How to Give a Cat a Bath and Survive!

Do cats need baths? Sometimes. If your cat truly needs a bath, here’s how to give a cat a bath as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Sinks are cool places to hang out in.
Sinks are cool places to hang out in. Photography by Okssi / Shutterstock.

One would think that any creature that can so beautifully emulate the flow of water would not harbor such a longstanding hatred and fear of it. The fact is, most domestic cats do not enjoy getting wet. Some will even lift their noses at the thought of walking over a damp floor. So, do cats need baths and how do you bathe a cat? Let’s review how to give a cat a bath.

A black and white cat clearly not enjoying his bath.
Most domestic cats hate water… but why?! Photography by fotoedu/Thinkstock.

Why Do Most Domestic Cats Hate Water?

Before looking at how to give a cat a bath, let’s look at why our domestic kitties hate water. In the wild, there are many species of big cats that actually enjoy the water. Tigers and jaguars like to soak in water, most likely because their usual habitat is in a hot environment and it helps keep them cool. Tigers will actually swim in deep water and they have been observed catching fish.

Domestic cats may have evolved to dislike water because most breeds have coats that absorb rather than deflect moisture. It’s harder for them to get dry after they’re soaked.

Do Cats Need Baths?

The next question that comes up when wondering how to give a cat a bath — do cats actually even need baths in the first place? In most cases, a cat would not need to be washed with water. Cats groom themselves naturally, so regular brushing is usually enough to keep your pet looking clean and comfortable.

Related: Should You Clean Your Cat’s Paws?

However, there are occasions when knowing how to give a cat a bath is necessary. They may have soiled themselves in the litter box. Cats have been known to try to climb up the inside of a chimney. Perhaps you’ve just adopted a new cat and she’s home from the animal shelter for the first time. Sometimes you will need to know how to give a cat a bath if you’re using flea or fungicidal medications.

How to Give a Cat a Bath — Have These Supplies on Hand

The best answer for how to give a cat a bath is to make it quick and efficient. Ensure you have all the necessary supplies handy before you start:

  1. Rubber gloves (even the most placid feline may scratch during a bath)
  2. Cat shampoo (various brands available at pet stores or supermarkets)*
  3. A large pitcher for rinsing or (even better) a gentle spray nozzle
  4. A large towel
  5. Cotton balls to clean the ears
  6. A small cloth to clean the face

*It’s best if you have the time to purchase a shampoo specifically formulated for cats. Virbac is a good brand that many veterinarians recommend, and it comes in medicated, hypoallergenic and antibacterial varieties. If you don’t have any cat shampoo, a mild baby shampoo may be used. You don’t want to use any other kinds of human cleaning products, as it may sting your cat’s eyes or irritate her skin.

How to Give a Cat a Bath — Step by Step

It’s much easier to wash your cat in a kitchen or bathroom sink than bending over a bathtub. The following is a step-by-step procedure for how to give a cat a bath.

  1. Fill the sink with about 2 or 3 inches of lukewarm water.
  2. Wet the cat from the shoulders to the tail and apply shampoo.
  3. Just like your own hair, lather and rinse thoroughly.
  4. Since most cats really hate having water splashed on their face, use a damp washcloth to gently clean your cat’s head.
  5. Use a cotton ball to clean inside the cat’s ears. Never put any kind of object (not even a Q-Tip) in your cat’s ear.
  6. After a thorough rinsing, lift your cat onto a large towel and fold it around her.
  7. Rub as much water from her fur as possible.
  8. Longhaired cats may require the use of a blow dryer, but only if the noise does not terrify them. Set it on low and see if the cat will tolerate it.

What to Do If You Can’t Bathe Your Cat

Still baffled on how to give a cat a bath but think your cat could really benefit from a bath? If you absolutely can’t bear the thought of washing your own cat and want to make sure they hold someone else to blame for the experience, you can choose to bring kitty to a groomer or a pet care clinic or store where they provide grooming services. Costs will range from $20-$50 and will include services such as shampoo and blow dry, trimming, ear cleaning and nail clipping. There are even mobile pet grooming vans in large urban areas now that have a complete grooming facility right inside the van. These services cost a bit more, but they come right to your door.

Thumbnail: Photography by Okssi / Shutterstock.

This piece was originally published in 2009.

Read Next: What Cats Need Grooming? Let’s Talk Bathing and Brushing Your Cat

64 thoughts on “How to Give a Cat a Bath and Survive!”

  1. There's a great video on Youtube where somebody shows how they give their kittens a bath when their young so that they aren't afraid of the water. Haven't tried it yet, but I want to. Good luck to all cat owners who have to give their cats an unwanted bath!

  2. That’s weird. They should offer you a sedative so you can either do it yourself at home or once he’s calm they can do it in their office.

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    1. If you have just got a cat from the rehoming centre PLEASE DO NOT frighten it to death my bathing it.

      Let them have a good look around their new home and settle in a bit first.

      Then, after stroking them for a bit just wipe their coat with a damp facecloth, in loving strokes talking to her/him all the time, explaining that you are getting rid of the cat home smell and you want them to live with you in their forever home and they are beautiful.

