Luckily for us human cat owners, cats bathe themselves pretty frequently. A cat uses her rough, sandpaper-like tongue to run through her fur coat and clear it of dirt and foreign objects. She distributes saliva throughout the fur, which helps draw out the dirt the same way that water and shampoo draws dirt and product out of human hair. A cat's saliva also helps stimulate the glands of the skin to distribute natural oils to the cat's skin and fur. Any matting of the hair is cleared up quickly with a few licks. A cat's tongue is strong, long, and versatile enough to reach into the depths of the fur and clean the skin as well.
So when it comes to keeping clean, cats seem to have this all covered. But is there a good reason to bathe your cat yourself?
Should I Bathe My Cat?
Cat experts are split on whether you should give your cat a bath, the same way that you would bathe a dog. Most experts say that cat baths are completely unnecessary, because nature has given cats their own built in bathing system. Some others say that even though cats can clean themselves, you should still bathe them yourself at least once in a while.
As a rule of thumb, if you notice that your cat smells, has visible dirt in his hair, or has a matted coat, you should definitely bite the bullet and give him a bath. If your cat is not grooming himself properly, see a veterinarian as this could be a sign of a problem.
One other note. When you take in a stray cat off of the streets, you should always give it a good bath before allowing it to roam in your home. Stray cats know how to groom themselves, but do not always have the luxury of laying back and licking themselves the way that house cats do—street cats are constantly on the look out for danger. So when you bring in a stray it could have parasites like fleas or ticks and mounds of dirt from wandering through the woods.
How to Bathe Your Cat
So let's say you have decided that you want to give your cat a bath. Get ready for some fireworks—if your cat could speak he would probably adamantly protest this decision! If you are a veteran cat owner you know how difficult it can be to give a cat a bath being that cats hate water with a passion.
You have to be very cunning with your cat when its time to give him a bath. You also need to have a good relationship with your cat in order to give it a bath if you don't want your arms to look like shredded cheese when you're done.
First, feed him treats to make him happy. Put on a long sleeved shirt with many layers as a precaution to avoid getting scratched. Take him into the bathroom and close the door tightly. Run a little bit of lukewarm water in the tub and let the nozzle hang down (if you have one). Have your soap and a little hand brush with soft bristles handy (optional), right near the tub. Grab a thick towel and throw it over your shoulder.
Place your cat gently into the tub and immediately start dousing him with water. Talk to him in a soothing tone to keep him calm.
One of three things will happen. Your cat will either 1) sit there for a few minutes looking at the water with his nose turned up, trying to figure out what is going on while bellowing out an annoyed "meow," 2) look up at you with wide scared eyes plotting his escape, or 3) immediately try to make a mad dash out of the tub for the door. In the first two scenarios, ignore him and just keep wetting his coat. In the last case, you are going to have to retrieve your cat and be firm with him as you hold him down—get someone to help. Take extra care to assure that you do not splash water directly in the cat's face.
Squeeze some shampoo onto your cat and scrub it in with your fingertips. Be sure to get the head, tail and underbelly too. You can also use the soft-bristled brush if you are dealing with a really dirty cat. Use your shower nozzle on a low, gentle stream to rinse the cat off—be sure to get all of the soap out.
Now comes the fun part. Wrap your cat with the large, fluffy towel and hold him close as you dry him. This is an amazing bonding moment between you and your cat.
Grooming Your Cat
In addition to washing your cat, you should also groom her with a cat brush or grooming comb. You may be surprised at how much hair comes up from your cat's coat when you wash and groom her—if you don't brush your cat regularly all of that excess hair will end up as hairballs. So this is another case for bathing and grooming your cat—you will be able to simplify her own personal grooming process and avoid issues with hairballs down the line. As a best practice, it makes most sense to brush your cat first and then give her a bath (if still necessary).
Does the Soap Matter?
You may be wondering, should I bathe my cat with a bar of soap, bodywash, shampoo, or a special shampoo for cats? Because many shampoos and soaps that humans use contain perfumes and other substances that can be irritating to cats, it's a good idea to purchase a shampoo that is specially formulated for cat skin and hair. There are deodorizing, cleansing, hypoallergenic, and herbal and organic cat shampoos available. And yes, there are even cosmetic shampoos that are meant to enhance the color of your cat's coat or give it "body." If your cat has a problem with fleas or ticks, you can buy a shampoo made especially for correcting this problem. If you don't have a cat shampoo readily available, you may be okay using a pure, white soap with no fragrance.
It's Your Decision
So the general consensus on bathing cats is this—do it if you want to. Some cats can go years without a bath and still smell fresh and clean while other cats might get to be just a little too "ripe" after a while. Just play it by ear (or nose in this case).