Bath a cat

No, Don’t Bath a Cat (and When You Really Must)


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It’s important that you know when (not) to bath a cat and how.

You may have noticed your cat is quite committed to personal grooming, so they don’t generally need a human to bath them. Sometimes, however, things don’t go their way and they may need a little extra help with their personal hygiene regime. Especially if they have really long fur.

“If cats are bathed too often, they may lose essential oils from their fur, and it may even be a traumatic experience for them,” AnimalWised advises.

Of course, a cat might be used to water. “The relationship of cats with water depends on several factors,” it continues, “including whether you have accustomed your cat from a young age, if it has had a negative experience with water, or if you really need to wash it for some particular reason.”

When and why a cat might need a bath

Sometimes it’s necessary to wash your favourite feline.

“If they’ve rolled in something that they can’t wash off themselves,” Purina notes, “or they have long hair which has become matted, a bath might be a good idea.”

Remember that clever kitties self-groom a few times every day and lick up any residue they can reach. So, it’s important to respond promptly and appropriately if you notice their coat is soiled with more than a bit of dust they just rolled in.

If you’re concerned that the “something” on their fur might be toxic or corrosive (like battery acid or pesticide), treat it as an emergency. Restrain your cat so they can’t lick the area (try a towel around the body or a head cone) and go directly to the vet. Remember to call the clinic en route so they can prepare for your arrival.

If it’s not a vet emergency, here’s how to bath a cat in a calm, collected way that keeps them as stress-free as possible.

Check your cat insurance while you’re at it, to see what you’re covered for. For example, if your kitty gets ill due to ingesting whatever is on er fur.

Bathing guide for your favourite feline friend

  1. Brush kitty properly first and clip the claws safely if you can. Avoid the pink, living part of the claw that feels pain and will bleed!
  2. Put water in a basin, deep enough to scoop up in your hand or a small container, but not so deep that kitty feels she has to swim. Water should be as near to a cat’s body temperature as possible. Try the elbow test. If it’s just comfortable, you’re good to go. Do not use very warm or cold water.
  3. Place the basin in an area without a draft, at waist level for easy access.
  4. Close the doors and windows in case of attempted escape (at which point you should stop as it can become severely distressing).
  5. Clear the area and prepare to get wet.
  6. A non-slip mat will help everyone– one under your feet and one under hers.
  7. Reassure low tones and lots of touch. It takes time to teach a kit new tricks!
  8. Move slowly. Let kitty find a position that is comfortable and stable. Paws can slip on wet surfaces.
  9. Use a vet-approved, pet-safe shampoo. Avoid head, mouth and eyes.
  10. After soaping the body, rinse her thoroughly in fresh water that is the same temperature as the washing water. If you don’t, she might ingest shampoo or conditioner residue when she next grooms herself!
  11. Dry her immediately. Towel drying is usually best; a hairdryer may be quicker, but you might burn her skin without realising it. A hairdryer is also very loud and may upset her further.
  12. Give her a treat after it’s all over to show her everything is fine again and she’s a good (clean) girl.

When it’s NOT a good idea to give a cat a bath

Don’t wash a cat when…

  • it’s a tiny kitten (especially one that has been orphaned or abandoned). Tiny kittens are hypersensitive, and water can alter their body temperature. The Spruce Pets suggests a kitten must be at least 4 weeks old before you bathe it.
  • it’s seriously ill or in questionable health. A very old and frail cat may not cope with a change in temperature. If you find a stray or a feral cat in a bad way, it’s better to let a vet handle it from the start.
  • there’s a wound on your wonderful one. Even if it’s already stitched up and kitty is on antibiotics for any potential infection. Moisture can interfere with the healing process. In instances like these, it’s wiser to let a pet medical professional manage the situation.
  • your cat is well and without injury but reacts extremely or violently to your attempts to bathe her. If she leaps out of the water, makes strange sounds or hisses continuously, she is not coping psychologically, and you should cease immediately. Chat to your vet to find out if there may be underlying causes (like an injury you can’t see) or to a cat behaviourist for professional advice.

Absolute no-nos when you bath a cat

  • Never use human shampoo or human conditioner on a cat. The skin pH levels are different between cats and people and using liquids meant for humans on a cat can result in a nasty skin reaction. Kitty is uncomfortable enough already!
  • Never ever spray kitty in the face. You can try a squeezed, damp cloth instead.
  • Never ever push kitty’s face below water. Water could get trapped in her lungs or throat (partial drowning), get soapy water in her eyes or ears or completely freak her out so she lashes out.
  • Never put cotton wool or anything else inside her ears (to keep them dry). Your cat will shake water out of them by herself (and you aren’t ever going to put her head underwater anyway). Cotton wool can get stuck and require extraction, or trap water behind it, and lead to ear infections.
  • Do not shout or scold kitty. This will add to the drama for both of you and give her bad associations with the wash process. It’s your responsibility to guide her, support her and help her adjust to this strange new experience.

What you can do instead 

Clean the soiled area only (if it’s contained, and not covering a large part of the body). If your cat is particularly stressed around water, rub gently with a damp cloth instead. Make sure you use pet-safe shampoo and wipe the area down with the rinsed cloth a few times to remove residue!

Kitty might even allow you to pour water over a small area without freaking out.

Or, you could schedule a visit to a professional groomer who is trained to do this gently and effectively with the least stress for your cat.

Whatever you choose, wait until any illness or wounds are healed if your cat is not 100% healthy. And speaking of health, why not protect your pet’s (and your own financial health) with some simple pet insurance?

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