box avoidance.

Of course, relying on a professional groomer on a regular basis might be impossible for your budget.

But even if it’s feasible you’ll also need to consider your cat’s stress. Putting them inside their carrier and driving them to the groomers can cause more stress and other behavior problems along the way.

So, perhaps grooming them in the safety of their home will work better for both of you!

Should I Be Worrier If My Cat Doesn’t Self Groom?

When it comes to grooming all cats are different. Even from my own experience, living with two cats has revealed how different their approach to cleaning is.

But if your cat has never self-groomed or they suddenly stopped, then it could be a red flag that you need to look into.

Take Them To The Veterinarian

Whether you’re a new cat owner that has noticed their newly adopted cat neglecting self-grooming, or you’ve been living with the same cat for years and they’ve suddenly stopped, taking them to the vet should be your first choice.

Cats that are having trouble grooming on a regular basis might be in pain and are facing health issues that only a professional can deal with.

If it’s a kitten that keeps getting dirty, then the vet might notice that they need a different diet to help bring their poop into a normal consistency.

This way they’ll have fewer feces stuck to their fur and the self-cleaning process won’t seem so overwhelming.

The vet can also help treat underlying conditions that are causing pain in your senior can and even help them be more mobile and able to clean themselves.

With overweight cats, they will most likely advise you on how to manage your cat’s weight and make the necessary changes to help them become more active, not only with cleaning but all the aspects of their life.

Your cat might need dental attention, a common enough source of pain that could’ve affected their grooming.

Your cat’s aversion to grooming could also be a psychological issue, caused by stress and your vet might even recommend a cat behaviorist to help your cat regain their old self back.

Finally, your vet can also help with the grooming itself, by clipping the long fur at the back, clipping their claws, and giving you ear and eye cleaning solutions and products, as well as advice on how to do all this yourself.

Kittens Take Time

If you have a kitten and your vet has reassured you that they’re healthy then you might need to train them to clean themselves.

But it’s also important to understand that kittens are a specific stage in a cat’s life where other things matter more than cleanliness.

You can’t expect a human toddler to care if they have dirt smudged all around their face. It’s understandable that all they care about is playing and discovering the world around them.

Kittens are the same and they require patience and some guidance.

One thing you can do is teach them that grooming can be fun. You can show them that brushes are safe and turn grooming into a time of bonding between you and them.

Long-haired kittens need even more care since brushing can be uncomfortable if you stumble across a knot.

You need to make grooming part of your daily or weekly routine and choose moments when your cat is calm, and avoid initiating brushing, or bathing when they’re agitated.

You can ask your vet for guidance and learn how to take care of your kitten’s individual fur, trim their claws to avoid overgrown nails, and check and clean their eyes and ears.

Take Over Their Grooming

When bringing a kitten or a cat into our home we take on many responsibilities to make sure they’re happy.

We feed them and give them fresh water; we clean their litter boxes and make sure they’re healthy by taking them to the vet. Among the many things, we do for them grooming is one of them.

And while some cats don’t require constant attention in that department there are those who do.

Whether your kitten or cat doesn’t like to clean themselves or you have a senior cat that simply doesn’t have the energy for it then you’ll have to take over their grooming completely.

Elderly cats require even more attention and care. You’ll need to be aware of their painful joints and be more careful around their bony areas.

Grooming is also a great time to check your cat’s skin, ears, and eyes for any abnormalities.

But aside from being vigilant, it’s important to see grooming as a fun activity for you as an owner as well and take it as an opportunity to re-connect with your feline companion.

I love seeing my cats stretch their bodies as I brush their fur, and how they rub their cheeks against the brush to get that extra good scratch!

Closing Thoughts

I know most of us see cats as independent creatures, but this is not entirely true.

Of course, they are their own individuals with their own needs and wants, but they are still dependent on us.

As cat parents we need to respect and cherish that, and sometimes this means that we also need to keep them clean!

I’m curious to find out more about your cats and their grooming practices. Have they always been this clean or did you teach them?