Grooming Aggressive Cats

by Anita Kelsey

The difficulties involved and how to move forward

I have been a mobile cat groomer for three years now and can honestly say that 95% of semi/long haired cats either dislike but tolerate the grooming process, are indifferent to it and let the groomer do what is necessary, or are nice and relaxed, used to being combed and bathed and generally seem to outwardly enjoy their time on the grooming table.

Cat grooming typically involves nails being clipped, fur being combed through, maybe some matts shaved out, trimming around problem areas such as around the bottom, and occasionally a bath. A groomer can expect hissing and grumbling from some cats that dislike being handled. However, there are a minority of cats that are extremely aggressive towards their owner and groomer when approached with a view to combing their fur and these are the ones I’d like to talk about now.

This aggressive reaction can stem from fear, a bad grooming experience in the past, dislike of being handled, fear of pain from a badly matted coat, through to phobias of the grooming process, or even fear of the groomer’s table, some which can resemble a vet’s table as does mine.

The way forward is a very difficult path for the groomer and one I find myself treading very carefully whenever presented with the scenario of an aggressive cat, especially one that needs to be de-matted.

On the one hand, the cat must not get the upper hand and control the situation, especially when it’s coat is matted and the job needs to get done. On the other hand, having to muzzle a cat and hold it down on a grooming table when it’s in ‘fight or flight’ mode doesn’t bode well for future positive grooming sessions . A cat has a good memory and may associate firm grooming with a negative experience. It will react aggressively again when meeting the groomer or when the owner approaches it with a comb in hand.

Sedating a cat every time it needs to be combed isn’t realistic either. So, you can see how difficult each case is when having to groom the coat of a cat that doesn’t want it!

I am going to talk through some situations I have been through with various cats, the path I took during the groom, and the advice given to the owners. Each cat and situation is different and decisions have to be made step by step. It’s upsetting seeing an owner at their wit’s end because they cannot see a way forward with the upkeep of their cat’s coat, especially when it hates being handled. It’s also very unsettling as well as upsetting seeing a cat so aggressive and agitated, lashing out at whoever it can reach, including the owner!

The vocal warnings in themselves can send shivers down one’s spine. Chinchilla Persians are masters at this. Some Chinchillas howl even when my hands are just resting on their bodies to reassure them. It’s quite bizarre!

For difficult cats the lion cut (shaved all over apart from the head, paws and feet) is an option, but this can cause major distress for an aggressive cat and has to be done either under sedation on a regular basis, or at the very least under stress from the groomer. Both solutions are likely to leave the cat quite traumatised. Removing most of the fur from a cat is not a natural state but it could be seen as the only way to move forward with difficult cats. A vicious circle! As a cat behaviourist who does mobile cat grooms, I walk a very fine line as to the right decision to make for the cat, as well as the owner.

The vocal warnings in themselves can send shivers down one’s spine. Chinchilla Persians are masters at this. Some Chinchillas howl even when my hands are just resting on their bodies to reassure them. It’s quite bizarre!

  • Case 1 - A beautiful Maine Coon called Murphy.

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    I received an email from the owner who was clearly concerned with the matting on Murphy’s coat. She explained that Murphy didn’t like to be groomed and had several large matts on his tummy and around his private parts. By the time a coat gets to matting like this, very tight to the skin, it is useless to try combing out. Try to put a comb to a coat like this and the cat will react badly. As usual on grooms like this, I arrive expecting to shave out the matts and the cat to be a tad unhappy and a little intolerant. Clients never really know how aggressive their cat is going to be. Either that, or they never tell you honestly!! The owner told me Murphy doesn’t much like being combed. That was putting it mildly!! From the start Murphy was out to have me for lunch. His nails were extremely long and trying to cut them down, mainly so that I didn’t get scratched, was hard enough. Within seconds I knew that Murphy would bite me the moment he had the chance too. I don’t like to use muzzles and 99% of the time I use a towel as a barrier to protect me and this is usually sufficient, but Murphy made it clear that lunch was my hands or arms and no towel was going to stop him! I put on my dog handling gaiters as a precaution.

