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Survival of the Fittest | How to Safely Bathe Your Cat

Bathe my cat? You have to be kidding me, right? Those were my first thoughts when my cat Zoe tried to climb up the chimney and came down a sooty mess. Luckily, she wasn’t injured, but it certainly wasn’t safe for her to lick off all of those ashes, so into the sink she went. Somehow I survived and lived to tell the tale!

Cat Bathing Basics

Fortunately for you and your cat, our feline friends don't need regular baths like their doggie counterparts. (By the way, if you do have a canine in the house, you should check out these tips on how to bathe your dog.) Cats are typically fine bathing and grooming on their own by using their rough tongues to clean and smooth their coat. Of course, this can produce some icky hairballs, but that’s another hairy story.

However, there are times when a cat needs to be washed with water. Yes, I said it. With water. Obviously, my poor sooty Zoe required a bath after her trip up the chimney, but cats may also need a good washing for a number of other reasons. For instance, if they:

  • Have gotten into something really messy or sticky
  • Are sick and vomited on themselves or had a bad litter box accident
  • Need to be bathed in flea or anti-fungal medications

Curiously enough, many of their wildcat relatives really enjoy a dip in the water. There is no better place for big cats like lions, jaguars, and tigers, who live in hot environments, to cool off. So why do our domesticated felines seem to hate it so much? It might be that they’re just not used to the whole experience of being held in a sink or tub and getting drenched. Their coats can also take a while to dry out, which can make them cold and uncomfortable.

how to give your cat a bath _ cat drinking from faucet

How to Give Your Cat a Bath

OK, here it is folks—the step-by-step survival guide to giving your cat a bath based, in part, on my personal experience. Unfortunately, I can’t offer any scratch-free guarantees!

Getting Ready

Be sure you have everything you need on hand before you get your cat wet. I can’t emphasize this enough. It will make bath time go faster, which is a good thing for both you and your cat. Plus, you’ll avoid the awkward situation of desperately calling out for a towel while you try to keep your sudsy cat calm and still.

Here’s what you need:

    • Shampoo for cats – Avoid using shampoo from your own shower since it can contain fragrances and other substances that could irritate your cat’s skin.
    • A pitcher for rinsing if you’re not using a tub or sink that has a spray nozzle
    • A soft cloth to wash your cat’s face
    • Cotton balls to help clean the ears
    • Rubber gloves to prevent scratches—they’re not completely scratch proof, but they certainly help. A long sleeve shirt is also a good idea.
    • A large towel to dry your cat off

You can bathe your cat in the sink or bathtub depending on their size. The sink may be easier since you don’t have to kneel or bend down. You can also purchase a plastic tub from a pet store to get the job done.

If you use a sink or tub, you might also want to purchase a non-slip mat to help keep your cat from getting hurt. By the way, an ASPCA Pet Health Insurance plan can help cover unexpected bath time injuries as well as common cat illnesses and skin conditions.

ASPCA Pet Health Insurance plan can help cover unexpected bath time injuries as well as common cat illnesses and skin conditions.

Bathing Your Cat

All set? Great! Now you can get washing. Just follow these 5 simple steps:

1. Prep Your Cat – Get your cat used to being in the sink or tub by putting them in it without water, giving them a few treats, and then lifting them out. If possible, you can do this several times in the days before you plan to give your cat a bath to help things go smoother.

2. Add Cat to Water – Put a few inches of lukewarm water in the sink or tub and place your cat gently inside. Keep your cat calm by talking soothingly and praising them for good behavior. (I know, easier said than done!)

3. Wet Your Cat Down – Wet your cat’s body and tail while avoiding the face. Most cats don’t like water in their face, and you’ll definitely want to avoid upsetting your soaked kitty.

4. Lather and Rinse – Add the shampoo, lather, and rinse your cat thoroughly. Try not to leave any soap residue behind, which can irritate your cat’s skin.

5. Clean the Face – Use the soft cloth to wipe off your cat’s whiskered face carefully. You can also clean the outside of the ears with a cotton ball. Never use a Q-tip or other instrument to clean the inside of your cat’s ears, which could cause injury.

When you’re done, wrap the towel gently around your cat and lift them out of the sink or tub. Time to breathe a big sigh of relief!

After the Bath

Now that the bath is over, you’ll need to dry your cat off with the towel, so they won’t be uncomfortable or get cold. Cats and hairdryers typically don’t make a good combination. However, if have a longhaired breed that needs some assistance drying off (and you’re really brave!), you can try a hairdryer.

Lots of cats will be terrified by the noise of a hairdryer. If that’s the case, turn it off immediately and stick to the towel. You should also only use a low heat setting or a dryer made for pets, which will be cooler. You’ve likely both gotten this far unscathed, and you certainly don’t want to risk burning your cat at this stage of the game.

kitten bath time tips _ kitten standing on a rose-pattered blanket

Kitten Bathing Tips

There isn’t much difference between bathing a kitten and a cat, although young furballs can be more playful and harder to keep still. If your kitten thinks bath time is playtime, you can try to distract them with a toy or small treat. Those rubber gloves are especially important for bathing a kitten, since they may try to nip at your hands playfully.

One last kitten tip—be sure to consider your tiny friend’s size. A sink or small store-bought tub will probably work better for a kitten than a larger tub. You don’t want your kitten to feel overwhelmed in a cavernous space or have that much room to move around and possibly get hurt.

More Cat Grooming Tips

Bath time will likely (and hopefully!) be a rare occurrence, but there are some things you can do on a regular basis to help keep your cat looking and feeling pretty:

  • Brush regularly – This will help reduce shedding and cut down on those nasty hairballs.
  • Check the nails – Clip your cat’s nails when needed. Some cats can go awhile without having their nails clipped if they wear them down on scratching posts.
  • Trim fur that can get messy – Longhaired breeds, in particular, may need to have the fur around their bottoms or paws trimmed back occasionally.
  • Spot clean when needed – Sometimes your cat might get a little dirty, but may not need a full bath. You can use a soft cloth to gently wipe away any dirt.

A healthy coat is also a product of a healthy cat. Be sure to take your cat to the veterinarian for an annual check-up. Also, take care of those pearly whites with yearly dental exams and regular tooth brushing at home. Yes, it can sound as daunting as bathing, but it’s a must! Check out this Infographic on how to brush a dog’s teeth, which has a special tip for cats.

black cat drinking drops of water _ cat bath tips

A Few Final Thoughts

If you’ve read all of this and still quiver and quake at the thought of giving your cat a bath, you can always turn to a professional groomer. Some groomers will even come to your home to wash your cat in the house or a mobile grooming van. Your veterinarian can also offer advice if you want to do it yourself, but don’t feel confident enough to take on the task.

Wishing you the best of luck in your cat bathing efforts! Remember, I survived and you can too.



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