You can lose yourself in the fur of a cat. Warm under your fingers, glossy-sleek to your eyes, a cat's fur can relax you, make you smile and ease the strain of a hard day. In so many lovely combinations of color and pattern, of texture and length, the coats of our cats are an inspiration to those who appreciate the gifts of nature: a supple pelt covering a body that is itself a perfect picture of symmetry, power and grace.
For a cat, a coat may seem a source of pride, but it's really much more. A healthy coat of fur can protect her from the elements and hide her from both predator and prey. Instinctively, she knows the importance of each hair and spends a great deal of her time in a ritual as old as cats themselves, pulling dead hair free along with the dust from her rambles, restoring order and shine with her marvelously adapted tongue, as rough as sandpaper and handier than any comb.
Considering how much time your cat spends grooming, do you really even need to be involved in the process? Yes! Taking care of your cat's coat -- as well as her claws -- keeps her healthier, makes her easier to live with, and strengthens the bond between you.
Although many long-haired cats must have some help with their grooming, any cat can benefit from human intervention. Even if your cat isn't a high-maintenance type with silky, long hair, helping with grooming offers some benefits to you, as well:
-- Shedding. The fur you catch on comb or brush doesn't end up on your sofa cushions, sweater, or the cream cheese on your bagel in the morning.
-- Smell. Most cats are fairly fastidious, but some cats, especially unneutered males, can be a little offensive from time to time. Longhairs can get urine and feces in their fur, which can be uncomfortable -- and unhealthy -- for you both.
-- Hairballs. This is more of a problem in long-haired cats than short, but no one likes listening to a gagging cat, and stepping on a coughed-up mass in bare feet is even less appealing. Regular grooming by you keeps the volume of fur swallowed by your cat to the utmost minimum, and that means fewer hairballs on your rugs.
-- Bonding. Although your cat may not like you getting involved in grooming at first, if you're persistent, especially with the praise, your cat eventually comes to enjoy the time you spend together at this important task.
-- Destructiveness. Keeping your cat's claws trimmed reduces the need to scratch, because one of the reasons cats claw is to remove the worn outer casings of the nails.
-- Money. Good grooming saves you money in more than one way. By reducing your cat's need to scratch by keeping claws in good shape, you save money on replacing or repairing things. Grooming is also part of a preventive-care regimen: Paying attention to your pet's body not only helps avoid some health problems, but it also helps you detect signs of illness early, which is better for both your wallet and your pet.
-- Allergies. Studies have shown that good grooming, including regular baths, can help allergy sufferers cope with their pets. Some cats have allergies, too, such as to flea bites, and your attention to grooming makes your cat's life more comfortable.
Convinced? Next week I'll offer tips on combing, brushing, nail-trimming and even bathing -- yes, bathing! -- your cat.
CYBERLINKS: Border collies are the undisputed geniuses of the canine world, dogs so smart they could practically do your taxes. Many longtime border collie fanciers think the intelligent, active breed is too high-powered for most families, though, and in the last few years they've fought popularization, fearing an eventual "dumbing down" of the breed will result. The U.S. Border Collie Club's site (http://www.bordercollie.org) is packed with information on this honest working dog. The best part: a collection of excerpts from books by Donald McCaig, one of the best writers on dogs and country living around.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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