When and How to Bathe a Cat and Why it's Important
By Dr. Rebecca Nicholson MA Vet.MB MRCVS
Curiosity, nine lives, and a dislike of water – three things most people associate with cats – but are they true? Do cats hate water? And if so, how do you bathe a cat?
Reasons to bathe a cat
Before bathing your cat, it’s important to think about whether a bath is necessary. There may be a better solution. Genuine reasons your cat might need a bath include:
- Your cat has a skin condition, and your veterinarian recommends bathing in a medical shampoo
- Your cat has a severe infestation of fleas, and its coat is full of flea dirt (Note: flea dirt is digested blood, so it turns the bathwater red. This can look scary, but it’s the dirt, not your cat)
- A large area of your cat’s coat is muck or toxins that could harm your cat if licked or won’t come off with a brush
Will bathing my cat get rid of its fleas?
No, a cat with many fleas may need a bath to get rid of the flea dirt, but a bath is not the best way to get rid of the fleas themselves.
Only 5% of the flea population is on your pet at any one time. The other 95% is living in your home. Washing your cat only addresses 5% of the problem. A better way to kill fleas is to use flea and tick preventatives (given by mouth) or drops (a small amount of liquid applied to the skin on the back of your cat’s neck). Ask your veterinarian for guidance on which product to choose.
What supplies do I need to bathe my cat?
If you’ve established that your cat does need a bath, you will need the following equipment to bathe your cat. Be sure to have all your gear ready and laid out before you get your cat, so you can keep a smooth and relaxed manner once the bath is underway.
- A bath with a nonslip surface – You can use a human bath or a sink. To make your bath nonslip, use a stick-on rubber mat or an old towel.
- Warm water – do not use water that is too hot or too cold. Test the temperature of the water by sticking your elbow in it – this is the same technique used to test babies’ bathwater. Your elbow is more sensitive to temperature than your hands. A cat’s skin will only cope with very slightly warmed water, just enough that it’s not going to shock them from being cold
- A plastic jug, bowl, or shower head with a gentle setting – for rinsing
- Shampoo – keep reading to see suggestions on choosing a shampoo
- A large towel to dry your cat afterward. The towel needs to be large enough to wrap your cat – cats can find it reassuring to be wrapped, so this can be a helpful way of getting them dry
- A cat-appropriate comb or brush – A stiff but soft-ended bristle is best – metal with plastic bobbles on the tips can work well.
What shampoo do I use on my cat?
If you are bathing your cat for a particular skin condition, always use treatments recommended by your veterinarian. You can do more harm than good if you use an off-the-shelf shampoo that is inappropriate for the condition you are treating.
If you’re bathing your cat to get rid of muck, dirt, or toxins, a mild cat-specific shampoo or Dawn dish soap is best. Please don’t use human shampoo. Human shampoos can irritate cats’ skin.
How often should you bathe a cat?
Most cats don’t need bathing at all. If your cat needs medicated baths, follow the advice of your veterinarian. Cats receiving medicated baths may need frequent bathing in the early stages of treatment.
Only bathe your cat for non-medical reasons if absolutely necessary, and certainly not more than once a month. Bathing your cat too often can disrupt the normal oils on your cat’s skin and can cause skin irritation.
Do cats feel better after a bath?
Most cats feel anxious and stressed by baths because they dislike water. If you do need to bathe your cat, it’s essential to follow our advice regarding how to wash your cat safely and with minimal stress. By safely, we mean without hurting your cat and without getting scratched yourself!
How to teach your cat to cope with a bath – train them first!
The goal is to teach your cat that being in water with your supervision is safe and even enjoyable. Give your cat a treat – whether it’s food or a favorite toy – every time they are bathed so they begin to associate the activity with the desirable thing more than they associate it with fear or discomfort. Be patient and gradually desensitize your pet to bathing over many weeks.
If you find out your cat has a medical condition which means they’ll need regular baths, you can take your time to get your training right.
If your cat has gone out and got mucky, you may have to do a one-off bath more urgently, but you can still follow these steps to make the bath as low-stress as possible.
Introducing your cat to water
If your cat is used to grooming, then introducing water is not a huge step from this. We recommend all cats are groomed regularly with a brush – weekly for short-haired cats and daily for long-haired cats. This is a great way to bond with your cat. Injured, arthritic, or overweight cats might struggle to groom themselves without your help, so it’s good to help them get used to grooming early on.