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    A typical Elizabethan collar that I use on grooms to protect me and the client from a cat bite.

    No one likes seeing their cat muzzled and neither do I. I believe that face muzzles panic a cat further. An already frightened cat thrust into darkness by way of a hood would be frightening for a human let alone a cat. That kind of heightened fear is dangerous and will make a cat forever frightened of the grooming process. Wearing a muzzle means the practitioner cannot monitor the cats breathing or see if any panting is occurring which is a sign of severe stress.

    Instead, if I feel a cat is going to bite then I use two things: an Elizabethan collar (pictured above) or a towel placed around the neck. The Elizabethan collar means that a cat can see and breath with ease. Wearing protective gloves will further protect me from any bites or scratches.

    The battle to get Murphy calm enough to shave safely was extremely difficult. He hated the table, was obviously reacting badly to me and the comb as well as being handled or held against his will. This is why his fur had ended up matted in the first place. The way forward in this scenario is very difficult and at one stage I advised the client that the only kindest way to do this was to actually have Murphy sedated to remove the matting and then we could start with a clean slate. I never say this lightly because an owner cannot keep sedating their cat for the whole of its lifetime just to keep the fur in good condition and clearly Murphy’s owner was very upset with the thought of that. Upon seeing the client’s eyes well up with tears I decided to think out of the box to get the job done with the least possible trauma. I had to shave this cat no matter what.

    To remove the matts on Murphy’s tummy I decided to remove him from the table and have the owner hold Murphy in her lap. She held Murphy on his back against her stomach and held his two front paws together so he couldn’t lash out at me. His tail was gently tucked between her legs so away from my clippers and I managed to quickly shave the worst matt out before Murphy became unmanageable again. We took lots of 5 minute rests to give Murphy a break. It also gives me time to think of my next move ;-) . Each time we stopped, Murphy was absolutely fine but as soon as the comb or the clippers got anywhere near his body he totally freaked and turned into a feral monster. Shaving out 4 matts took a couple of hours and it was traumatic for him as well as us. The matts were finally removed and the groom was stopped. Murphy didn’t get a comb through. The rest of his fur wasn’t too bad. My main goal was to remove the terrible matting and then just leave him be to recover from the ordeal.

    My methods are always geared towards the least possible stress for all concerned.

    So – what about the future for Murphy?

    In a situation like this, steps have to be taken to get the cat tolerating the combing. In the meantime rather than ignore what’s happening with the cat’s coat the owner was advised to feel EVERY DAY for little knots appearing. The main areas for matting are the arm pits, chest, tummy, bottom, back legs and inner legs. Feel a knot and tease or cut it out. When I say cut it out I mean with scissors BUT with strict safety steps put into place.

  • How To Remove A Matt Safely With Scissors

    NEVER under any circumstances pull up a matt and cut across. Pull up a matt on a cats’ coat and you will be pulling up skin with it too. Cut across and you can cut the skin. Simple as that. Cats skin is like tissue paper and it moves easily and cuts easily. My advice is ALWAYS slide a comb beneath the matt. Once you have the teeth of the comb between the skin and the matt you can then safely cut the mat out. With cats that don’t get any form of regular grooming, owners generally see small matts forming and don’t think anything of it. Leave it for a few days or a week and more fur will form around the matt. Leave it for longer and the matt begins to turn into a tight pelt. Once it has formed into a pelt and is tight to the skin a comb CANNOT slide under it and you then have a problem on your hands. Only shaving can remove a pelt or tight matt.

    Look at the photo below. Your comb should slide between the skin and the root of the mat. NEVER EVER use scissors without the comb in place.

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    The comb should always slide between the skin and the matt

    So, now the client is faced with a cat that is going to remember the fight with me during the grooming and react badly when she tries to groom him. So, what’s the answer?

