Do I Need To Bathe My Cat?

We talked to a vet to find out.

We bathe ourselves regularly, and we bathe our dogs on a fairly routine basis — but can you bathe a cat? And should you?

If you’ve ever tried to bathe your cat, you’ve probably ended up with scratches here, there and everywhere. It’s commonly known that cats hate water for a variety of reasons, including their dislike of being weighed down and their fear of slipping. And one of the main reasons cats hate being wet is that it messes up their neatly kept fur, so their grooming instincts kick into overdrive.

Knowing that, should pet parents be helping their cats with their grooming routine? Or do baths just hinder their entire process and make our cats very, very angry?

The Dodo spoke to Dr. Jennifer Coates, a veterinarian who serves on the advisory board for Pet News Daily, to find out if cats are actually supposed to be bathed with shampoo and water.

How often should you bathe a cat?

According to Dr. Coates, healthy cats don’t actually need baths because they’re able to keep themselves neat and tidy on a daily basis. So to answer the question, “How often should you bathe cats?” the short answer is, well, rarely!

“Cats spend a lot of their time throughout the day self-grooming,” Dr. Coates told The Dodo. “Under normal conditions, their barbed tongues can keep short hair free of dirt, shed hair and mats, but medium- and long-haired cats often need a little help from us.”

However, help doesn’t always come in the form of soap and water.

Dr. Coates said that although baths “are usually not necessary,” regular brushing is, especially for cats with longer fur. “Brushing a cat’s fur once or twice a week will help keep them clean and prevent tangles from forming,” Dr. Coates said. Plus, brushing can also be a relaxing, trust-building process for both you and your cat.

When you should bathe your cat

Even though regular baths shouldn’t be penciled into a healthy cat’s schedule, there are a few situations where a bath, or frequent bathing, may be necessary.

  • If your cat gets into something sticky, you’re going to want to refrain from pulling a brush through stuck-together fur and give her a bath instead. Shampoo (made for cats specifically) and warm water should loosen and break down whatever substance is on her fur and make her feel a lot better (after the bath is said and done, that is).
  • If your cat messed around with something smelly — be it household garbage, a skunk or something else that causes your nose to crinkle — then she’s going to need a bath. No amount of brushing or self-grooming will remove a serious stink. But keep fragrances to a minimum. Cats are sensitive when it comes to their individual scents, so stick with a mild-smelling shampoo meant for cats.
  • If your cat has a health issue, she may need more frequent bathing. “Some feline health problems can be treated or managed at least in part with baths,” Dr. Coates said, and your vet will be able to diagnose any potential skin issue (like a rash or pests) and recommend the right medicated shampoo to use to remedy your cat’s situation.
  • If your cat has something toxic on her fur, you should give her a bath right away. Because your cat is constantly grooming herself, you don’t want her to ingest anything that’s on her fur that could make her ill, such as a household cleaner, paint, human body products or anything else that isn’t safe for consumption.

How to introduce your cat to the bath

If you find yourself in a situation where giving your cat a bath is necessary, then it’s important to start the process slowly. Dr. Coates recommends first introducing your cat to a warm, damp cloth rather than trying to put her directly in water.
Continue to dampen the towel more and more until your cat’s ready to be introduced to a running tap. Start washing her legs with cat shampoo and move up the body from there, being sure to avoid your cat’s face. Reward her with treats during and after, and give her plenty of time to groom and dry herself after the bath’s over.

Dangers of over-bathing your cat

Because most cats aren’t used to water and being bathed, bathing a cat too often could have some harmful effects.

  • Your cat could develop dry skin. “Bathing too frequently can dry the skin, so healthy cats shouldn’t be bathed more frequently than every four to six weeks or so,” Dr. Coates said. Rather than stripping oils out of your cat’s skin with shampoo and water, brushing her can actually stimulate natural oil production, which nourishes both her skin and coat.
  • You could cause emotional trauma. If your cat has had a prior negative experience with water — even an experience that happened before you got your cat, such as falling into a body of water as a kitten — giving her frequent baths could be deepening her trauma and dissolving her trust in you.

Rather than giving your cat a full bath after something minor, like a litter box mishap or her flicking her tail through something gross, Dr. Coates recommends using pet wipes for a quick clean.

“Cleansing and deodorizing pet wipes are a great option for a quick spot clean or just to freshen up your cat’s coat,” Dr. Coates said.

These dander-reducing cat wipes from Burt’s Bees for $5.64 not only mildly cleanse your cat’s coat, but can also nourish irritated skin and reduce dander, which sometimes causes human allergies.

As long as your cat stays healthy and you notice that she’s grooming herself regularly, then she shouldn’t need a bath any time soon. If you become worried that she’s not keeping up her own grooming habits or that she’s itchier than usual, consult your vet and express your concerns.

Otherwise, keep up a twice-weekly brushing routine and you and your cat will stay clean and happy, no water needed!