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The Art and Science of Bathing a Cat

Disclaimer: This method has worked well for me for decades with scores of different cats, but not with every cat.

If you try this method after reading this, you are doing so at your own risk.

As a rule, domestic cats—in fact, most species of cats except tigers, fishing cats and a couple of others—don’t like getting wet. To be more precise, they hate being immersed in water.

They also hate being controlled. Or rather, they hate feeling out of absolute control of their own fates. They evolved on a hair trigger; they have a robust fight-or-flight response. Rub them the wrong way and don’t let them flee and you can put yourself in a world of hurt.

To capture and illustrate this “cats hate water” principle in a fanciful way, I always thought NASA could save millions of dollars using felines in place of fuel in their rockets. All they had to do was suspend a hundred cats in a net inside the rocket, place the net contraption with said cats above a body of water, and then slowly lower the net toward the water. The resulting upward thrust of the cats would be sufficient to carry the rocket into space.

So to say it can be quite the feat to bathe a cat is an understatement.

But you’re in luck because, after decades of bathing cats, I have a strategy that works in many cases.

Here’s the ideal scenario:

If possible, start them on baths as young kittens.

Mother cats frequently bathe their offspring with their tongues. Since they’re used to being “mom-handled” and washed as youngsters, now’s the perfect time to pass their easy-to-support little bodies under a warm stream of water beneath a faucet.

Do this relatively quickly (but not frantically; remain peaceful and loving) and talk to the wee ones while doing it, telling them how beautiful they are. Dry them off in a soft fluffy towel while continuing to offer abundant love and affection so they learn to associate the process with good feelings and “getting spoiled”.

Make sure they stay warm while being washed and towel-dried. The washing process should take mere seconds (10 to 15, tops). You’re simply getting them accustomed to water, not actually soaping or scrubbing them.

Alternate Solution

As soon your kittens start toddling with proficiency and “stalking” toys reliably, introduce them to wet wash cloths and shallow (hock-high) lukewarm “baths” in your bathtub. Offer the wash cloth (in the water) as a “swimming fishy”. Drag it through the water ahead of the kitten and see if he or she will “stalk” it.  If this happens, getting wet will become SOP (standard operating procedure) and they’ll learn to accept it.

Make sure the tips of their claws are clipped before you bathe them. It isn’t necessary to do this immediately before you bathe them, but do it a day or two before, ideally.

As soon as you get a kitten or cat, accustom them to gentle handling and massaging of their feet and toes so they learn to enjoy the attention. Your peticures (that’s pedicures for pets) should include gentle tickling and rubbing (with one or two fingers) between toes and paw pads whenever you’re hanging with your cat watching TV or whatever. In this way, your pet will learn to relate paw care to pleasant sensations and affection instead of as an assault on his or her body parts.

To clip a cat’s toenails, it isn’t necessary to take much of the claw. Just take off the sharp tip, if it’s there. (Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Cats often trim their own toenails via scratching posts, logs, carpets, furniture, and other available rough surfaces.)

Gently push the nail out of its sheath by lightly pressing the top of the toe near the back. (Again, this is something the cat should be used to, if you’ve been massaging, rubbing and tickling him or her routinely.)  I always put the cat on its back in my lap while doing this for easy access to the claws and because it’s what I do while massaging, rubbing and tickling them, so they’re used to “spacing out” (totally relaxing) in this position.

To reiterate, using a toenail clipper made especially for pets, nip just the sharp tip off each claw. Cats usually have four claws and  a dewclaw in front.  (Polydactyls have one or two more.) I rarely bother to clip back feet, as they don’t use them to ruin furniture, but if your cat does hate baths, it’s a good idea to take the sharp point off the back claws, too, so they can’t gouge you should they manage to launch themselves out of your wash basin.

Prepare the bathing area and water before you bring the cat to the location. Get your cat shampoo, your towels (at least two) and your wash basin set up ahead of time. Run warm (not hot) water into the wash basin or sink. (If you bathe your critter in a kitchen sink, be sure to put a rubberized stopper in the drain. One time a cat I was bathing got one of its toes stuck in the default metal grate/strainer that resides there and I had a dickens of a time extricating it without hurting the cat because she panicked and was twisting and turning, trying to pull loose, which only made her toe swell more. It was quite the nightmare for both of us!)

