Although cats groom themselves, not all do it sufficiently often or sufficiently well to remain free of fleas, to keep themselves clean enough to be pleasant companions, and to have a healthy and good-looking hair coat and skin. Tomcats who spend a great deal of time outside seem to be the worst offenders, but any cat may need a bath on occasion when he or she becomes dirty, for flea control, or for other health reasons. Accustom your cat to bathing early in life so it won’t be difficult to do later when the necessity arises.
WHEN TO START BATHS
It is best to give a young cat a bath about once a month, starting around three months of age, just so he or she becomes adjusted to the bathing procedure. You can, however, bathe a kitten as young as seven or eight weeks of age if you do it quickly and prevent chilling. Bathing itself does not cause illness, but the stress of being chilled can predispose any cat, particularly a young one, to disease. Once your cat has become familiar with bathing and is cooperative, use the appearance, feel, and odor of the skin and fur as guides to bathing frequency.
HOW OFTEN TO BATHE
Once a month is usually sufficient for an average cat with healthy skin. However, once a week may be necessary to achieve good flea control. Bathing once a week also significantly decreases the allergens in cat’s fur that are usually responsible for human allergies to cats.
SHAMPOO TO USE
Unless your cat has a specific skin problem requiring medicated shampoos recommended by a veterinarian, use a good quality cat shampoo or a gentle human shampoo (e.g., baby shampoo) for bathing. Cats generally have a skin pH of 7, so shampoos with a neutral pH are best. Avoid bar soap and dishwashing detergents since they seem to be particularly drying and very irritating to some cat’s skin and hair. A cream rinse (products for humans or for pets) can be used following shampooing to make the comb-out of longhaired cats easier.
HOW TO BATHE
Before the bath it is a good idea—but not absolutely necessary—to protect your cat’s ear canals and eyes from the soap and water. This can be done by placing large wads of cotton firmly inside the ears and by applying a nonmedicated ophthalmic ointment to the eyes. (To learn how to apply eye ointment.) Long-haired cats should be combed out before bathing to make grooming afterward easier. Place your cat in a sink or bathtub and use warm water. If your cat is an adult and a little uncooperative, gain control and avoid scratches to yourself by grasping the cat with one hand around the base of the head just behind the ears or by the scruff of the neck. Then use your free hand for soaping and rinsing. If your cat is extremely insecure, a narrow nylon harness put on the cat and attached to a leash that is tied to a fixture (never a hot water faucet) will keep the cat in the tub. Never leave a cat tied in this manner alone. Better than this, though, is a window screen placed in the tub. Most cats will cling to this with their claws, remaining in the tub, leaving both your hands free for the job at hand. Praise your cat if he or she cooperates, and try to correct with a “No” if not. Another technique that can be useful is to wash the cat with his or her body placed in a nylon net bag that has a drawstring closure that can be drawn up snugly to the cat’s neck. As a last resort, your veterinarian can provide tranquilizers to use when it is necessary to bathe an extremely unmanageable cat. Start the bath by wetting your cat thoroughly starting at the base of the
skull and working toward the tail, then apply the shampoo and suds it up. Two shampoo applications may be necessary if your cat is very dirty. Follow the sudsing with a thorough rinsing, since any soap left on the skin can be irritating and any stunned parasites left on the skin may wake up later and continue their activities. Once the fur is free of shampoo apply a cream rinse, if necessary, then rinse again thoroughly. This may be followed by a flea dip. Towel drying is usually sufficient, but, if you accustom your cat to the sound, you can use a hair drier to speed the drying process.
GROOMING BETWEEN BATHS
The kind of grooming your cat’s coat needs between baths depends on its length and character. Short-haired cats usually need little grooming, but you may want to give them a bi-weekly brushing to distribute the oils of the coat and to remove loose hair, lessening the amount you find around the house and the amount they ingest while self-grooming. A grooming mitt or slicker brush works well for this. Long-haired cats usually need frequent (preferably daily) brushing to prevent matted coats and to lessen the possibility of hairball formation.
Mats of hair often develop behind the ears and under the legs, so don’t forget to brush or comb these areas thoroughly.
TAR, PAINT, OIL
Tar, paint, and oil can be difficult substances to remove from the coat. Do not use gasoline, turpentine, kerosene, paint remover, or other similar substances in an attempt to remove them. Cut out small accumulations of
tar or paint. Large amounts of tar can be removed without cutting by soaking the affected hair in vegetable or mineral oil or ointments containing the surface-active agent polyoxethylene sorbitan (polysorbate) for twenty-four hours (e.g., bandage tar-covered feet soaked in oil), then washing with soap and water. Small patches of oil on the coat can be removed by sprinkling them with cornstarch, allowing the starch to soak up the oil, then brushing it out. Large amounts can be treated with mineral oil as you would for tar. As a last resort (e.g., if your cat is covered with oil) use a gentle dishwashing detergent as a shampoo.
If your cat gets sprayed by a skunk, use shampoo and water for a bath, then follow with a milk or tomato juice soak. Pour the milk or juice on undiluted; let it sit for about ten minutes, then rinse it out. A remedy that may be more effective is to use a fresh mixture of 1 quart 3% hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup baking soda, and 1 teaspoon shampoo to give the cat a thorough bath followed by a copious tap water rinse. Commercial products for the removal of skunk odor are also available at pet stores.