cat grooming

Should Cats Have Baths (+How to Bathe Them)

Cats hate water. But if your cat gets very dirty, you might need to give it a bath. So should cats have bath, and if so, how would you bathe them?

Do you need to give your cat a bath? Reasons for doing so include that cats can feel better after baths, bathing reduces the level of cat allergens in the home, they can get rid of fleas, and they cause no lasting harm. Reasons against are that most cats hate baths, can learn to dislike you if you bathe them, and can groom themselves. Bathing is more necessary if your cat is old or has lost mobility, or has very long fur. To bathe a cat, draw it a bath of only a few inches at a warm temperature (not hot). Wash only the affected area if possible, and dry your cat thoroughly afterwards.

The guide below first looks at the reasons for and against bathing a cat. While there are compelling reasons on either side, the choice will come down to your cat, and whether it will let you bathe it or not! We’ll also detail exactly how to give a cat a bath, in a way that minimizes its fear and stress, so makes the process more likely to succeed.

Are You Supposed to Bathe a Cat? (Arguments Against)

If you’ve previously kept other pets, or if you’re simply a hygienic person, it may be in your instincts to bathe your cat. But there are good reasons to consider not doing so.

Do Most Cats Dislike Baths?

cat bath
This cat clearly doesn’t like being bathed.

Cats famously hate water, and it’s likely that yours will too.

What makes baths even worse for cats is the way the cat is first put into the water. The cat is lowered down to the water’s surface; when it feels water on all four of its paws, it doesn’t understand that the solid surface of the bath is only inches underneath. It therefore panics and tries to get away, thinking it’s being lowered into deep water.

There are other things that make bathing unpleasant, too. Your cat may not like physical contact, but for you to put it into a bath, you have to pick it up. It may not like that. You also rub shampoo into its fur, which is a feeling it’s entirely unfamiliar with. And cats are willful at the best of times, let alone when they’re put through things they don’t enjoy. All of this makes the bathing process an unpleasant one, both for your cat, and for you. Your cat is therefore likely to lash out either by scratching you or biting you.

That being said, not all cats react with equal horror at the idea of a bath. Yours might submit to taking one without a fuss, or even enjoy it. But if it does, it’s in the minority.

Can Cats Groom Themselves?

Cats groom themselves almost constantly. Most cats spend about half of each day grooming themselves. They lick and nibble at their fur to clean it.

This doesn’t get the cat ‘clean’ in the sense that you might mean ‘clean’. Your cat’s saliva contains lots of germs, and it transfers these germs to its coat when it grooms itself. Its saliva is also what triggers cat allergies. So, if your kitchen counter were as ‘clean’ as your cat’s fur, you wouldn’t want to prepare food on it.

That being said, cats are much cleaner than other animals because they groom themselves. When a cat gets dirty from going outside, it will clean itself to get rid of any mud, dirt or debris from outside. Your cat will also never experience any ill effects from its fur having a small amount of bacteria on it. That means your cat can go its whole life without having a bath.

Furthermore, a cat that has a bath will start grooming and licking itself afterwards anyway. So if you’re particularly concerned in your cat’s coat being free of germs, this isn’t a good way to achieve that.

Not All Cats Need Baths

There’s a good chance that your cat doesn’t need a bath at all. This means that unless your cat loves taking baths, there may be no need to force the issue of bathing your cat.

Cats with short hair have almost no need of bathing. A short-haired cat can’t get matted patches of fur, because the fur is too short to get knotted. And if anything gets in your cat’s coat, your cat can lick and nibble at it until it goes away. Long haired cats have trouble with that. So, before you quite literally dive in to give your cat a bath, consider whether it really needs one.

Will My Cat Hate Me If I Give It a Bath?

If your cat doesn’t like bathing, then forcing it to do so will make it distrust you.

It’s unlikely that your relationship will be damaged to the point where your cat doesn’t want to be around you. But it may not want you to pick it up anymore, for fear that you’ll take it to the bath. It may not want to spend time with you on the second floor of your home where your bathroom is. Or, it may avoid you entirely for days. All of these things become more likely the more traumatic the bathing experience is, and the more you have to physically force your cat into the bath.

Arguments For Giving Cats Baths

All that being said, there are good reasons why you should consider giving your cat a bath.

Do Cats Feel Good AFTER a Bath?

Your cat won’t feel so bad once its bath is over. That’s particularly the case if it has long fur that can get matted and dirty. While bathing a cat which has thickly matted fur may not be a good idea, preventing mats and knots through bathing is good. The quality of your cat’s coat will be improved.

There’s also the outside chance that your cat will enjoy its bath, in which case it will feel happy afterwards.

Reducing Levels of Cat Allergens

Contrary to popular belief, cat allergies don’t occur because of cat fur. They occur because of cat saliva, which is found in many places, but particularly on your cat’s fur and in its dander. It gets there when the cat grooms.

