How and When to Wash a Cat

Published September 6, 2018
Kitten in A Bathtub Relaxing

Cats are known for not being fans of water, although many of them do actually enjoy it on their on terms, of course! A good cat owner should know when to wash a cat and alternatives to a full bath if necessary. As much as the thought of giving your cat a bath intimidates you, there are reasons to bathe your cat.

Parasites and Fungi

One reason to bathe a cat is to help rid the feline of infestations by parasites. This can include fleas as well as fungi like ringworm. Your veterinarian can recommend to you special medicated shampoos for these conditions. Generally, you shouldn't need to bathe a cat with fleas if they are being treated with oral and topical medications. Sometimes, however, the amount of fleas on the cat is acute, or the kitty is in poor health either due to a flea allergy or a weakened immune system, and a bath is needed to help move the fleas off immediately.

Skin Conditions

Cats that suffer from skin conditions like dermatitis may also need regular baths to help soothe their irritated skin. Bathing can also be very helpful in dealing with feline dandruff. Too much bathing, though, can have the opposite effect and make your cat's skin more irritated, so make sure you are using the proper products and consulting with your veterinarian on the frequency of your bathing schedule.

Toxic Substances

Another reason to bathe a cat is to remove any substance that gets onto their fur that can be toxic. This can include almost anything that your cat gets into in the home, in your garage or out in the yard such as lawn and insect chemicals, anti-freeze, motor oil, poisonous plant secretions and household cleaning supplies. You will need to bathe the cat to remove the chemicals to keep them from hurting your cat's skin or to keep the cat from licking and ingesting them.

Physical Limitations

As cats get older, they have less mobility and may find it harder to clean themselves on their own. If the cat has physical health conditions such as arthritis, lameness or if they're overweight, they'll have a much harder time with their own self-cleaning regimen. If your cat has medium or long hair, they'll especially need help cleaning areas they can't reach. Some cats also just aren't very good at cleaning themselves whether it's just a natural lack of good hygiene or an underlying behavior reason.

Reduce Shedding

Bathing a cat can lead to less shedding. If you combine a bath with regular brushing, this will reduce shedding even more. If you live with someone who has allergies, bathing the cat regularly can help alleviate some of their symptoms.

Breed-Specific Care

Some types of cats will require bathing whether it's twice a year or more. Cats that have medium or long hair need baths to help remove dead hair and keep from getting mats. They also may need help for areas like their anal region where feces can accumulate because it's a harder-to-reach area. Cats that regularly travel to cat shows will also require much more frequent bathing in order to be in top condition for competition. Hairless cat breeds require weekly baths to keep their skin in good condition.

Keeping a Cat Clean

If your veterinarian does not believe that a full bath is necessary, there are other options to help keep your cat clean. These should be discussed with your veterinarian to make sure that you are using the proper supplies and not missing out on anything your cat may need for his or her specific medical conditions. Keep in mind too that the decision to keep your cat indoors all the time will reduce the need for bathing them whereas an indoor/outdoor cat has more chances to get dirty and may need baths more often.

Dry Shampoo

If your cat despises water with a passion and bathing him or her is a stressful activity for both of you, using a waterless shampoo is a good substitute, assuming your cat doesn't need any special shampoos from your veterinarian.

  • Some waterless shampoos are in the form of a foam that you should spray onto your hands and then rub into the cat's fur and brush out.
  • You can spray it directly onto the cat, but a more nervous cat may feel more comfortable not having a strange substance sprayed on it.
  • Other dry shampoos come in the form of a spray that you use on a soft wipe on the cat's body and let it dry naturally.

Cat Wipes

Another option for cats that hate water are cat wipes that can be purchased at your local pet store or through many veterinary clinics.

  • These can be less stressful for the cat and even for cats that like baths, wipes can be very handy in cleaning some areas that need extra attention, or for the occasional spot-cleaning.
  • Make sure that you use the wipes on a small area first to see if your cat's skin develops a reaction before using them all over the cat's body.


Many cats, especially short-haired ones, can get away with just a really good regular brushing routine to stay clean and never need a bath.

  • Brushing your cat's hair once or twice a week helps to clear dirt, dead skin and hair from their coat.
  • Medium- and long-haired cats may need brushing more often to stave off a bath.
  • Your brushing routine should cover working on all areas of the cat's body from head to toe (or tail!) and use a proper sized tool for your cat's type of fur.
  • A cursory brushing will not be as effective, so plan on making this an activity with some dedicated time each week.

Head Area

When you give your cat a bath, you should avoid cleaning their head, ears and face in the tub. It can bother the cat to have water around their eyes and facial region at a time when they're already very stressed. You also don't want to risk getting soapy water in their eyes and ears.

  • The best way to clean the head is to use a warm and damp cloth and gently wipe around the face, under the chin and behind the ears.
  • Do not put any shampoo or soap on the cloth unless the face is really dirty, in which case PetMD recommends using a very dilute solution of shampoo and water on the cloth.
  • You can use the cloth or a damp cotton ball to wipe gently under the cat's eyes.
  • Use cotton balls to very gently clean the insides of their ears. You can use a clean cotton ball or dampen it with a solution made specifically for cleaning a cat's ears.
  • Speak to your veterinarian about the right type of ear cleaning solution to use. Do not use home remedies such as hydrogen peroxide, vinegar or alcohol.

If your cat is anxious during this process, try feeding him some excellent cat treats while you slowly clean his head, or have someone else feed the treats for you while you work on the cat.

Use a Professional

If your cat still needs a bath and you are unable to do it because the cat is too scared or becomes aggressive, talk to your veterinarian. Many veterinary clinics provide grooming services for their clients and they can assist you with giving your cat a bath. There are also professional groomers who can do this as well. If you choose a groomer, ask your veterinarian for local referrals and make sure the person is experienced working with cats, especially ones who aren't pleased at the prospect of a bath.

Keeping Your Cat Clean

While some cat owners may feel a sense of dread at the thought of bathing their cat, there are times when it will be unavoidable to keep your cat healthy. There are also alternative options that do not involve a full bath if your cat really hates water. If all else fails, talk to your veterinarian about having your cat groomed by the clinic staff or a professional groomer experienced with cats.

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How and When to Wash a Cat