Cats are exceptional groomers, so it’s rare you’ll need to give your cat a bath. But if you need to bathe your cat, these tips can help keep you both happy during bathtime, even if she hates the water.

By Tracey L. Kelley
August 24, 2020
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There are certainly dozens of other chores you’d rather tackle than giving your cat a bath—and without a doubt, your kitty doesn’t welcome the idea either! But when you need to provide the best care for your adorable fuzzball, we have helpful tips to make bath time easier. 

Do Cats Really Need to Be Bathed? 

The good news is, most cast breeds don't require regular bathing says Tarina L. Anthony, DVM, a longtime practitioner of feline-exclusive medicine, and owner and medical director of Aurora Cat Hospital and Hotel in Aurora, Colorado. “Many people ask me when they get a new cat how often they should be bathing them,” she says. By nature, cats are fastidious creatures and able to keep themselves clean.” 

A cat’s rough tongue is covered with tiny curved barbs called papillae that transfer saliva across her fur. This is like a mini spa treatment, as each lap spreads healthy natural oils across her coat and skin. Those little spines work as natural detanglers, too, which is why you’ll often see your kitty licking and biting at fur clumps until she smooths everything out.   

Although a cat spends about 30 percent of her time on daily self-carebetween naps, of course!—Anthony says it’s more important to keep your cat groomed than to worry about bathing them, as regular brushing and combing helps reveal health problems more quickly. “Many times, skin conditions are signs of underlying metabolic or gastrointestinal disease, so if your cat's hair coat has changed, talk to your vet,” she says. 

Routine salon time with your kitty also helps reduce loose hair and prevent hairballs. WebMD recommends using a metal comb to gently loosen matted areas, especially under her belly and along her legs. Follow with a rubber or bristle brush to remove dirt and loose hair all over her body. Groom short-haired cats about once a week, and long-haired beauties every day.

So How Often Should You Bathe a Cat?

Certain circumstances require you to give a cat or kitten a bath. Anthony advises bathing a cat if she’s gotten into something she shouldn’t ingest, such as motor oil, antifreeze, gasoline, or paint. Basically, anything that gets on her fur that could be harmful needs to be washed off immediately. 

Anthony also notes some felines develop skin conditions that are soothed with bathing, such as seborrhea, a disorder that causes flakey, red, and itchy skin. Your veterinarian might also recommend medicated baths for treating other health conditions, such as severe flea allergies or ringworm.

Older cats with arthritis or who are obese might need you to bathe them more frequently, as they’re not always able to groom well and often have trouble reaching certain spots and preventing odors. As much as cats hate water, they dislike being unkempt even more. 

Many long-haired breeds, such as Maine coons, Persians, and Himalayans, benefit from a bath every couple of months or so to minimize fur matting. Some short-haired cats with dense coats might also need an occasional bath. 

Hairless breeds, like the Sphynx, probably need more frequent bathing than furred felines, as they have an oily residue that gets on fabrics when they’re particularly grimy. If you don’t want to bathe your hairless cat weekly, Anthony suggests cat-specific grooming or baby wipes for regular upkeep. 

Consult your veterinarian about your pet’s particular needs to establish the best routine.

How to Bathe a Cat Who Hates Water

While many wild beasts such as jaguars, leopards, lions, and tigers swim quite well and laze in rivers to cool off, few domesticated cats enjoy being in the water. Drinking from a faucet or curling up in a dry sink for a cozy snooze are her choices. Baths are not. 

Anthony says there are many theories about why most cats dislike water. “One is they don’t like their fur weighed down—imagine wearing a wet blanket. Another is water changes their natural scent,” she says. “Or perhaps it’s because they don’t have control of the situation. Cats are tiny control freaks in fur coats.” 

So when a bath is inevitable, staying calm will help you both. First, get prepped to: 

  • Choose a time after she’s eaten or played, as she’ll be more mellow. 
  • If possible, trim her nails before the bath, filing the ends as well after they're clipped to dull them.
  • Put all your bath supplies within easy reach, including treats to reward her with afterward. Some cat lovers even warm a towel in the dryer and use aromatherapy so the experience is more comforting. Make sure to use shampoo and creme rinse specifically formulated for cats.
  • Plan for a short grooming session to make handling her fur much easier. 

Here are additional suggestions from Anthony for how to bathe a cat without getting scratched—and more importantly, without stressing your pet too much. 

  1. Recruit an understanding friend to help. One of you can hold the cat while the other bathes her.  
  2. Minimize running water. The actual sound causes many cats to panic, and the last thing you want is to grab a slippery, sharp cat. If you don’t have a gentle sprayer, use a non-breakable cup for rinsing. 
  3. Fill a sink with a few inches of warm water. Get the dirty parts of the cat wet and then lather with shampoo. Wash only the parts you need to, then rinse thoroughly. Use a washcloth around the face and ears.
  4. Follow shampoo with a creme rinse. This is important because you don’t want to strip her natural oils away and dry out her skin. Let it sit up to five minutes, and then rinse thoroughly.
  5. Towel dry as much as possible. Then, remove loose hair with a fine-toothed comb. Your cat will be grooming for a long time after her bath, so getting rid of excess fur helps minimize hairballs. 

In the event your cat won’t tolerate water under any circumstances, you might want to try dry cat shampoos or professional groomers recommended by a veterinarian.