      Finish off with a dry paper towel, and a comb/brush. BUT only if they look as if they can handle it and it’s not too much all at once.

      We did this whith ours as she smelled like the dirty cat tray. She does let us comb her now but actually she never seems to loose much hair. She does spend quite a time washing herself – a portion per session.

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  10. You really should try that with NO water in the SINK and use a sprayer hose to wet the cat down. They are much more compliant that way. The pillowcase idea is interesting though…

  11. NO NO NO! You don’t put ANY water in the sink. As soon as the cat’s feet get wet it’s gonna FIGHT! I always put a towel down in the sink and use a sprayer hose to wet the cat down. THe towel keeps the cats feet from slipping around in the sink. Water that is pretty warm is better than cool water. Cats body temp is around 102 degrees F. NEVER spray their head! Use a cloth to wet it down. Then, definitely give some extra special treats afterwards!

  12. I’ve given a bath to hundreds, maybe thousands, of cats. And survived each time. Yes, I have occasionally endured a scratch or two, but I always start out by clipping their nails and cleaning their ears beforehand. And, yes, the water needs to be warmer than just warm; cats’ body temperature is much higher than ours. Also, if you are trying to kill fleas, a wet cloth on the face isn’t going to do any thing to the fleas. For flea ridden cats, I start with the head, dampening the fur around the head and ears with wet fingers. I apply the flea soap to the dampened areas, making a lather. Because the head is where most of the fleas congregate, it’s best to leave the soap on that area longer. So, I then wet and apply the flea soap the the rest of the body, paying particular attention to the anal area, another area fleas like to gather. When I start to rinse, it’s the body first. Cats especially don’t like their head wet, so I save that for the last area and do it quickly but thoroughly. Concerned about soap in the eyes: Put a drop of mineral oil in each eye before starting.

    1. Some cats become extremely agitated by the experience because of the bathing, handling required, or let’s face it, they’re cats. The reaction can harm the cat or the groom. Experienced grooms can usually wash an amiable cat with no precautions. High strung or indoor ferals may struggle so much they can’t be safely held without too much pressure or the cat will strike out injuring the groom. A previous bad experience may forever color a cat’s reaction. In these cases it’s wiser to have the cat sedated. After a thorough wash and groom; including ears, eyes, nostrils, paw pads, claws, fur mats, matted feces, tooth brush, plaque and quick broken and loose tooth check; the groggy cat regains it’s wits and is little the worse for the experience.

      If you’re pet is extremely highly strung, suffers from mats, external parasite infestation or exhibits a sudden personality change consider the peace of mind a veterinarian based groom.

      In my experience home, mobile and storefront grooms add $30 – $50 US for sedation, vet grooms the same to a bit more if you have a simple procedure bundled.

      I am the proud parent of an indoor feral that was captured from outside then disease screened, spayed, bathed and got initial flea treatment before the sedation wore off. I next saw her 3 weeks later. A perfect example of a good choice for sedation.

      1. E. P. Halvorsen

        What do you use to put the cat out to clip the nails
        No vet will take him there were
        4 that refused
        And cannot gone one

        1. To teach your cat to get a nail trim it is important to win trust first. Every day while petting gently touch each foot. Over time they get used to the sensation of being touch. Their feet are very sensitive. It takes time patience and commitment.
          Touch the feet every day for a week or until they get comfortable before trimming the nail. Do but cut to short or you can damage the quick.
          Cats nail shed naturally. Buy a cat tree or two for the house and they will keep their nails healthy.

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  15. Roseanne Tridle

    Cats don’t like water. They don’t need bathed. They do that themselves. Understanding that shouldn’t be hard if you know your cat.

    1. Yes, they bathe themselves most of the time, but there are cases when you HAVE to give them a bath. Such as certain things their tongue isn’t going to wash out, or if the cat gets something on it that might harm it if it would clean itself. That’s said in the article, if you would have read it.

    2. I had a cat get out. He was gone for a week and I feared the worst. When he showed up he was covered in clay mud and exhausted. I put him in a quiet place with water and a little food. Several hours later, he had eaten a bit, drank some water and rested. There was no way he was going to get all that mud off himself so we headed to the bathroom. He didn’t complain at all as I gently washed the mud out of his coat. About a week later, the hair on one hip fell out in a perfect tire tread pattern. Immediately to the vet! X-ray showed no damage and the vet said the soft mud surely saved him. I hope that’s my only experience with bathing a cat.

    3. We recently had our interior painted and tiled. It was terribly dusty and so were the cats. They needed baths. For two younger cats, I took them in the shower. The older cats got foam baths. None of them liked it, and all of them benefited.

    4. I have an older cat that has stopped grooming himself. I have tried to use a pet brush and comb on his fur, but it has become pretty matted. I am going to try to bathe him in the sink and see if that helps. Other than that, I agree with you. Cats bathe themselves, but may need help when they are older or have gotten into something that has matted their fur.

  16. I am by no means the cat whisperer, but I have to question you on the “lukewarm water” part. Everything I’ve ever read about cat’s and baths state to have the water close to their body temp of 102°

    I have only bathed my most aquaphobic cat a hand full of times, but I can’t ever imagine using lukewarm water…she would start shivering. Or maybe I just have a different version of what lukewarm means. To me it means, comparable to room temp.

