How do you bathe a cat?
How do you bathe a cat?
Fortunately, this is a question many cat owners will never have to ask themselves. Dog owners, by contrast, may find themselves bathing their pets quite regularly. As anyone who’s taken a dog to a muddy dog park can attest, dogs just get dirtier than cats and they don’t have much interest in self-grooming.
Do Cats Need a Bath?
As a general rule, cats don’t need baths. There are estimates that put the time a cat spends grooming itself at up to 50% of the day. This continuous attention to self-care minimizes the need for a cat’s owner to do the bathing for them.
There are special circumstances when a cat will need to be bathed, however. Old, arthritic cats may not have the dexterity to reach all their own parts when self-grooming. Sick cats, overweight cats, and even depressed cats may spend less time grooming, or not do as thorough a job as is required.
A long-haired cat may find that keeping himself clean is a bigger job than he can manage alone. A cat who stumbles his way into something messy, like paint, motor oil, or tree sap, will need the extra bathing help that only his owner can provide, especially if the offending substance is something you wouldn’t want him to lick off and ingest. Even though most newer treatments for external parasites handily kill fleas and other pests, there are special circumstances where bathing with a medicated shampoo might be beneficial – as for a cat with a heavy flea infestation, or a flea allergy. Likewise, a cat with a fungal infection, such as ringworm, might benefit from a medicated bath on the advice of a veterinarian.
What Should You do if Your Cat Seems Dirtier Than Usual?
If you notice your cat’s bathing routine isn’t up to snuff, the first step is to visit a veterinarian to address any potential medical reasons for a fall-off in fastidiousness. Insufficient grooming can be a symptom of a bigger problem. Your vet should be able to evaluate skin problems and recommend a particular medicated shampoo to use at home to combat allergies, yeast, or bacterial skin infections, depending upon what she finds.
Why do Cats Hate Baths?
You may have heard that cats hate water, but that’s only partly true. Most hate getting bathed, but are fascinated by water. Bathing is a separate issue. Compared to dogs, which have oilier fur, cats are less “waterproof.” They tend to groom constantly, keeping the accumulation of natural oils to on their fur to a minimum. A cat’s well-groomed, fluffy fur tends to soak through more easily than a dog’s, which means they get cold and wet more quickly in a full-on bath. But many felines, especially kittens, will gleefully play in a running faucet, or splash their paws in a full tub if you let them.
Cat Breeds That Love Water
As a side note, while all cats have the ability to swim (whether they like to or not) there are several breeds that seem to have an affinity for water. The Turkish Van likes nothing more than a dip in the pool, earning it the nickname, “the swimming cat.” Other breeds, including the Bengal, Siamese, Selkirk Rex, Savannah, Manx, Turkish Angora, Japanese and American Bobtails, Abyssinian, Norwegian Forest Cat, and Maine Coon, might not be interested in a swim per se, but are strongly attracted to water. Many will come running at the sound of the shower being turned on, or the dishes being washed.
Do Certain Cat Breeds Need Regular Baths?
While most cats don’t need regular baths, there are some cats that actually require frequent, consistent bathing. Hairless breeds like the Sphynx or Peterbald have oily, sweaty skin and must be bathed at least once a week. Without regular bathing a hairless cat quickly develops a buildup of oil on her skin that accumulates in the folds, as well as wax in her ears and around her nail beds. This reddish-brown skin oil is not only unsightly, but can harbor bacteria and cause skin rashes. The oil also transfers easily to furniture and linens.
A hairless cat faces a lifetime of bathing and must get used the process while they are young. Fortunately, most responsible hairless-cat breeders will acclimate young kittens to the habit of regular baths, and many learn to enjoy it.
Can I Use Human Shampoo on My Cat? How About Dog Shampoo?
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The short answer is no. Use shampoo designed specifically for cats, not for humans, nor dogs.
There are very big, important differences between shampoos designed for different species.
Human skin is more acidic than cat skin. Shampoos designed for people are pH balanced for human skin. Dog skin is actually less acidic than cat skin. Dog shampoos are pH balanced for dogs.
