How to Bathe a Cat: Step-By-Step Tips

Dr. Karie Johnson, DVM
By Dr. Karie Johnson, DVM
Updated: 5/13/20242-4 minutes
woman holding a cat wrapped in a towel

Knowing how to bathe a cat is important for pet owners, even if your feline companion is an efficient groomer.  

“Do cats need baths?” is a common question among pet owners who wonder if their cats require regular bathing. And it’s true that, generally, cats don’t need baths. With their barbed tongues, they’re usually capable of keeping their own coats clean without any help from us.  

That said, even indoors, your cat can encounter dirt or debris, whether it’s from their litter box, food or drink spills, or another type of mess.    

Here’s what you should know about how to wash a cat, including preparation tips, supplies and step-by-step instructions. 

How to Tell if Your Cat Needs a Bath

There are numerous reasons your cat might need a bath:   

  • External parasites, like fleas 

  • Stubborn dirt or substances like paint or sap  

  • Decreased ability to groom themselves due to age or weight  

  • They’re a long-haired cat who picks up dirt easily  

  • You have a hairless cat with no fur to absorb sebum (the oily substance produced by the body to protect and moisturize the skin)  

Do Cat Baths Help With Human Allergies?

If a member of your household is allergic to cats, you may be tempted to bathe your pet more often to reduce dander. Purina’s researchers have found that dander isn’t the cause of allergies, though.   

A protein found in cats’ saliva is the primary cat allergen, which gets transferred to the fur and skin during grooming and is then shed into the environment.  

Allergists may advise you to bathe your feline in order to decrease the allergen. If your cat resists frequent baths, however, consider feeding them allergen-reducing cat food. 

How Often Should You Bathe a Cat?

There’s no set cadence for giving a cat a bath, although bathing too frequently can remove beneficial oils from their coat. 

Cats with long hair, like Persians, may need more frequent grooming to help keep their coats shiny, clean and free of tangles and mats. Short-haired cats may only need weekly brushing and the occasional bath when they get dirty.   

You can also consult your veterinarian or a professional cat groomer on how often to bathe your cat. Based on breed, skin and coat health and other issues, they can tell you whether general grooming is sufficient or if/when a bath is needed, and which cat shampoo is right for your pet.  

Remember, when appropriate, a bath can be beneficial for your cat’s skin and coat 

Should You Bathe Indoor Cats?

It’s possible you may never need to bathe your indoor cat, especially if they groom themselves regularly. Baths can be reserved for instances when your pet becomes excessively dirty or for unusual circumstances, like if they get paint, tar or another substance on their coat.  

Additionally, a flea bath for cats may be necessary for your indoor feline if they develop an allergy. In this case, your veterinarian may recommend to wash your pet with a medicated shampoo. Just make sure to use shampoo formulated for cats, as dog shampoos can be toxic or even fatal to felines. 

Cat Bath Supplies

If you decide to bathe your pet but are wondering what to wash a cat with (among other questions), here are some supplies you’ll need to gather: 

  • A pitcher or plastic cup for scooping water 

  • A nonslip mat 

  • Shampoo formulated for cats or kittens (never use human or dog shampoo, as it may damage your cat’s coat and skin) 

  • Conditioner for cats (optional) 

  • Towels 

  • Cat treats 

  • A helper, if possible 

Preparing to Bathe Your Cat

Many cats don’t enjoy water, especially if they weren’t bathed as kittens. Here’s how you can help prepare them—and yourself—for a bath.  

  • Slowly acclimate your cat to water. Drip a little water on their coat and paws leading up to the bath. Make sure to speak to them in a comforting voice and offer treats. You may need to do this a few times to get them used to the sensation of water. 

  • Brush your cat. Before soaking them, brush your cat to remove mats and excess debris. 

  • Trim your cat’s nails. This will help you avoid getting scratched. 

  • Choose your bath location. A sink may be a good place for kittens and smaller cats. Larger cats can be washed in a bathtub. 

  • Plan to keep the bath short. This will minimize stress for both of you. 

How to Bathe a Cat, Step-By-Step

While there is no best way to bathe a cat, per se, these steps and best practices can help make the experience a stress-free success.  

  1. Fill your sink/tub. Add about four inches of water. The best water temperature for a cat bath is warm but not hot.  

  2. Lower your cat into the water. Holding your pet gently by the back of the neck, lower them into the sink or tub. With their back toward you, there’s less of a chance that you’ll get scratched.  

  3. Rinse your cat. Gently scoop water onto their back. If you have a helper, they can hold your pet while you do this. 

  4. Apply shampoo. Lather your cat’s coat with shampoo, making sure to avoid their eyes and ears. (Check the label to see if you need to dilute the soap with water.) 

  5. Rinse thoroughly. Leaving traces of soap on their coat can cause skin irritation.  

  6. Dry your cat. Towels can be effective after a cat wash. For longhaired cats, consider wrapping and holding them, as rubbing may tangle their hair. Hair dryers on a cool setting can also work if your cat will tolerate them. 

Don’t forget to offer your cat lots of love and treats throughout the process to make them feel as comfortable as possible. 

Do Cats Need Conditioner?

Generally, cats don’t need conditioner during a bath. Exceptions might be if your feline gets frequent mats or if you have a show cat. After rinsing the shampoo, apply your cat conditioner and rinse thoroughly.  

How to Bathe an Aggressive Cat

If you have an aggressive cat and are afraid of getting scratched during a bath, make sure you try to acclimate your pet to water beforehand. Keeping their back toward you in the bath can also help.  

Remember, if you don’t feel safe bathing your cat, contact a professional groomer. 

How to Bathe a Cat That Hates Water

You may be wondering, “Why do cats hate baths?” if your pet doesn’t enjoy water. You might not be able to completely change their mind, but you can take steps to make your pet feel comfortable and safe during a cat bath.  

Spend time acclimating them to water prior to the bath. Also, by using a gentle touch, warm water and treats, you boost the chances that your cat will tolerate—and maybe even enjoy—a wash. 

That said, if your cat hates water and they can stay clean without a bath, spare them the experience.  

Is It Cruel to Bathe Cats?

No, it’s not cruel to bathe cats. Bathing is sometimes a necessary—and harmless—part of grooming your cat. In fact, baths promote skin and coat health.  

Want more expert tips on grooming your feline companion? Explore our other cat routine care articles.  

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