How To Bathe A Cat: Step-By-Step Guide

Key takeaway

Bathing a cat may seem difficult because many cats hate water. However, by turning the experience into something positive, you can make bath time less stressful. Of course, many cats don’t need regular baths, but by getting your cat acclimated to the tub or sink and giving them lots of praise, you can make the next bath easier.

Cats groom themselves to stay clean, but sometimes it's not enough to keep them clean when living indoors. As a pet parent, you might choose to bathe your cat to remove dander and fur to help your cat stay clean and prevent allergies from getting out of hand. Most indoor cats can stay relatively clean by grooming themselves. However, sometimes your cat might get messy, have skin irritations, or have fleas that require a special shampoo. 

Unfortunately, cats don't always love baths, and bathing a cat may seem difficult, especially if your cat doesn't like spending time near water. While most cats don't like getting wet, there are ways to bathe them to help them stay clean without causing too much fuss. Of course, you may experience some meowing or fighting to try to run away from the tub. However, if you can make the experience more enjoyable, your cat will be more receptive to baths in the future. In this article, we'll give you a step-by-step guide to make bathing your cat easier. Here's everything you need to know about how to give a cat a bath. 

How Often Should I Bathe My Cat?

Cats spend between 30 and 50 percent of the day grooming themselves

If you're wondering how to give a cat a bath, you might also want to know  whether or not you really need to. While cats groom themselves a lot, typically spending between 30 to 50 percent of their day grooming,1 they still need to be bathed from time to time. Since cats groom themselves frequently, it's rare for healthy cats to have an unkempt coat. If your cat's coat is unhealthy in any way, it could indicate an underlying health issue or poor-quality diet.2

Cats' tongues are perfect for grooming because they're covered with hundreds of tiny, sharp hooks responsible for giving your cat their unique tongue texture. These hooks are called filiform papillae and are made of keratin to carry saliva into the fur when grooming.3 Since cats are great at bathing themselves naturally, indoor cats only need to be bathed on an as-needed basis. However, it's important to keep their ear and fur clean and trim their nails regularly.4 

Additionally, in some cases, you may choose not to bathe your cat because it can damage your relationship with them. Cats can experience behavioral trauma because the experience of taking a bath, something a cat may hate, can cause them stress and anxiety.4 Cats being forced to take baths may bite and scratch to get away from their pet parents, which could be dangerous for the cat and human. 

Cats that need regular bathing

While healthy cats don't need regular baths, there are some exceptions, including:

  • Hairless breeds: Naked cat breeds should be bathed regularly because they can experience skin irritations due to the accumulation of dirt and grime. Depending on the breed, they'll require weekly, bimonthly, or monthly bathing.5
  • Senior cats: As cats grow old, they may not groom themselves as much because they don't have the energy. Instead, they may spend their time napping the day away. Unfortunately, if cats don't groom themselves, you'll have to do it to prevent skin irritations from dirt. 
  • Obese cats: Obese cats can't reach their entire bodies to groom themselves, which means they may only groom the areas they can reach. While this is better than nothing, it's still not enough to keep them clean. 
  • Longhaired cats: While a cat's tongue is the ultimate cleaning machine, cats with long fur may get dirty more easily, and your cat may not be able to groom the entire length of their fur. 
  • Medical illnesses: Cats with medical illnesses may need more frequent bathing. For example, those with cat allergies and yeast, bacterial, and fungal infections may require special medicated shampoos to be used to treat their skin problems.4

Of course, there are some situations in which you'll need to bathe your cat immediately, including:

  • Fleas/parasites: To get rid of fleas, your vet may require you to give your cat a bath. Flea and parasite treatment requires medicated shampoo and other treatments to prevent itching skin and skin infections. 
  • Rescued cats: Pets recently rescued off the street should be bathed immediately to remove dirt and grime, especially if they're entering a home with other pets. 
  • Soiled themselves: Cats who have recently soiled themselves, whether they have feces in their fur or vomit, should be bathed as soon as possible to prevent a bigger mess. It will also make them more comfortable if they're not feeling well. 
  • Covered in dangerous chemicals: If your cat accidentally spills dangerous chemicals on themselves, they need a bath immediately to remove the chemicals and prevent them from licking them off. 

Choose The Right Time

If you're wondering how to give a cat a bath, you must understand that your cat won't be ready for a bath at all times. If your cat is playing or engaging in other activities, wait to grab them for a bath. Instead, you should choose a time when they're calm or even tired. However, you should never wake them from a nap for a bath because it can be traumatizing for cats that hate water. The best time to bathe a cat is after they've eaten and played to ensure they're calm and relaxed.6

Gather Your Supplies And Prepare The Space

Always have your supplies ready before you put your cat in the bath to make the experience as seamless and fast as possible. You need the following supplies:

  • Cat shampoo
  • Bucket/bowl/pitcher for rinsing
  • Gloves/protective clothing if necessary
  • Harness for a better hold 
  • Non-slip mat
  • Soft cloth
  • Cotton balls for ears
  • Towel for drying
  • Cat bath bag to limit mobility, if needed
  • Treats

Your cat's bath space should be quiet and have a door you can close. We recommend using your bathroom tub and closing the door so they can't escape. You can also use the sink if your cat can get comfortable in it. 

