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How to Bathe Your Cat Without Bloodshed

Washing your cat in your home is quite a job. But it doesn't have to involve an angry, clawing kitty.

 |  Jan 10th 2013  |   29 Contributions


My rescue cat, Dodo, had a brush with some tanglefoot while chasing a bird in a tree. If you’ve ever gotten this product on yourself, you’ll know what I mean when I say he was sticky. (Tanglefoot is used to stop ants from marching up tree trunks and hummingbird feeder posts.) 

I discovered the tanglefoot too late, while I was snatching the cat from the branches. Now two of us needed sticky removal. 

Cat gets bath by Shutterstock

Faced with the dilemma of how to remove the offending product from Dodo before he tried to do it himself against the furniture, I searched my brain for remedies. What did my mother use when my sister put gum in my hair so long ago? Peanut butter? Oil? I grabbed the not-so-expensive olive oil from the shelf and backed out of the pantry still clinging to a desperately squirming cat. 

Dodo calmed down as I knelt on the kitchen floor, backing him up between my knees. (This manner of holding a cat is also great when trying to administer meds.) I applied some olive oil to a paper towel and rubbed. Nothing happened. I tried again. Still nothing, except that now I had a sticky and oily cat on my hands. Dodo’s interest in the matter of being cleaned was rapidly dissipating, as it clearly did not involve food.

This cat is a lot more enthusiastic about bathing than Dodo was. Cat and rubber ducks by Shutterstock

Clinging ever tighter to Dodo, I ran to the bathroom and tossed him into the shower stall, slamming the door behind him. Okay, now what?

I grabbed an armload of old towels, brought them into the room, and placed them on the floor near the shower. I was stalling. 

By then, I needed a shower myself, so on impulse I quickly stripped and slipped into the stall with the cat. I knew this was risky, as there was now nothing between my tender skin and his sharp claws, should he attempt to climb his way out by using me as a tree. Dodo appeared nonplussed, so I ignored him and turned the water on. 

I was amazed to see Dodo calmly sitting there! Before he changed his mind, I grabbed the dog shampoo (it was an emergency) and lathered him up. Still, he remained calm. The moment of truth came when I took the handheld shower head and held it over him. 

This is OJ, another kitten I had to give a bath to.

Wow! Easy! That’s when it dawned on me: Bathing a cat from above is the way to go. Lowering a cat into a tub of water, he’ll think you’re trying to drown him and fight like crazy. 

Since then I’ve given countless flea baths to foster kittens and have rarely been scratched, so I know this method works. Note: I do not take them into a shower with me. I just hold them by the scruff under the faucet in the kitchen sink. 

I never had occasion to bathe Dodo again. I also confine all my (four) cats inside the house or catio these days, rather than let them have free rein outside. 

In retrospect, I was very lucky to have had a mellow cat and that I came out of that shower unscathed. If I ever needed to bathe an adult cat again, I would do it much differently. 

It's unlikely your cat will enjoy the experience. Wet cat by Shutterstock

Here are some simple steps to bathing your cat at home: 

1. Be prepared

  • Invest in a cat harness if you suspect your cat will be a struggler.
  • Choose a warm room that has a door you can close to prevent escape.
  • Put several large bath towels next to the tub along with a hairdryer and pet carrier lined with a towel, door open and ready to receive a wet cat.
  • Select a shampoo specifically formulated for felines. Be careful to avoid any that contain tea tree oil, which is toxic. If you are bathing for fleas, some shampoos are applied to a dry coat and must stay in for several minutes before rinsing.

2. Wash

  • Wash the animal in a large tub with access to warm running water. A handheld showerhead type sprayer is best as it emits a gentle “rain” and will be less threatening. It's also very convenient for rinsing undersides and other hard-to-reach places.
  • Place the cat in the tub and hold her in place by the scruff or harness. Talk soothingly and pet her before turning on the water. 
  • Using lukewarm water and shampoo, carefully wash the cat in a matter-of-fact manner. Cats can pick up on stress, so if you are worried they will be as well and be more apt to put up a fight. 

Foster kitten OJ got a good rubdown to avoid getting chilled afterward.

3. Dry

  • When washing is over, towel-dry the animal as best you can. Then proceed to more thorough drying to avoid the animal becoming chilled (which is life-threatening for kittens).
  • Many cats are afraid of hairdryers. If your pet is one of these, confine the wet cat to the carrier and carefully aim the warm air flow across the door rather than directly at the animal. You can also just put her into a warm bathroom until the coat dries completely.

Have you bathed your cat at home? Did you survive? Tell us about it in the comments!

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