Once the bath is over, the cat will lick itself ‘clean’. The cat doesn’t understand that it’s already clean so it will do so anyway. But now that your cat’s coat has been thinned out, and all the loose hairs gotten rid of, it won’t shed so much. It therefore won’t spread dander as easily, so should be more allergy-friendly. An allergic person would still have a reaction if they touched the cat, though.

Cat Flea Baths

essential cat health aids
Baths can help cats get rid of fleas.

Bathing a cat is a good way of getting rid of its fleas. There are special anti-flea shampoos you can buy, or flea dips, which are like shampoos but are left in the fur.

You can also use regular shampoo to kill fleas. This works in a few ways: the shampoo makes it harder for the flea to stay in your cat’s coat, and may kill some of them. Bathing is especially effective for serious infestations, as it gets rid of a large chunk of the infestation straight away. It can also serve to clean wounds and scratches in your cat’s skin present during an infestation, and improve the quality of your cat’s coat.

There are alternatives, of course. Spot treatments are as effective as bathing, if not more effective. You therefore have an option if your cat hates baths. But bathing is an option too.

Can a Cat Die from a Bath?

Everyone knows that most cats dislike water. But if your cat doesn’t, and you see its reaction to being dunked in a bath, you might think that there’s something more serious going on. You may think that your cat is so afraid of water because it can’t swim, or because water is somehow poisonous to it.

Neither of those things are true. If push came to shove, your cat would be able to swim doggy-paddle style. A breed with longer fur might struggle because its wet fur weighs it down, but it would still know how to swim, at least. And water isn’t poisonous to cats no matter how they react to it. There’s therefore no danger to bathing your cat provided that you do so correctly.

How to Bathe a Cat Step by Step

There’s no sense in running the bath and dunking your cat in it without preparing first. All you’ll achieve is that you’ll make your cat dislike you, and try to get away from both you and the bath. If you prepare correctly, though, you stand a much better chance of successfully bathing your cat.

Step 0.5) Start When Your Cat Is a Kitten…

If your cat is an adult cat already, you obviously can’t do this. But it’s much, much easier to teach a cat to enjoy baths when you start it young.

Kittens learn much of what they take with them through life between the ages of 2 and 7 weeks. It’s then that they learn how to interact with other cats by both fighting and playing with their litter mates. It’s then that they get used to the sights, sounds and smells of a home; what’s normal and what’s not. It’s then that they learn whether humans are nice or not.

There’s a lot that’s unfamiliar to a cat when it comes to bathing. The feeling of water on your cat’s feet is something it doesn’t like. The sound of a loud hair dryer is scary. Your cat may also not be fully happy with being picked up. But if you train your cat at this young age to accept these things, and not to be scared of them, you will find bathing it to be much easier. Therefore if you have a cat of a breed that needs to be frequently bathed, training it while it’s a kitten would be a fantastic idea.

1) Get The Tools You Need

You should make sure that you have everything to hand before you bathe your cat.

This is a little like how you have to have your towel nearby before you have a shower or a bath. If you don’t, you have to get out of the bath to go and fetch it, and you’ll get freezing cold. In sort-of the same way, if you have to leave the bath while you’re bathing your cat to fetch the shampoo or a towel, your cat could bolt off as fast as lightning. You’ll need:

  • Shampoo. Unscented baby shampoo would be best, but any kind can be used in a pinch.
  • Your cat’s towel. You will need to dry your cat after its bath, otherwise it would get could.
  • A brush. Brushing helps get loose hairs out of your cat’s coat.

If your cat hates bathing, it may be best to stick to what’s necessary and not use a brush. But having the shampoo and the towel nearby will help.

2) Warm Water Is Best

Whether you like steaming hot baths or not, you shouldn’t bathe your cat at such a high temperature. Doing so will only make it more likely to get scared and try to fight you off.

Warm water is preferable to cold. If you’ve ever given a baby a bath, then water of the same temperature is ideal for your cat too. If you haven’t, then around body temperature is perfect (100 degrees Fahrenheit/38 degrees Centigrade). This won’t make your cat overheat, but it’s also comfortable for your cat, increasing the likelihood that it will let you bathe it.

3) Don’t Fill The Bath

It should go without saying that your cat needs to stand in the bath on its own. It’s always helpful to think from your cat’s perspective: you may not like taking a bath if you couldn’t feel the bottom either, especially if someone is forcing you in there.

The bath should only be filled a few inches at most. Up to your cat’s belly is ideal, so that your cat can comfortably stand with its head out of the water.

Because only a little water is needed, you could try bathing your cat in a washing up bowl. The only problem with that is that your cat can get away easier. But you won’t use much water filling your bath a couple of inches anyway.