If your cat is comfortable being brushed by you, practice this in the room you will use for bathing. Have your nonslip mat in place but no water to start. Continue to use your chosen desirable thing (food or catnip) to distract and reward your kitty.
When your cat is comfortable with dry grooming in the bathing space, you can gradually introduce water. Lightly wet the grooming brush to start. Then, add a few puddles on the nonslip surface. If your cat accepts standing in light puddles, progress with gradually deeper water until it covers the lower half of the legs. Just stand them in the water, and groom them as you would normally. Try to do a little practice every day and make only small increases in the amount of water every couple of days.
Once you have a few inches depth of water – you can bathe your cat! Never have the water deeper than your cat’s belly height.
How to give your cat a bath
After your training, you now have your cat standing in a few inches of water. Next, you can start rinsing water through your cat’s coat with a cup. Start gradually and slowly, continuing to use a reassuring tone of voice. Keep as calm and quiet as possible.
Wet your cat from shoulders backward. Avoid the head and never get water in their eyes or ears.
Once wet enough, rub in your chosen shampoo until you have a lather. Some medical shampoos need to be left on the coat to work for 10 minutes or so. You might find it best to take your cat out of the water for this bit and stand them on a dry towel. Make sure the room is warm so your wet cat doesn’t get chilly.
When ready to rinse, stand your cat back in the bath on the nonslip surface. Use fresh, warm water and the jug to flush through the coat. Again, avoid their head, eyes, and ears.
Make sure you rinse thoroughly – residual shampoo in the coat can irritate your cat’s skin.
How do I dry my cat after a bath?
Most cats dislike loud noises, so hair dryers are not a good option. The air they blow out can be pretty hot, so it is unsuitable for drying your cat.
The best method for drying a cat is a large towel. You can wrap your cat or give them a gentle rub down, whichever they tolerate best. Some cats find being wrapped reassuring. Keep your cat in a warm environment until fully dry.
My cat urgently needs a bath but is not used to water – what do I do?
While not ideal, cats can still be bathed without training, if necessary. Stand them on a dry surface. Have the water in a separate bowl and use a jug or cup to get your cat wet. Pour the water from the jug slowly, using reassuring language and a soft tone of voice throughout.
My cat doesn’t like baths – what do I do?
Never struggle with your cat – if your cat’s tail starts twitching, their ears go back flat to their head, or they start struggling – stop what you’re doing immediately. It’s not fair to stress your cat, and you are likely to get scratched or bitten if you proceed.
If your cat desperately needs a bath, contact your veterinarian, who may be able to bathe them for you, or recommend an experienced local groomer. Veterinary staff and good, knowledgeable groomers are experienced in handling cats in a reassuring way.
In some circumstances, cats can be sedated at a veterinary clinic to be bathed. They would be given a health check before having any sedation. This is less stressful than overwhelming your cat if they are struggling to accept being groomed or bathed. This would only be done if the bath is urgent and necessary for medical reasons.
Will my cat hate me after a bath?
If you teach your cat to cope with grooming and bathing, then there is no reason your cat will hold it against you. However, if you force your cat to do something they find stressful or frightening, this could damage your bond and break their trust in you. It is better to ask your veterinarian for help than to proceed with a stressed cat.
Can I give my cat Benadryl for a bath? What about other sedatives?
Trying to sedate your cat at home is inappropriate. There are reports of people making cats drowsy with antihistamines, like Benadryl, but the amount you would need to get any level of sedation is an overdose and could harm your cat. This is not safe.
In some circumstances, veterinarians will sedate cats to allow a procedure to be done without causing the cat undue stress. Veterinarians train for many years to understand how sedative drugs work and how to use them safely.
Natural calming remedies are available, but some herbs and plants can be toxic to cats, so if you want to try a natural calming aid, ask your veterinarian to recommend one that is safe for cats.
Most cats don’t need baths, they are good at keeping themselves clean. As a rule, cats don’t like standing in water or getting wet, so please don’t bathe your cat without a good reason.
Reasons for bathing your cat include:
- A coat thick with flea dirt.
- A coat covered in a substance that would harm your cat if licked.
- Skin conditions that can be treated with medicated shampoos.
You can train your cat to tolerate water, but please be patient and seek the guidance of your veterinarian if your training is not going to plan. If you need to bathe your cat urgently but your cat is not having it, ask your vet for help. Stop if your cat gets stressed.