Humans also have sweat glands all over their skin, while cats and dogs do not. Some human shampoo, designed for sweaty people, might prove too harsh for cat skin. And as for dog shampoos, some contain the insecticide permethrin, which is poisonous to cats. If permethrin were to get into a wound on the cat’s skin, or if a cat were to inhale it or swallow it, the effects could be deadly.
Unfortunately, it's not that easy to find a shampoo that is cat dedicated. Search for a "cat shampoo" and chances are you'll find a selection of "pet shampoo," which is not species specific. Earthbath and Burt's Bees both make shampoo that is designed specifically for cats' skin.
What if you’ve already bathed your cat with your own fancy hair-salon shampoo without a problem? Or what if you’ve used dog shampoo without issue in the past? Does that mean it’s safe to bathe your cat with these products?
It’s true that if you bathe your cat with a formula that isn’t really designed for her that she’ll get clean. In fact, you might not notice any problems at all. But the changes to a cat’s skin can be subtle and can get worse with repeated use of the wrong product. Cat skin is a huge organ designed especially to keep infection at bay. Using the wrong products can dry out the top layers of your cat’s skin, predisposing her to bacterial and fungal infections. Contact irritation is another concern. Shampoos designed for and tested on humans or dogs can cause skin irritation in cats.
The best and safest thing for your cat is to use shampoo designed specifically for him.
What is the Best Way to Bathe a Cat?
If a bath is absolutely necessary, what steps should you take? If you had a time machine, the best thing to do would be to start bathing your cat when he’s a kitten, to get him used to the water and the idea that baths are fun. If your cat is an adult and you suspect you might need to bathe her in the future, the second best thing to do is to get her used to the idea that the bathtub or sink is fun today! Fill it with a bit of water, float some toys on the surface, and encourage her to play – repeatedly, and long before she’ll actually need the bath.
If your cat’s need for a bath is more immediate, there are a few things you can do to help make it more pleasant for him:
- Have everything handy before you involve the cat: have towels, wash cloths, cat shampoo, a pitcher (for rinsing), and brushes at the ready to minimize the time your cat has to spend being wet and uncomfortable. (If you're looking for a little cat brush, consider this silicone curry-comb type by Celemoon or this very simple, nothing fancy slicker brush by JW Pet Company. Both are designed for cats, not dogs, and tines are neither too long, nor too rough.
- Put a folded-up towel on the bottom of the sink or tub to keep her from slipping. If you are using a bathtub, consider using a plastic laundry basket within the tub, with a towel on the bottom of the basket, to keep her better contained and to make her feel more secure.
- Gently restrain the cat. A helper can hold the cat gently by the scruff of the neck while you do the dirty work.
- Keep noises to a minimum to keep her relaxed. Speak softly. Don’t run the faucet or sprayer if the noise bothers her.
- Use a washcloth to gently cleanse the cat’s face. Most cats dislike having water splashed on their faces.
- Lather with cat shampoo and rinse with clean water using a pitcher or handheld shower head set to flow very gently.
- Thoroughly dry your cat with a fresh towel, changing towels frequently as they get damp. A highly absorbent microfiber towel, like these by Wooflinen, can be helpful, especially if you have a long-haired cat.
- Use a blow dryer with extreme caution. Cats have extremely sensitive skin. Consider towel-drying only or using a blow dryer on a low-heat setting.
When Should I Hire a Professional Groomer to Bathe My Cat?
And finally, if your cat simply will not tolerate the bath, consider hiring a professional groomer. They are trained in the proper techniques, work quickly, and with confidence. In addition to a bath, your cat will usually get a bonus nail clipping and ear cleaning. If one is available where you live, consider calling on the services of a mobile pet groomer, who comes right to your front door with a van that contains a complete grooming facility. Mobile grooming can reduce the amount of time your cat is away from home and feeling stressed.
Hiring a professional groomer – whether at a traditional facility or through a mobile service – may be worth the expense to avoid a potentially traumatic experience for you and your pet.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.