Clip Your Cat's Nails

Clip your cat's nails before bathing them to prevent scratching if they paw at you to try to escape. Cat scratches can become infected, so it's best to keep their nails as short as possible to prevent wounds.7

Brush Your Cat Thoroughly 

Brushing your cat before their bath can help remove loose fur and untangle any mats that will be difficult to remove when the fur is wet.7 Depending on the cat, brushing them may also soothe them before getting into the water. 

Acclimate Your Cat To The Water

The water should neither be too hot nor too cold; instead, it should be comfortable for your cat. You can get them acclimated to the water by putting them into the bathtub or sink without any water in it a few days before their bath. This will help them get more comfortable in the environment, reducing anxiety and fear. Once they're in the bath or sink, give them treats to reward their good behavior. Giving your pet treats can help them associate bathtime with something positive, making the experience easier for both of you. 

When you're ready for bathtime, put your cat in a few inches of warm water to see how they react. You should continue to encourage them with treats to help them feel more at ease. 

Soak Your Cat From The Neck Down

Use a showerhead or pitcher to soak your cat from the neck down. Avoid getting water in their ears, eyes, or nose because it can be unpleasant for them. Additionally, getting water in their ears could lead to an ear infection. You can put cotton balls in their ears to prevent the water from getting in. We recommend using a pitcher instead of a showerhead because it's more relaxing for your cat. However, some cats may prefer the showerhead. 

Shampoo, Lather, And Rinse

Always use cat-safe or cat-friendly shampoo. You can read the instructions on the shampoo bottle to ensure you're using it correctly. Work the shampoo into your cat's fur in the direction it grows, washing them from neck to tail. Do not wash your cat's face because you could get chemicals in their eyes, nose, and mouth. 

Additionally, you should always rinse all the shampoo off your cat. The soap should be completely gone because shampoos contain chemicals that can cause skin irritation and attract dirt after bathing.7 Additionally, cats groom themselves after baths, and you don't want them eating any of the shampoo. 

Wash Your Cat's Face

You can rinse your cat's face with water if it's dirty or they have feline acne, but you don't usually need to use shampoo. If you must use shampoo, dilute it with water before putting it near your cat's eyes, nose, and mouth. You can also put the shampoo on a washcloth and gently wipe their face to clean it. 

Dry Your Cat

Dry your cat as soon as possible by wrapping them in a towel and drying them as completely as possible. You can use a hairdryer if your cat isn't opposed to it. Drying your cat is important, especially during the winter months when your home is cold. Once your cat's bath is over, keep them in a warm room where they can be comfortable as they continue to dry off fully. 

Reward Your Cat

Create a positive association with bathtime by rewarding your cat throughout the bath, especially afterward. Offer them treats, play, and praise to help them understand that getting a bath comes with rewards.7

How To Bathe A Cat: FAQs

Why do cats hate water?

Cats are notorious for hating water, although not all cats do. There are many theories about why cats hate water, including the fact they had little exposure to it as their species evolved and that it causes their body temperatures to drop, making them feel too cold. 

Can I wash my cat with dish soap?

Dish soaps are not safe to bathe cats with because dish soaps are degreasers and will strip the skin of its natural oils. You should always wash your cat with a cat shampoo because it contains all the ingredients you need to ensure your cat is clean after the bath. If you're unsure what to use for bathing your cat, talk to a vet who can recommend their favorite products. 

Can I let my cat air dry after a bath?

Always dry your cat as much as possible after a bath with a towel. Some cats will be afraid of hairdryers, so never try to force your cat to use one or stay in one spot after a bath. Instead, you can dry them with a towel and let them air dry somewhere warm. Of course, you may have to turn up the thermostat in your house or find them a sunny spot to nap while they dry off so they don't get too cold. 

Cat getting rinsed clean during bath

Final Notes

The most important thing to know when bathing a cat is their limits. While you may want your cat to be clean at all times, bathing your cat too frequently can cause unnecessary stress. If your cat gets dirty, consider wiping them with a wet towel instead of traumatizing them with a bath, especially if they act aggressively during bathtime. 

Unfortunately, sometimes you won't have a choice and must give your cat a bath. Some cats are more prone to skin conditions than others, requiring frequent baths with medicated shampoos. If you're worried your cat has a skin issue, talk to a Dutch vet. Dutch's licensed vets can help you find the right treatment for your cat's skin concerns, whether they hate baths or not, to help prevent unnecessary stress. 

References

  1. "Cats That Lick Too Much." Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 22 Nov. 2019, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/cats-lick-too-much/.

  2. Melentii, Elena. "Ask the Expert: Cat's Coat Unkempt." Reader's Digest Canada, 11 Mar. 2011, https://www.readersdigest.ca/home-garden/pets/pets-cats-coat-unkempt/.

  3. "The Deep-Cleaning Power of Cat Tongues." AAHA, https://www.aaha.org/publications/newstat/articles/2018-11/the-deep-cleaning-power-of-cat-tongues/

  4. "When You Should-and Shouldn't-Give Your Cat a Bath." VMBS News, 11 Mar. 2022, https://vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk/cat-baths/.

  5. "What You Need to Know before Bringing Home a Sphynx Cat." PetMD, https://www.petmd.com/cat/care/what-you-need-know-bringing-home-sphynx-cat.

  6. "Cat Grooming Tips." ASPCA, https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/cat-grooming-tips.

  7. "Tips for How to Bathe Your Cat or Kitten." WebMD, https://pets.webmd.com/cats/bathing-your-cat.