“Cats are such nice, clean animals,” an older man remarks in passing to me.
Which is absolutely true. But that doesn’t mean your cat is a 100% self-cleaning unit or that you won’t ever have to bathe them.
Are you supposed to give cats baths? Yes, sometimes baths are needed.
Your kitten may knock over a kerosene lamp and end up wearing most of the oil. They may get dunked in a bucket of antifreeze by some bratty kid visitor. They may have fleas or diarrhea or just gotten skunked. Or they may simply need help getting rid of excess oil, dander and/or mats.
“Contrary to popular belief, cats do not groom themselves,” says Danelle German, CFMG, CFCG, a professional groomer certified by the National Cat Groomers Institute. Instead, “cats lick themselves,” she says.
“If you licked yourself all over, would you be clean?” German asks. “Of course not! You would be covered in saliva. So, no, cats do not groom themselves.”
Looking for a Cat Groomer?
- Many groomers refuse to work on cats at all.
- Some groomers work only on younger cats. An elderly cat’s skin is paper thin, much like an elderly person’s, so the potential for tearing or cutting is too great. These groomers now tell people with senior cats to go to the veterinarian instead. That way, the cats can get immediate treatment if anything goes wrong.
Cats are viewed as being unpredictable, and nobody wants to get scratched or bitten.
That’s where people like German and Cheryl Maisbusch of The Cat Groomer in Spofford, New Hampshire, come in.
“It’s tempting to think that cats are just small dogs,” says Maisbusch, who was certified by the NCGI in 2009. “And they’re not. It’s a completely different process. The cat’s parameters –- skin, anatomy, temperament, everything -– are very different than with a dog. A dog’s skin is roughly half the thickness of a human’s skin. A cat’s skin is about half the thickness [of a dog’s].”
She recommends bringing your cat to a certified cat groomer.
Aside from having all the necessary equipment, certified cat groomers have “had to pass 9 tests at 85% or better.”
They know how to work with “an aggressive cat, an elderly cat, a shy cat or a cat with special needs. They’ve had the training,” she says.
Do-It-Yourself Cat Grooming: Sink vs. Tub
OK, not all of us are able to get our cat to a certified groomer. What then?
The first consideration seems simple enough: sink or tub? But it’s not really all that simple.
“I don’t have a cat tub,” says Kim Langille of Finnland Cattery in New Brunswick, Canada. “I just use my own bathtub. I have a small grippy mat that gives them something to stand on.” She uses a 6-foot hose attached to the showerhead for rinsing.
This arrangement doesn’t really work for small kittens or nervous cats, however.
For them, Langille uses “a small tub (like a baby tub) that I place in my bathtub and fill to their chin with warm water. I find that when I hold them and lower them into the warm water, they go into a trance and relax. That makes it easier to lather, rinse and repeat.”
Cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, author of Starting From Scratch, also favors the bathtub “because I can close the door to keep the room warmer and prevent escape. The last thing you need is a wet cat covered with shampoo racing around your house.”
Take your cat’s personality and preferences into account:
- Some cats are fascinated by water and love hanging out in the bathtub
- Others do not share that fascination, “so a sink may be better in your case,” says Johnson-Bennett.
Maisbusch is very pro-sink. “I would opt for a kitchen sink rather than a tub,” she says. “In a kitchen sink, [cats are] more controllable.”
Plus, kitchen sinks usually have sprayers — which help a lot with rinsing.
How to Give a Cat a Bath Without Getting Scratched
Preparing for the Bath
- Get your towels and chamois or “shammy” cloths in place first. Have one shammy cloth laid out on a towel for drying your cat when the bath is over.
- Instead of baby, dog and waterless shampoos, look for a cat-safe shampoo.
- Avoid any type of shampoo with essential oils.
- If you are in a pinch, and it’s all you have on hand, you can use Dawn dish detergent (original formula).
Is it safe to wash a cat with Dawn dish soap?
Yes, Dawn is “safe to use in moderation,” explains Emily Heyland, who worked as a pet groomer for several years before becoming a veterinary technician. But “it can be very drying…. There are other shampoos that are better made for cats,” she says.
Running the Water
If you’re wondering, “How can I calm my cat down in the bath?” then try the following:
- Run the water after the cat is in the sink. This is less upsetting to the cat than being plunked into standing water, Maisbusch explains.
- Make sure the water is warm, not hot.
- Maintain a firm hold on your cat and keep calm. “The calmer you are, the better,” Maisbusch says. (Keep in mind that not all cats are calmable.)
You’re probably going to have to scruff the loose skin on the back of your cat’s neck. “Some people are afraid to scruff, but it’s the most mama-like,” Heyland points out.
You keep their paws on a flat surface, but you scruff. “Sometimes they’re a bit defiant. If they have a stubborn streak, they don’t like being told what to do,” she says.
Scruffing is definitely preferable to putting a slip lead around their necks, according to Maisbusch: “You don’t want to have anything around their necks so that if they do freak out, they don’t injure themselves.” She advises using “the least amount of restraint that’s necessary.”
Got your sprayer handy?
But don’t direct it at your cat right away. Instead, spray to the side of the sink.
“This way, you can modify the angle as well as the strength of the sprayer,” says Maisbusch.
If you need to make adjustments, you can do so before the spray “actually hits the cat,” she says. “You don’t want it to be too forceful, but it has to be forceful enough to make it through the hair.”
Start using the sprayer on the cat’s backside, then move up their back and toward their front legs. When you start working on their front end — chest, neck, back of their head — cup their chin in your free hand. That will keep the spray out of their face.
In the video below, you can pick up more tips on how to give a cat a bath:
Afterward, wrap your cat first in the shammy cloth, then in the towel, creating a sort of kitty burrito. It’s “like swaddling a baby,” Heyland says.
“Most cats are going to go into their Sphinx pose, lying on their bellies with their feet under them,” Maisbusch adds. “Wrap their tail around their back legs so that the tail doesn’t get injured.”
And what now? Take this opportunity to check their ears — and to give them lots of love.
- German, Danielle, CFMG, CFCG. “Mushroom Cats.” National Cat Groomers Institute. Dec. 4, 2018. https://nationalcatgroomers.com/mushroom-cats/.
- Johnson-Bennett, Pamela. Starting From Scratch: How to Correct Behavior Problems in Your Adult Cat. The Penguin Group. 2007.