NEW YORK — Cats aren’t easy to groom. They have sharp teeth and claws, and an outsize estimation of their own dignity. Nevertheless, if they’re longhaired, and the hair gets matted, something must be done.
The first time Felix, my black longhaired cat, got groomed, Howard Bedor, a premier cat groomer, came to the apartment. Bedor, who died in 2014, was the official groomer for five Madison Square Garden cat shows. When he wasn’t working with shows, he made house calls. He specialized in uncooperative clients.
He brought a small suitcase on wheels to my apartment, unwrapped his equipment and dressed himself: three sets of sleeves for his forearms, two pairs of gloves and a pair of scratched-up yellow mitts, along with a white plastic apron covered with cat drawings. “My hands are extremely quick from the wrist down, almost as fast as a martial artist,” he said of the protective gear in a video about him called “Pure Fluff.” “But I’m still not quicker than a cat.”
Then he went after Felix, who was hiding in the closet. Felix screamed all the way to the kitchen table, where Bedor fitted him with an “Elizabethan collar” — a clear plastic funnel enclosing his head — and went to work combing and cutting. Felix continued to yell, until he saw his opening and leapt off the table. Bedor caught him midair, plopping him back down.
If Bedor enjoyed the man-on-cat combat during his grooming sessions, Elly Wong — Felix’s current stylist, and the proprietor of Towne House Grooming and Pet Supplies in New York City — takes a gentler, more stoic approach. She specializes in the stylish lion cut: Their bodies are shaved; their heads, the tips of their tails and the bootees on the bottoms of their legs remain furry. The scratches on her arms and hands, she said, are “all from cats.”
Wong doesn’t wear gloves but keeps her distance when possible. And if the cat gets too ornery, she will stop. This barehanded approach has its costs: One cat gave her a bite that got infected, putting her in the hospital.
All five tables in the Towne House grooming room are fitted with L-shape poles. Each has a colorful, adjustable cotton grooming loop dangling from it. Wong chose a table and put Felix’s head in the loop. “If they have something around their necks they feel safer,” she said. “Also, they can’t jump off the table.”
She clipped his nails, then began shaving him. He was fine until she approached his sensitive areas. When he complained, she fitted him with an Elizabethan collar and continued shaving.
Felix yelled, hissed, wailed and showed his fangs. Wong kept telling him she was sorry. He seemed unimpressed.
Wong showed me two muzzles — one of hard plastic, one of mesh — that can be placed over a cat’s mouth and eyes. “When they can’t see, it calms them down,” she said. “But some cats are so afraid, they’re desperate, and they really need to go to the vet. The one cat we couldn’t groom recently left two groomers bleeding. One of them had to get stitches. We took the cat to the vet, and I shaved it down after it was sedated.”
Not all cats
On another afternoon at Towne House, Mibo, a ginger tabby, was well behaved while Wanda Malloy clipped his nails and combed out piles of hair. Then she carried him to a huge industrial sink, putting his head into one grooming loop and his front paws into another. As soon as she turned on the water, he tried to jump out of the sink. She caught him. He leapt again, mewing pitifully. Wong took over, grasping him firmly by the neck to finish his bath.
Not all cats are temperamental. The same day, Biggie, who lives at Towne House, willingly submitted to a lion cut shaving, even around his belly and genitals.
Jemina Garay, who grooms and cares for cats in their homes, worked for years as a technician in a veterinary clinic, where aggressive cats were sedated before shaving. It doesn’t seem weird, she said, to give a lion cut to an unconscious animal. “Once you’re trained for it, you just do it,” she explained.
When she makes house calls, she uses a towel and not a muzzle, as some groomers do, relying on her medical handling techniques to subdue the animal. “If the cat is rambunctious, I swaddle it,” she said, “although that slows down the procedure.”
Most cats fight back. Dogs look to their masters for approval. Cats prefer to disobey.
In the “Pure Fluff” video, Bedor visits two cat-centric households. In one of them, there is a plaque on the wall that reads, “The cat from hell lives here.”