When all is in readiness, carry your cat to the location and settle him or her into the water. Be sure to speak in calm, loving tones while doing this and as you bathe your critter. Remember: This experience should be a pleasure from start to finish for your furry friend.

I have noticed that a cat will tolerate soap, suds and scrubbing for something just under twelve minutes if you make the experience pleasurable. Longer than that, and your charge will decide, “All right. Enough already!” So if you have a particularly grimy kitty, or if you need to leave on flea shampoo or some other solution for several minutes before rinsing it off, apply it quickly and then start the timer.  You might want to take the cat out of the water while the flea shampoo or other solution works. If so, put them on one of the towels and stroke and coo over them while you wait for the timer to sound. Keep them from licking themselves during this time. It’s okay to wrap them in the towel if they respond better to the wait that way.

Apply the solution starting at the head (especially if it’s flea shampoo), being sure to avoid the eyes. (Using a wash cloth for the face works well.) You start at the head because you want to chase the pests in its fur (if any) back toward the tail, where you’re freer to really douse the cat in shampoo and go after the pests.

Remember to get the ears. (Gently placing cotton swabs into the ear canal helps keep the shampoo where it should be without affecting the ear canal.)

All during the time the cat is thoroughly soaked, soaped, and scrubbed, make sure to talk to him or her in adoring, calming tones. Your cat might talk back, complain, or purr. (Each cat has its own repertoire of bathing sounds. Some remain completely silent.)

Restraint        

As mentioned earlier, cats hate being restrained and feeling out of control of their circumstances. So grabbing your cat and trying to manhandle it is an absolute non-starter, a drop dead deal breaker. If you MUST do it (because you’ve adopted one that has never been handled before and it goes ballistic) do it the way a mother cat carries her offspring. Take it by the scruff of its neck but only for as long as is absolutely necessary.  (Or take it to a professional bather and groomer. They have liquids and other nostrums that calm anxious pets and the expertise to do what’s necessary without getting lacerated or bitten.)

But before you even try to manage a headstrong pet, remember to employ “gentle-handed kindness.” That is, make sure to keep your hands relaxed and gentle and your mind peaceful and loving. Your cat can discern peaceful, benevolent intentions as long as your body language remains peaceable and compassionate.

I’ve found that by simply placing one hand against a cat’s chest and holding it there while bathing with the other hand, most cats will stay put. They may push forward or upward on the restraining hand, or they may try to back out of their position (in which case, you simply switch hands and restrain the cat from the rear as it tries to briefly back up) but pretty soon they realize they’re still in control because they can move a little one way or the other, so they don’t feel trapped and their “fight or flight response” doesn’t kick in, which is a very good thing for you!

As the ten minute mark approaches, start rinsing your cat with warm water, starting at the midsection or tail this time. Place the water source (ideally, a handheld hose that leads from the faucet) right next to the fur so the sound of running/spilling water is lessened and so the cat can feel the pleasant, warm result of the water and recognize what it is immediately. This gives the cat time to discern what’s happening so it won’t freak when you bring the water to the top of its head between the ears.

Use a wash cloth and/or your fingers to wash the soapy water from the face; otherwise you might spray soap into your kitty’s eyes or nose, causing upset.  You want the entire experience to be either benign or downright pleasant, or future baths will become increasingly problematic.

When your cat is thoroughly rinsed, pick it up in a towel, towel it dry (giving lots of affection along the way) and then help groom it using a flea comb and brushes. Some cats (show cats especially) get used to hair dryers set on low. Most cats prefer towel and air-drying. Keep them in warm surroundings until they’re completely dry.

There you have it!

Let me know how this works for you.

And if you have additional successful strategies, please share them!

Disclaimer: This method has worked well for me for decades with scores of different cats, but not with every cat.

If you try this method after reading this, you are doing so at your own risk.

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