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Bath Time! Why and How You Should Bathe Your Cat

Author: LeeAnna Buis, CFTBS, FFCP

Published: July 5, 2022

Updated: November 10, 2022

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how to give a cat a bath

Does the thought of giving your cat a bath fill you with dread?

Do you have extra band-aids and Neosporin on hand for your post-bath wound care?

Whether you're already bathing your cat regularly or trying to plan ahead for the inevitable day you'll need to, it can feel daunting.

Most cats aren't excited about being stuck in a tub full of water. That's a bad day from a cat's perspective. After all, they go to great lengths to keep themselves clean. So, how do you know when your cat needs some help in the bath department? And how on earth are you supposed to bathe them without having an epic battle in the tub? Don't worry! We're covering all the basics and then some!

Do Cats Need to Be Bathed?

Generally, no. Cats don't need us to bathe them. They're experts in staying clean. In fact, fur covered in water can feel dirty to a cat. It's a foreign substance they don't want on their coat. They do a great job keeping themselves clean.

But there are times when your cat may need a traditional bath.

  • Mobility: Senior cats (8+ years old) are prone to joint pain, arthritis, and other issues limiting their mobility. If your cat isn't physically able to reach part of their body, they may need your help with bathing.

  • Safety/Emergency: A bath is a must if your cat gets into something they shouldn't ingest. Chemicals, oils, and even the pollen of true lilies can be dangerous if your cat licks them off. If you've put your dog's flea control product on your cat, you will definitely need to bathe them, as pyrethroids are extremely toxic to cats. You should be seeking veterinary help as well.

  • Messy poop booty: Sometimes things get messy at the backend, and a pet wipe won't cut it.

  • Long coat care: Long-haired breeds may need baths to keep their coat free of painful mats — though daily brushing can go a long way to cut back on that need, as well as sanitary area trims.

  • Lack of energy: If your cat is lethargic from age or medical issues, bathing themselves may not be high on their priority list.

  • Wound care: If your cat has been injured, your veterinarian may recommend bathing as part of wound care. In this case, it's vitally important that you follow their instructions to the letter.

  • Skin conditions: Cats with allergies, fleas, ringworm, or other skin conditions may need special or medicated baths for treatment. Again, following your veterinarian's instructions is key.

  • Weight: Similar to cats with arthritis, overweight cats can't always reach every spot of their body to properly clean themselves.

bathing a large grey cat in the sink

Getting Your Cat Comfortable with Baths

Some cats enjoy water. But most prefer to avoid getting wet. If your cat is comfortable in water, consider yourself lucky. Slowly introducing them to the bathing process is still a good idea.

If your cat doesn't like water, you have a little more work to do before their first real bath. It's important to remember that this is not normal for your cat. In fact, they're instinctively programmed not to do what you're about to make them do. So, please be patient and understanding.

Throughout this process, remember that cats put their guard up if they don't have choice and control in a situation. This is what keeps them alive in the wild. They don't respond well to being forced into going somewhere or doing something before they've confirmed it's safe. And they feel at risk if they don’t have the choice to leave to protect themselves. Respecting this need will make bath time much easier. 

Before You Give Your Cat a Bath

  • Trim your cat's nails so they have more stability in the bathtub or sink and can't scratch you as easily.
  • Brush their coat to remove any debris and loose fur.
  • Have all your supplies ready next to the bathtub or sink. See our list of must-have supplies below.
  • Pre-warm the water before putting your cat in.
  • Turn up your "patience" dial.

cat getting bathed in a bath tubSteps to Bathing Your Cat 

The following steps take you through the desensitization and bathing process. It may take several sessions to get your cat comfortable.

  • Don't try to go from fear of water to fully bathed in one day. Try a minute or two here and there and gradually work up to an actual bath.

  • As you introduce your cat to water, take baby steps and let them leave when they want to leave. You want the experience to be positive, so they won't resist. When you get to the shampoo step, they should be willing to stay in the bathtub.

  • Most importantly, reward, reward, reward during each step!

Step 1: Consider starting with a big bowl or sink with a little water. Give your cat a reason to investigate and splash around by dropping in some toys. You can even get mechanical fish toys that swim around. Have treats handy to reward them for engaging with the water. You're already building positive associations with getting wet.

Step 2: Next, fill the front of the bathtub with a very small amount of lukewarm water, just an inch or two. Leave the back half of the tub empty, so your cat has a dry place to stand. Place a textured mat across part of the dry and water-filled area.

Step 3: Use a toy or treat to lure them into the dry end of the tub. Avoid picking them up and putting them in the tub. That removes their choice, and their instinct will be to jump right back out. They're more likely to stay if they choose to go in after the toy or treat.

Step 4: As you did in the first step, encourage them to investigate the water and reward them. Use toys and treats to lure them into the water if they're willing. If not, work in the dry end of the tub. 

Step 5: Very gradually start to get their fur wet. Start with a wet hand, sprinkling a tiny bit of water on the legs or back. Increase the amount of water over multiple sessions until you can use a plastic cup to pour water over them. Avoid the head, so you don't get soap or water in the eyes and ears. In time, you may even be able to use a pet water wand. But that’s down the road a ways. To protect your cat's eyes you can use artificial tears.

