So you’ve decided to enter a cat show! Perhaps you have a pedigreed cat you are very proud of and want others to see her. Or maybe you’ve been breeding cats for awhile and would like to see how the kittens you’ve raised measure up.

Showing your cat in a formal competition can be a lot of fun — and winning a title or a few ribbons can be very gratifying. But champion felines don’t just happen. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication.

A winning cat must be in top-notch health, clean and well-groomed. The cat must be relaxed and amenable to being handled by strangers, and should not become frazzled when faced with crowds or unfamiliar surroundings. What are some steps you can take to help your cat look and act like a champ? Here’s what cat show judges suggest.

  • Be a good spectator. Spend some time going to shows just as a spectator — well in advance of becoming an exhibitor yourself. Take note of which cats consistently win and which ones do not. Look at the coat, color, muscle tone, etc., of the champions and learn to recognize the qualities that set these animals apart.

  • Join a cat club. This is not in order to show your cat, but to get help and guidance from experienced exhibitors. “You need to learn from those who know the ropes, and most of those people are key players in the clubs,” says Larry Adkison, an all-breed judge with the Cat Fancier’s Association (CFA). If possible, you should try to find someone in the club who can serve as your mentor.

  • Know the show rules. Most cat clubs publish rules stating how their shows will be run and entry requirements for exhibitors. Get a copy of your club’s rulebook and read it carefully — well in advance of showing your cat. If you do something that’s not allowed, you could be eliminated from the competition.

  • Become familiar with the standard for your particular breed of cat. “Studying the standard is the most important path to success for the long haul,” says CFA all-breed judge Betty White. “Fads come and go, but the breed standard remains.” You need to know how the judges evaluate the cats in the competition, so that you can have a specific goal to work toward. Standards sometimes vary from one registry to another, so it’s important to know the particular standards for the show you enter.

  • Buy quality breeding stock from healthy bloodlines. Select a reputable breeder, one who will help you understand pedigrees and what they mean, and will be available to answer questions and offer advice along the way.

  • Socialize your cat. Get your cat used to being around strangers, unfamiliar surroundings and loud noises at a young age to prepare him for the commotion of the show hall. “Turn on televisions, radios or play CDs so that your cat becomes used to voices other than yours,” suggests Joyce Irwin, an all-breed/teaching judge with the American Cat Fanciers Association (ACFA). “The cat who will be shown needs to be aware that the world contains people other than you, and that their voices sound different and their hands feel different.” When you have visitors, have them hold your cat so he can get used to being held by different people. It’s also helpful to confine your cat to his carrier or show cage for short periods of time, to help prepare him for the time he will spend at a show in close quarters.

  • Accustom your cat to grooming. Start training your cat to tolerate brushing, bathing and nail clipping when he is just a few months old so he will get used to the routine. Longhaired breeds generally need to be combed and brushed daily; shorthaired cats can get by with two to three brushings a week. Don’t wait to start grooming your cat until a week before a show and think it will be OK with him.

  • Be patient. Don’t expect to win ribbons the first time you enter a cat show. “Becoming a winner takes patience, commitment and time,” Adkison says. “It’s not something you just do overnight. In most cases, those who win at the national level have been involved in the hobby for many years and have put quite a bit of effort into it.” Once you finally do get to the top, the fact that it took you many years of hard work makes your victory much sweeter.