4) Only Bathe The Affected Area If Possible

Let’s say that your cat went outside and got dirty in one specific place. Perhaps it rolled around in something, or stepped in something.

To make the bathing process as quick and easy as possible, restrict yourself to only bathing the affected area. Rinse it, rub shampoo into it, and rinse it out again. You don’t need to wash the rest of your cat’s fur because it isn’t dirty in the same way.

There are exceptions to this rule. If you have to bathe your cat because it has very long fur, then you should bathe it all over. And you should avoid bathing your cat at all if you need to clean its head, because you shouldn’t get your cat’s head wet when you bathe it. That’s because cats hate having their heads wetted above all.

5) Thoroughly Rinse Your Cat

When you rinse your cat, be sure that you do so thoroughly. If you don’t, then your cat will ingest some of the soap, or worse, the medicated shampoo.

Your cat will lick itself clean after its bath even though it’s already clean. The reason for this is that any time your cat’s fur gets wet in the wild, it will probably be dirty too; that could be because the cat fell in a muddy puddle, got algae on its coat, or because it picked up dirt from the environment after it got wet. Your cat doesn’t understand that the soap has cleaned it.

Needless to say, you don’t want your cat to ingest all manner of soaps and suds. You should therefore rinse it in one of two ways:

  • Using a shower head. Direct the stream of water anywhere that suds need to be rinsed away.
  • Pouring a jug of water on the cat. Gently pour a jug of clean water over the soapy area.

Be sure to use your fingers to get in between the hairs.

6) Follow The Direction of Your Cat’s Fur

Something cats hate almost as much as bathing is if you ruckle up their fur. That means running your hand against the grain of the hair, i.e. the way it naturally lies on your cat’s back. That would mean running your hand up your cat’s back rather than down it.

It’s still possible to completely clean your cat’s dirty fur without running your hand both ways. You just have to be patient, and use your fingers to massage the shampoo into the affected area.

The problem with going against the grain is that your cat will hate the feeling of it. It’s already probable that it isn’t enjoying its bath, so doing so adds insult to injury. If for whatever reason it’s impossible to do this, then you can run your fingers and palm against the grain of your cat’s fur. Just expect it to either complain or lash out at you.

7) Dry Your Cat

When you’ve cleaned whatever needs to be cleaned, you should dry your cat. Your cat’s fur will hold onto moisture, so if you don’t dry your cat properly, it can get cold. Contrary to popular belief, that wouldn’t give it a cold, as colds are caused by viruses rather than the temperature. But it could exacerbate an existing health condition, and besides anything else, is uncomfortable for your pet.

Unless you’ve trained your cat from a young age to be used to loud noises, don’t use a hair dryer. Your cat is probably already feeling tense, perhaps frightened. Hearing the loud noise of the hair dryer, and the unusual sensation of having air blown at it would make your cat feel worse. You can train a kitten to be used to a hair dryer if you introduce it during the critical 2 to 7 week window, though.

Instead, towel dry your cat. Try to do so following the direction of your cat’s fur. Be gentle. To stop your cat getting loose, you may have to push down gently on your cat’s back and neck to keep it in place.

You don’t need to get your cat entirely dry. It will lick itself afterwards, and this will get rid of any excess water. But towelling will give your cat a helping hand.

8) How Often Should You Wash Your Indoor Cat?

If you’re not allergic to cats, then you would only need to wash your indoor cat very infrequently, unless it has long fur. Once every month would be enough.

The reason you shouldn’t bathe your cat more frequently than that is because it almost certainly won’t like the experience. Even if it sits there and lets you bathe it, it probably only puts up with the feeling rather than enjoying it. Where bathing has a benefit for your cat—such as preventing mats and knots in long-haired cats, or getting rid of something that won’t come out of your cat’s fur—this benefit may be more important than whether your cat enjoys bathing or not. But if there is no clear reason to bathe the cat, the fact that it doesn’t enjoy the experience is reason enough not to bathe it often.

9) How to Give a Cat a Bath That Hates Water

As stated above, most cats dislike bathing. Most cats don’t like water as a rule; breeds that supposedly do, like Turkish van cats, are notable because they don’t mind the stuff.

If you try and force your cat to have a bath then it may react negatively. It may try to bite and scratch you, or at least get away from you and the water. Because of its reaction it may be next to impossible to bathe your cat.

You still have options despite that fact. One is to not bother bathing your cat. Most cats don’t need to be bathed unless certain circumstances apply, such as if the cat is very old, has lost mobility due to injury, or has long fur. If your cat is not a purebreed and has short hair, then it’s highly unlikely that you actually need to bathe it.

Another other option is to talk to a vet. A vet will be able to give you advice on handling your cat, or they may bathe your cat for you. They could also point you in the direction of a third option, which is to take your cat to a groomer. Groomers are experts, and can calm down anxious cats when they bathe them.