    1. Martha J. Jimenez

      Although I agree with you that lukewarm water is too cool, I keep my exterior hot tub at 100 and sometimes 101 degrees. The water is hot and I would think too hot for a cat.

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  18. My cat would not let us bathe him. So, my mom told me that if you hold the skin (folds?) on the back of cats neck, they can’t move. Apparently its how the mothers carry the young? I haven’t heard anything about this being bad for the cat and I would not be able to bathe him otherwise. He doesn’t just hate water, he hates being brought places. If you place him anywhere, he will jump away. So, it became necessary. I know that cats groom themselves but he always gets into our attic and basement which are just so dusty. We let him because it makes him happy and without it he wouldn’t have much of anywhere to roam.

    1. Catster Admin

      Hi there,

      Thanks for reaching out! Sounds like you’re scruffing your cat, which may actually be harmful to him. Check out some alternative ways to restrain your cat here:

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  20. I would have ended up in the hospital with two bloody stumps if I had ever tried to give my cat Sketch a bath during his 18 years of life!

    1. Kristina Friman

      Great Name!! I have a feral Male I feed. His name is Larry but I’m gonna call him Sketch for short.

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  23. It worked for my cat! (But DO NOT touch there FACE!) he bit me and hissed.but it worked, oh and he hid from me for the rest of the day lol! a little story:my dog died so I’m heart broken but I got a cat! His name is Leo and he is soooo soft I absolutely adore him!!

  24. This is how I bath my cats. First fill up the bathtub with about 4 or 5 inches of warm water. Prepare shampoo and warm water in a plastic cup. Have towel and anything else ready. Sneak up on your kitty with a pillow case and put him inside the pillow case. Put pillow case and cat in the warm water. Start from rear as you work your way up toward the head with the shampoo and water solution. Of course adding more water and slipping the pillow case up as you go. It seems as long as the cat can’t see the water , the better it is for both of you. Use the cup for rinsing. Will probably have to drain soapy water and turn on the water for better rinsing. Wrap in big towel. I keep mine in the warm bathroom til almost dry.

    1. Your cat will definitely hate you for putting them in the pillowcase and literally DUNKING THEM in the water. Don’t do that. It will not, I repeat, WILL NOT end well for you or your cat.

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  26. What’s omitted is that Sphynx and other hairless cats need a bath once or twice a week, in order to keep their skin oils under control. Start getting them used to being bathed as young kittens, and no problem.

    1. Hi Michele,
      Thanks! Here’s more info on how to care for hairless cat breeds:

  27. I agree with everything in this article EXCEPT putting the cat in 2-3 inches of water! NO! Put a towel down in an empty sink, with the drain OPEN, and use the sprayer hose to wet and rinse thw cat, but NEVER it’s face! Afterwards, give the cat LOTS of TREATS!

  28. I think you should put a washcloth or something on the bottom of the sink or tub so they don’t slip. Much of their insecurity comes from standing on a dlippery surface.

  29. i bathed my 6 year old sookie for the 1st time as she came in filthy with mud,she hated it she growled and hissed at but it was worth it as her fur is so silky and soft now,and its also good for keeping fleas at bay if you dont want to use drugs and sprays or drops that they might be adverse to

    1. please keep you kitty indoors. catify your house for her (see Jackson Galaxy) and she will live longer, ove for it and won’t ever get muddy again!

      1. Yes! All my cats are converted from completely outdoor to completely indoor cats. They don’t even want to go outside at all! Even if a door is open, they just look at it like “no thanks!”

  30. My Maine coon Magnolia Grace loves bath time all I do do is place a hand towel in kitchen sink adjust the water where its not too hot on my wrist then place her in sink wet her with sink sprayer scrub with soap then rinse and gently wring out paws, tail and belly and wrap her in a big fluffy towel and dry her and also if she’s a little chilly I turn the heat on until she’s dry. She just sits in the sink and doesn’t make a fuss.

    1. Nice! You are lucky. My older cat is not grooming himself as well as he once did, so I am trying to figure out how to bathe him. He’s pretty laid back, but trying to get him wet is something he won’t like, and he might scratch or even bite.

  31. My long haired Maine Coon won’t let me brush him much less bathe him. He gets angry, bites, kicks, and claws me. Most of the time he is so sweet and lovable and he really needs a bath. My vet is afraid of him and wants to put him to sleep to bathe him. Lucky, has a very rapid heart beat and the vet says we should just enjoy him while we have him. Do you have any suggestions?
    worried and battle scarred

    1. Hi there — Check out the alternative to cat baths section here:

      1. I had a cat that needed a bath. My boyfriend told me that he could do it & that I was a scardy cat. He took him into the shower. I had an ample supply of ointment & bandaids ready. Not so easy, fellow!

        1. Lynnette Smith

          I find using a sponge works out great. Soak the sponge with shampoo and rinse cat with wash rag thst you only for your pet then proceeds to towel dry. Have a great ready to reward your pet for good behaviorsl.

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