How to Bathe a Cat

It's worth the effort to keep your cat healthy

kitten wrapped in a towel after a bath

Melanie Defazio/Stocksy United

Kittens learn to lick themselves by two weeks old, and adult cats spend up to 50 percent of their awake time grooming themselves. Why risk life and limb bathing your cat?

A bath stimulates the skin and removes excess oil, dander, and shed hair. It also offers an opportunity to teach your cat that being handled even in unexpected ways won't hurt them. Cats will need to be touched by the vet, handled by vet techs or house sitters and guests. Making the bath a pleasant experience helps cats "generalize" the event to future similar situations.

But bathing too often can dry the skin. A good guideline is to bathe shorthairs no more than every six weeks; two to three times a year during shedding season should suffice.

Kittens accept baths most readily so start as soon as you adopt one, as long as it's at least four weeks old. Elderly cats or extremely ill cats may be stressed by bathing so follow your veterinarian's recommendation in these instances.

Preparing your Cat for the Bath

Before getting your cat wet, brush its fur thoroughly. Make sure you have all the necessary grooming supplies ready prior to the bath. Be sure to clip your cat's claws beforehand as well or risk having your clothes and skin shredded.

If it's not the first time you've bathed your cat, you may want to do the pre-grooming the day before, otherwise, the animal may figure out what you're up to before you even get it near the water.

The bath area should be warm and draft free. The bathtub will do, but your knees will thank you for using a waist-high sink. Move all breakables out of reach, and push drapes or shower curtains out of the way or they may spook your cat. Avoid anything (strong scents, scary objects, mirrors) that potentially frighten cats, so the bath is as pleasant as possible.

Preparing the Bath for Your Cat

For routine cleaning, you only need a simple grooming shampoo labeled specifically for cats. Human baby shampoo or dog products can be too harsh and dry the cat's skin, and in some case may be toxic. 

Assemble your shampoo, several towels, and a washcloth near the sink or tub, and run warm water (about 102 degrees, or cat body temperature) before you bring in the cat. Some cats actually enjoy water, but no cat wants to be forced to do something.

Try floating a Ping-Pong ball or another fascinating cat toy in the water to entice the cat to try to fish it out. A cat who plays with the water will be less likely to fear it.

Cats hate the insecure footing of slippery surfaces so place a towel or rubber mat in the bottom of your tub or sink. That does wonders for cat confidence and often eliminates or at least reduces yowls and struggles by half. Or, try standing the cat on a plastic milk crate, which gives him something to clutch with his paws, while allowing you to rinse him on top and underneath without turning him upside down.

Wear old clothes. Expect to get wet. Also, close the door to the bathing area, or you risk having a soapy cat escape.

Special Tips for Bathing Kittens

For small cats or kittens, use the double sink in the kitchen, two or more large roasting pans, or a couple of buckets or wastebaskets set in the bathtub. Fill each with warm water, then gently lower your cat (one hand supporting its bottom, the other beneath the chest) into the first container to get her wet. Most cats accept this method more readily than being sprayed.

Don't dunk your cat’s face or splash water on it; that's what gets cats upset. Let your kitty stand on its hind legs and clutch the edge of the container as you thoroughly wet the fur. Then lift the cat out onto one of your towels, and apply the shampoo, using the washcloth to clean its face.

After lathering, dip the cat back into the first container to rinse. Get as much soap off as possible before removing and sluice off excess water before rinsing in subsequent containers of clean water.

Dip or Spray Method

Jumbo-size adult cats can be hard to dunk, and running water can be scary for them Instead, you can use a ladle to dip water. If you have a spray nozzle from the sink, use a low force, with the nozzle close to the fur so kitty doesn't see the spray.

Never spray in the face; use a wash rag to wet, soap and rinse that area. Keep one hand on the cat at all times to prevent escapes. Professional groomers often use a figure-eight cat harness to tether the cat in place, which leaves the bather's hands free.

Rinse beginning at the neck and down the cat's back; don't neglect beneath the tail or tummy.

Wrap the clean cat in a dry towel. Shorthaired cats dry quickly, but longhaired felines may need two or more towels to blot away most of the water. If your cat tolerates or enjoys the blow dryer, use only the lowest setting to avoid burns.