    As well as trying not to let the cat ever get matted (checking every day for matts and removing them by gently teasing them out, or cutting out with scissors – NB: best time to do this is when a cat is sleeping or in a nice relaxed state), the next step would be to try and gently get Murphy used to the comb on his body.

    Here’s some tips below: I mention the grooming tool ‘brush’ and by this I mean a soft brush or plastic tipped slicker brush as this would be the safest first step and more comfortable for the cat to nuzzle into. You will eventually be moving onto a comb which is the correct grooming tool for semi/long haired breeds.

  • Teaching a Cat To Tolerate or Enjoy Being Combed

    Behaviourists Sarah Ellis and Chriag Patel suggested the following method in the Feb 2013 issue of Your Cat Magazine:

    1. Begin by creating a positive association with your brush. Place near your cat and reward with a treat when he/she starts to investigate it.
    2. Build to holding the brush in your hand, when you are interacting with your cat in a calm way, and allow your cat to sniff and rub against it when they wish.
    3. After a few days doing so, or when you think your cat is ready, stroke your cat with the brush in your hand, so that the brush is not touching the cat but your hand, holding the brush, is. Then hold the brush out for your cat to sniff again. If they rub against it reward with a treat and praise them with more physical attention.
    4. Once your cat is actively seeking the brush you can gently move it against your cats face. Gently and slowly stroke in the direction of the cats coat for 2 minutes a session.
    5. If your cat is relaxed and enjoying the experience try grooming different areas. Cats love the neck and head region and also the back and base of the tail.
    6. Tips: Try rubbing the scent of your cat onto the brush first. For nervous cats link the brush with a reward. Let the cat SEE the brush first and then follow with a treat. Never the other way around. You can even make it into a game. If your cat walks towards the brush then reward him/her!
    7. Never rush any of these steps. Always observe your cat and pick up on what they are telling you. If they appear uncomfortable them take a step back and slowly try again.

    The future for Murphy is a tricky one. The absolute key here is to not let Murphys coat get into a state again and to slowly introduce the above steps so that his coat can eventually be combed through a small section at a time. Positive association is the absolute key as well as perseverance from the owner.

    I hope Murphy forgives me like I have forgiven him scratching me ;-)

  • Case 2 - Herbie gives up the fight

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    Herbie hissed and growled at his owners whenever they tried to comb him which made them very nervous about any attempts to comb him. I was called when Herbie became extremely matted and the clients did not want him sedated again. I was already warned of Herbie’s aggression so turned up to the groom with my leather gaiters and expected a huge fight on my hands. Instead it was interesting to note that Herbie didn’t like the fact he had met his match. His hissing and growling became louder and louder as he tried to intimidate me into stopping. BUT, I always note when a cat is only hissing and growling, but not attempting to seriously bite or scratch. This meant I had a good chance to complete the groom without too much trauma on both sides. When a cat is trying to intimidate vocally, the best course of action for a groomer is to not be intimidated and act with confidence and firmness. I positioned a towel at the side of Herbies face so that if he should turn around to bite me he would get a mouthful of towel instead of my flesh!! I didn’t need to use an Elizabethan Collar on Herbie. He soon realised I wasn’t going to stop and that it would be quicker if he just settled down and let me get on with my job. I asked the clients to stay, so that they could talk reassuringly to him and stroke his head whilst I shaved out his pelts. By the end of the groom Herbie lay still and exhausted. This is when I took the above photo. At one stage he seemed to fall asleep – probably from the exhaustion of so much hissing! I checked the clients grooming tools and like 90% of my clients, they had the wrong tools to begin with. The awful ‘furminator’ was put back on Amazon for re-sale and links sent to the correct combs for the long coat Herbie had.