Step 6: Before you use shampoo for the first time, get them used to the handling. While your cat is wet, rub your hands around their body like you will when you're shampooing them.

Step 7: When they'll allow you to rinse and pretend-shampoo them, and they're willing to stay in the tub, you can use a small amount of shampoo. Be sure to rinse thoroughly to avoid skin irritation. It's best to use soap-free, hypo-allergenic shampoo. Follow the same steps if using a conditioner, although there are some leave-in conditioners. 

Step 8: Dry them as much as possible with a towel. Most cats see water on their fur as a foreign substance, and will start obsessively grooming to get rid of it. A wet coat can also be heavy and cold. The dryer they are, the better they'll feel.

Step 9: If you want to use an air dryer, you'll need to go through a similar, very slow desensitization process. That's another experience your cat doesn't expect in everyday life. Be sure to use an air dryer designed for small pets or a human hair dryer on the lowest heat and airflow setting. Regularly run the dryer over your skin to check that it's cool.

Step 10: End on a positive note with the biggest and best reward. This is where an all-time favorite treat or big play session is perfect!

Grooming your cat in between baths is a great time to check for fleas, remove excess fur, and build a stronger bond through brushing. Click here for tips.

Cat getting brushed

What If You Don't Want to Bathe Your Cat?

You can help keep your cat clean without all the water. Unless your cat needs a full bath, I'd lean on these options. They're less intrusive and unnatural for your cat, leaving more of their scent intact.

  • Pet wipes – look for pet-safe, unscented, hypoallergenic options, like these. And remember, just because it's made for a cat doesn't mean it's good for a cat. Just the other day, I bought some wipes. When I got home, I realized they were citrus scented. Cats have a natural aversion to citrus! That would be like me walking around all day smelling like broccoli. I'd never do that to my cat. 

  • A wet washcloth – you can target specific messy spots or give a light, all-over wipe down without adding a lot of water and weight to their coat.

  • Dry pet shampoo – again, look for natural, unscented, hypoallergenic options if possible. We provide a few good waterless shampoos in this list.

  • A good brush – often, removing loose fur and debris is all your cat needs. We have brush recommendations for different coat types.

  • Don't use products made for people unless directed by your veterinarian.

Why You Should Limit Baths for Your Cat

If you have more than one cat, you've probably experienced non-recognition aggression. You take one cat to the vet. When they come home, their buddy cat gets aggressive. That's because the cat who went to the vet has a different smell. That's how important a cat's natural scent is. They're unrecognizable if it changes. They will use scent, even before sight, to distinguish friend from foe. A bath, and especially one with scented products, can alter their scent. Not only can this cause problems between cats, but it's also stressful for the bathed cat to suddenly smell different.

Your cat's coat is also full of natural oils that are important for their fur and skin. A bath washes those away.

Reserve baths for those times when they’re really necessary. But it’s still a terrific idea to get your cat comfortable with water. They may learn to enjoy it. And you’ll both be prepared for that inevitable day when they roll around in something they shouldn’t.

Supplies for Bathing Your Cat

You'll need a few things for bathing your cat safely, and for the desensitization process to get them comfortable in water.

  • Bathtub or large sink
  • Textured mat to keep your cat from slipping. A regular bath mat, yoga mat, or a plush towel will do.
  • Unscented cat shampoo and conditioner – even some natural ingredients have a strong scent. Soap-free, hypoallergenic is also a great option. Check out our list of pet-safe shampoo and conditioners, including unscented ones.
  • Artificial tears to protect your cat's eyes from the shampoo.
  • Ear cleaner is beneficial to dry their ears. Even one drop of water can cause an issue. And ear cleaner is another thing to get your cat used to accepting.
  • Plastic cup or similar container to rinse their fur
  • Water-friendly toys for enticing engagement in the tub
  • Favorite treats to reward behavior
  • Calming treats like VetriScience Composure. You can pre-treat to calm them before bathtime.
  • Large towel
  • Pheromones – these plug-in diffusers are often used in veterinary exam rooms to calm cats. It may help take the edge off for your anxious cat. Plug it in 30 minutes before starting bathtime.

About the author

Profile picture for LeeAnna Buis

LeeAnna Buis, CFTBS, FFCP

LeeAnna Buis has adored cats her entire life and thought she knew them inside-out and sideways. But it wasn’t until she worked with a feline behavior consultant that she fully understood how incredible, complicated, and inspiring cats really are. Literally, that day, she made a career change knowing she wanted to give other cat parents the same experience of truly “seeing” and appreciating their cats. Now, she works virtually with cat parents all over the world through Feline Behavior Solutions and Preventive Vet.

LeeAnna earned her certification through Animal Behavior Institute, earning the CFTBS designation. She is a certified Fear Free® trainer (FFCP), a training professional member of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG), and a member of both the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and Cat Writer’s Association (CWA).

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