How to Bathe a Cat

Cat Behavior Tips for Cat Grooming

kitten wrapped in a towel after a bath
Melanie Defazio / Stocksy United

Kittens learn to lick themselves by two weeks of age and as adults spend up to 50 percent of their awake time grooming themselves. Why risk life and limb bathing your cat?

Lick-and-a-promise Mom-cats who allow themselves to get dingy offer a poor role model and their kittens also will be less fastidious. Illness, poor grooming habits, parasite infestation, or simply getting themselves dingy may require more help than a brush can handle. But does it really matter that she’s gray instead of snowy white?

Cat Bath Advice

A bath stimulates the skin and removes excess oil, dander, and shed hair. It also offers an opportunity for teaching 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. As a good rule of “paw” bathe shorthairs no oftener than every six weeks; two to three times a year during shedding season should suffice unless Kitty gets really grubby, or is a show cat. Longhaired cats benefit from more frequent baths, and felines appearing in shows learn as kittens to accept baths.

Kittens accept baths most readily so start as soon as you adopt a little one. However, babies should not be bathed until they are 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.

Before The Bath

Should you decide to take the plunge (pun intended), your cat should be thoroughly brushed ahead of time. Make sure you have all the necessary grooming supplies ready  prior to the bath. All mats must be removed before bathing, because water will just cement mats in place. Be sure to clip claws as well or risk having your clothes and skin shredded if Tom-Kat tries to escape. To keep your reluctant kitty from figuring out the score and disappearing, brush and trim claws the day before.

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. Take a look at the area from your cat's purrspective. 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.

Cat Friendly Baths

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 skin or in some cases prove toxic. 

Assemble your shampoo, several towels, and 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 like the Turkish Van and Bengal actually enjoy water, but no cat wants to be forced to do something. Don't torture Sheba and make her watch your preparations. Instead, save bath time as a (hopefully) pleasant surprise. Try floating a Ping Pong ball or other fascinating cat toy in the water to entice Tom-Kitty to fish it out. A cat who plays with the water will be less likely to fear it.

Cats hate the insecure footing of the 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. Seren clutches my shirt, pressing her face to me as I wet and soap the rest of her. She makes sure I get as wet as she does--and I agree, that's only fair. Also, close the door to the bathing area, or you risk having a soapy cat escape and leave suds and a wet cat print trail throughout your spanking-clean house.

Dunking the Cat

For small cats or kittens, the bucket method of bathing often works best. 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 her bottom, the other beneath the chest) into the first container to get her wet. Most cats accept this method more readily than spraying the cat. After all, I suspect many owners use a water spray to shoo cats away from forbidden areas, so it's no wonder cats dislike the spray association.

Don't dunk Sheba’s face or splash water on her; that's what gets cats upset. Let your kitty stand on her hind legs and clutch the edge of the container as you thoroughly wet the fur. Then lift her out onto one of your towels, and apply the shampoo, using the washcloth to clean her 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. 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 the washrag 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 Sheba’s back; don't neglect beneath the tail or tummy. When the water finally runs clear and you know she's clean, rinse once more just to be sure.

Wrap the squeaky-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. Seren prefers to dry herself. If your cat tolerates or enjoys the blow dryer, use only the lowest setting to avoid burning the cat. Combing long fur as you blow dry will give "oomph" to the longhaired coat.