    In this situation it was basically down to two hard heads battling for control and I had to win if Herbie was going to regain his lovely coat without having painful knots tight to his skin. Once this control was established, Herbie quietened down. I advised the client to keep Herbie’s problem areas shaved (tummy, arm-pits) and his ‘nethers’ to be kept trimmed with scissors. Once these problem areas are no longer a major hassle for the client, they can start on gentle re-conditioning of the combing process, steps for which I noted above in Murphy’s write up. As a cat behaviourist who is also a groomer, I have to decide early on what type of reaction I am dealing with. Herbie’s reaction was caused by his dislike of being combed, joined with his ability to always get away with a simple grumble to stop his owner! His learned behaviour meant he could control the situation and get away with never being groomed. This type of behaviour needs to be turned on its head. He didn’t bite and didn’t act in an aggressive or defensive manner out of fear. His body language was not defensive like some cats (ears flattened on the head, body stiff, body positioning so that all weapons are showing). I would never suggest sedation with a cat like Herbie. His feeble attempts to scratch me were minor ones. His bites were mere nibbles. Only his vocalisations were loud and threatening, luckily for me!! The clients were more than happy to see, at least for Herbie, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

  • Case 3 - Sparkle. A beautiful, petite Chinchilla Persian with a loud roar!

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    Most Chinchilla Persians HATE being groomed and will be very vocal during the process


    Sparkle has an extreme reaction to being combed and to being put on a grooming table (same goes when she is taken to the vets).

    Her manner is extremely fearful. She pants wildly, gets very hot, almost goes into a fit with dilated pupils. I was quite concerned with how she was behaving and asked the owner to tell me when this started. Once I knew the background it wasn’t too hard to understand.

    Sparkle had experienced a badly handled groom in her own home. Already a timid frightened cat, the groomer muzzled her from the start, held her down, didn’t take their time to work with and understand a frightened shy cat and just roughly and quickly completed the groom with a screaming cat who couldn’t see a thing. The cat would have viewed this as an attack on her within her own territory. It’s no wonder I was seeing this reaction to me and this has made the forward journey very very difficult. One which needed a well thought out plan.

    On the one hand we have a cat terrified of grooming and on the other hand we have a long haired coat that needs grooming. Luckily Sparkle had no matts, because shaving would have been out of the question on my first visit.

    My solution was to find her favourite food and have her associate my table with the food. Sparkle’s grooming sessions were to be split over time, so a groom every three weeks was booked in. Sparkle started her sessions placed on the grooming table, were she was offered her favourite treats as the comb touched her body. I was able to comb through small sections at a time whilst she was preoccupied with eating. I also allowed her to move about the table as she pleased (not ideal, but . When she went into panic mode I let her move about and lie on her back and wriggle around and would just talk to her gently not allowing her to fall or jump off of the table. Then when she sat up again I would gently start combing a section and her owner would offer her more tasty morsels. The owner would have to hold her in her arms for me to complete the tail, which most cats hate to have combed, but I did this as gently as possible. I also cut the under fur of the tail short and her nether regions short so that we didn’t have to worry about any matts forming in these areas. We took lots of breaks where Sparkle could play with some toys. The photo above is Sparkle playing with a mouse on one of my grooming sessions. Small steps. I couldn’t imagine muzzling Sparkle and roughly holding her down on the table. It would have destroyed any trust and made it near impossible to reach any form of tolerance to the whole process. It doesn’t really matter how Sparkle looks. She is an in-door cat. It doesn’t matter that part of her bushy tail is short. What does matter is that her coat is kept tangle free and the grooming sessions are kept short, simple and with an element of fun on her side and patience on mine. Sparkle’s eyes still bulge with fear when she sees a comb but there’s no question of me thinking I need to win a battle. Kindness, understanding and patience is the key to gaining Sparkles trust again.

    Well, there you have it. Three different kinds of situations in a multitude of aggressive/defensive behaviours that I deal with on a regular basis.

    I still love my job though and will always be there for owners who have nowhere else to turn and for cats who need to be freed from terrible pelts.


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