Senior Cat Grooming Tips

Written by:

PetMD Editorial
Published: January 09, 2017

Image via John E Heintz Jr/

By Kellie B. Gormly

As it is with humans, when senior cats grow into old age, they tend to slow down, rest more and have more physical challenges. And just as our hair will lose its luster as we age, so will a cat’s coat. In the case of our cats, however, it is not just the aging itself that makes the coat look less pretty. The senior cat tends to change his grooming habits, and that is where pet parents can step up and fill in the gaps.

Here, find out more why senior cats might stop grooming themselves and how you can help your senior cat maintain his coat.

Why Senior Cats Stop Grooming

It is not that an older cat doesn’t want to groom himself much, but doing so may be physically difficult to do, says Dr. Laurie Millward, assistant professor-clinical at The Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“They lose ability to self-groom usually because of arthritis,” says Millward. “It hurts, and their mobility is decreased. Those joints … they just can’t bend like they used to.”

Arthritis in cats typically comes when a cat reaches double digits in age, Millward says. The disease can strike any joint, including knees, hips, elbows, shoulders and toes. When cats experience pain moving, they can’t stretch their heads to groom certain spots like they used to when they were more limber. This can lead to areas of your older kitty’s coat becoming messy, dull and unkempt.

Unfortunately, some pet parents don’t recognize that their cat has arthritis because they are so skilled at hiding pain, says Millward. “I see a lot of clients who feel guilty because they don’t notice that [their cat] is in pain. It’s not their fault, because the signs are very subtle.” Discussing the use of joint supplements for an arthritic cat, like Glucosamine and chondroitin, as well as certain pain medicine for cats with your veterinarian can be helpful.

Another physical change in aging cats that affects their grooming needs is increased oil production from the skin, which can cause mats in the coat, even in shorthaired cats, says Lynn Paolillo, head instructor and certifier for National Cat Groomers Institute of America. This can most often be seen at the base of the tail, leading up the back, Paolillo says, but increased oil production affects the entire body. Brittle or damaged cat hair also can become tangled and form mats, she says.

Senior cats may also become lax in their grooming habits due to obesity, which can come on from decreased activity in old age, Millward says. This can lead to unkempt fur and a dirty posterior because your cat cannot lick himself clean in that area.

“I see a lot of obese cats, and they just cannot bend because they have such a big belly,” Millward says. “Usually, they can’t groom their back half.”

Many underlying illnesses can cause a neglect in grooming, like adrenal disease and diabetes, which can come on with aging.

Cat that have illnesses like diabetes and hyperthyroidism typically require more frequent grooming to remove dead hair and excess oils before it mats, and to ensure that the process of grooming is less stressful, Paolillo says.

Tips for Grooming a Senior Cat

How can you provide better grooming to your senior cat, and make it an enjoyable experience for both of you? Millward and Paolillo offer the following tips:

  • Make grooming a pleasant experience. Pet your cat as you brush him and giving him plenty of verbal praise or cat treats throughout the grooming session. “Make it a happy experience with your voice and your body language,” Millward says. Avoid doing things (like holding your cat down) that lead your cat to struggle to get away and potentially cause injury, Millward says. If he doesn’t like grooming, do shorter sessions.
  • Brush your cat regularly. This will keep his hair neat prevent mats from forming. Daily brushing is ideal, especially if you have a longhaired breed, Millward says. Use a gentle, soft touch when brushing, as vigorous moves can hurt tender joints, Millward says. Additionally, consider getting a grooming brush that has softer bristles instead of the wire-bristled brushes.
  • Take care of mats. If your cat’s fur is matted, bring him to a groomer to cut them out (they won’t go away on their own). “Cats, and especially senior cats, have tissue-paper thin skin that can be cut very easily,” Paolillo says. “It is best to let the professional cat groomer take care of these problems to minimize the risk of injuries.”
  • Don’t forget to clip your cat’s nails. Trim your cat’s nails monthly using special cat nail clippers for the task. Note that your cat’s claws will become thicker as he ages, with the outer layer of the nail sheath shedding less. This means that more regular nail trims are needed to keep the nails from becoming ingrown and painful, Paolillo says.
  • Make regular vet appointments. Your senior cat should receive gets regular veterinarian exams (at least once a year) to catch any underlying medical problems before they grow and maximize your cat’s quality of life, Paolillo says.

Looking for other ways to keep your senior cat healthy? Here, find our top 10 tips for senior cat health.