How to Bathe a Cat Without Getting Scratched

Cats rarely need baths, but when they do, it's not something they—or you look forward to doing. Still, cats might need a bath at some point during their nine-lives. Here's how to do it—without getting scratched.

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The odds of not getting scratched while bathing your cat are actually in your favor, simply because you probably won’t have to bathe your cat that often. According to Bernadine Cruz, DVM, a Laguna Hills, California veterinarian, cats spend anywhere between 15 to 50 percent of their waking time grooming. That configures up to six hours a day! Yet, there are some occasions when your cat will need your assistance in cleaning up their act. Here’s how to bathe a cat—without getting scratched.

Why bathe a cat?

Cats have a fine-tuned skillset for grooming, so they keep themselves pretty clean. Yet, there are some occasions when a cat parent needs to know how to bathe a cat: Curious cats can get into especially stinky things; older cats can’t clean themselves like they used to due to achy joints from arthritis, and some cats need a bath with medicated flea shampoo. Speaking of fleas, here’s how to get rid of them.

Warm-up to bathing

Before you attempt something scary and nerve-wracking for you and your cat, it’s smart to warm up to the idea before you actually need to know how to bathe a cat. “Get your cat used to the sights, sounds, and smells associated with the bathing process,” says Dr. Cruz. When you’re in the kitchen or bathroom, invite your cat to paw at a trickling of water from the faucet. Let her snuggle on the drying towel on your lap. Practice brushing and trimming nails long before bath time is ever on the calendar. To keep your cat cleaned, happy, and well-fed, know the best diet for your kitten.

Nail this tip down

“Should you put on a shark suit before swimming in Jaws infested waters… Yes!” Dr. Cruz jokes, but she’s right. It’s a natural reaction for your cat to claw her way out of a situation she doesn’t like. “Trim the nails on all four paws. It’s best to do this a day or two before the bathing, so you don’t tip off the kitty,” advises Dr.Cruz. Keep an eye out for these signs that your cat is mad at you.

Mind the mats

Regular brushing, especially on longer-hair cats, helps remove loose hair and troublesome mats. If you can’t gently brush through a matt, grab the scissors. “Carefully cut any mats out of the coat before the bath. If they are bad before bathing, a bath only makes them worse,” says Dr. Cruz. After you brush your cat’s hair, gently pop cotton balls in their ears to keep the water out.

Timing is everything

Timing is an essential factor when it comes to how to bathe a cat. If you have a younger cat, consider bathing the cat after a vigorous playtime session and kitty is tuckered out. And if your cat is older, Dr. Cruz suggests nudging kitty from a nap, so that you can introduce your cat to the bath in a calm matter. Remember to do all the bath prep before playtime or naptime, otherwise, you defeat the purpose of cat-readiness.

Be discrete

Discretion is key here. “Don’t let the cat see or hear you make preparations for the bath. They are experts at reading our body language and know something is up even before they see the water,” says Dr. Cruz. “Stay calm yourself. Lower the lights, play classical music, and keep other family members (especially small, loud children) away from the cat. Your cat may hate these things even more than a bath.

No people shampoo, please

Shampoos for humans are made for our hair, not so much for the scalp, while cat shampoos, on the other hand, are made for the scalp, which is more sensitive than the human scalp. Dr. Cruz suggests a mild shampoo, such as baby shampoo, but even baby shampoo can dry out your cat’s skin. Ask your vet for their recommendation, as the type of cat shampoo may vary depending on the reason for bathing. For example, a medicated shampoo is different from a general cleansing shampoo.

gorgeous toyger kitten wrapped in towel after bath - orange striped tiger catstockelements/ShutterstockSafe and secure

It’s difficult to comfort a cat with one hand and properly bathe a cat with the other, especially for cats who really hate the water. That’s why Dr. Cruz recommends bathing and drying your cat with a cat harness on. “A leash attached to the harness which is attached to a sturdy hook on the wall frees your hands to comfort and clean your cat, and allows you to control your cat’s movements better.” You’ll want to get your cat used to a leash and harness first.

Extra help for nervous cats

If your cat is especially anxious, you can help comfort her with the help of pheromones. “A little extra Feliway spray in the room where you are planning on bathing your cat can be beneficial. You can also use Feliway wipes nearby the tub (or sink) in a place that won’t get wet,” says Natalie Marks, DVM, a Chicago-based veterinarian and a spokesperson for Royal Canin. Treats might help keep your cat calmer and motivated to stay still in the bath too. Try spreading a little bit of wet cat food on the sink or tub service for your cat to lick off. Dr. Marks cautions that no more than ten percent of your cat’s total daily calories should be from treats. By the way, these are the best dry cats foods, according to veterinarians.

Draw a bath

Cats love the warmth of a sunny spot on a windowsill and will be more comfortable with a draft-free, warm bath. The kitchen sink is smaller and cozier for the cat, and the waist-height is easier for your back. “Make the water warmer than a baby’s bath temperature, and add a non-slip mat to provide a sense of security,” says Dr.Cruz. Be careful not to make the water too deep; it should be no higher than the half-way point between the paw and elbow area. It’s interesting to note that cats were originally desert-dwelling animals, which is probably one of the reasons’ why cats really hate water.

Bathing method

If you don’t have a cat harness, use one hand to support your cat and the other to bathe. Start bathing from the neck down. Use a washcloth to clean the face. A hand-held faucet attachment might be an acceptable way to rinse for some cats, but others may be less freaked out by the gentle stream of a plastic pitcher or tumbler. Now is a good time to do a quick once over to check for lumps and bumps. “Fur is fabulous for hiding a myriad of issues. Anything out of the ordinary should be brought to your veterinarian’s attention,” says Dr.Cruz. Be sure to look for these other silent signs your cat might be sick.

Don’t forget the ears

“After the bath, remove the cotton balls and use a veterinary formulated ear cleanser. Flood the canal with the warmed solution. Allow the cat to shake its head and shake out the excess,” says Dr. Cruz.

After bath care

Drying your cat with a soft, warm towel may win back your cat’s good graces. Gently wrap your cat in the towel to dry her. If you’re feeling especially confident, you can attempt to dry your cat with a blow dryer using a quiet and low setting. If not, dry your cat with a towel and be sure to brush her. “Brushing is especially important for longer-haired cats,otherwise, they will mat. Brushing before and after the bath is important because the hair will naturally tangle after the bath, and brushing loosens it easily rather than leading to additional hairballs and vomiting,” says Dr.Cruz. You can also try these 13 strategies to get your cat to like you.

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Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and Realtor.com., among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center. Follow her on Instagram @lisamariewrites4food and Twitter @cornish_conklin.