Have you ever wondered how to wash a cat? Cats are known for their meticulous grooming habits and fear of water, but sometimes they need a little extra clean up with help from their human companions.

A white cat with a towel on its head in a bath full of fake bubbles made of cotton.

Whether your cat has rolled in something sticky or is simply due for a thorough clean, this guide will walk you through the different ways you can bathe a cat.

Table of contents

How often should you bathe a cat?

Unless your cat has a specific medical condition that is treated with medicated shampoos, you generally don’t need to bathe cats regularly. Some owners elect to wash their cats as part of their normal care routine, but they should not be washed more than once every 4-6 weeks.

The traditional bathing method

Step 1: Prepare your bathing supplies

Gather all necessary supplies in your bathroom or wherever you are bathing your cat. You will need:

It is also a good idea to have some treats on hand. These are a great reward for your cat and a good distraction during the bathing process.

Step 2: Acclimatise your cat to the water

You can acclimatise cats to baths with short sessions and patience. In every session, keep calm and use positive reinforcement, for example, using a Licky mat stuck to the wall with paste cat treats to distract them or their favourite treat fed intermittently during and after the bath. Take your time and try to make the whole experience as stress-free as possible.

If your cat has never been washed before or has a strong dislike of water, start with no water in the tub. Have your cat stand on the non-slip mat in the bath and use a damp cloth to clean and rinse them.

Over a series of short sessions, slowly increase the amount of water in the tub. After the damp cloth stage, start with a shallow bath that just covers their toes and work your way up as they get used to the new water depth. Do not fill the bath more than your cat’s chest height.

Step 3: Wet your cat’s fur

Use lukewarm water to wet your cat’s fur from the neck down, avoiding the head and ears. Use either a small container to pour water gently onto the coat or an extendable shower head on low pressure to thoroughly soak their fur, whatever your cat is most comfortable with.

Step 4: Apply the shampoo

Gently work a small amount of cat shampoo into your cat’s fur to create a lather. Avoid their face and eyes.

Step 5: Rinse the shampoo

Using the same method you used to wet your cat’s fur, thoroughly rinse off the shampoo.

Step 6: Apply conditioner and rinse (optional)

If you wish to, gently work a cat conditioner into your cat’s fur just like you applied the shampoo. Once you are the conditioner has been applied, rinse their coat again.

Step 7: Gently clean your cat’s face

Use a damp washcloth soaked only in water to clean your cat’s face. Make sure it is free of shampoo and conditioner.

Step 8: Dry your cat

Remove your cat from the tub and wrap them in a large towel. Gently rub them dry.

If your cat is used to baths and will tolerate it, you can use a hairdryer on a low, cool setting can be to finish the drying process.

two young kittens, thoroughly wet, wrapped together in an indigo towel

The bucket method

The bucket method is a practical approach for those feline friends who might not be too fond of traditional baths and running water.

Step 1: Get everything prepared

Gather all necessary supplies in your bathroom or wherever you are bathing your cat. You will need:

  • cat-specific shampoo
  • conditioner (optional)
  • a large towel
  • a non-slip mat for the bottom of the tub
  • a small container and/or shower head attachment for your taps
  • a washcloth
  • at least one bucket (though more may be useful)
  • Some treats for rewards or distraction

Step 2: Fill the bucket(s)

Place your bucket(s) in the bath and fill them with lukewarm water. Fill them no higher than your cat’s chest height.

Step 3: Place your cat in the bucket and soak their fur

Gently lower your cat into the bucket of clean water. Allow them to acclimatize to the water temperature.

Once your cat is used to being in the water, use your hands or washcloth to wet their fur in the areas not covered by water. Avoid getting water on their head and in their ears.

Step 4: Apply shampoo

Take your cat out of the bucket and place them on a towel or bathmat. Apply a small amount of cat shampoo and lather it into your cat’s fur. Avoid their face and eyes.

Step 5: Rinse your cat

Gently place your cat back in the bucket of water and rub the shampoo out of their fur. You may need to use a small container to gently rinse areas where the water in the bucket does not reach.

This is where it may be useful to have multiple buckets of clean water: once the water of the first bucket is contaminated with shampoo, you can move your cat from bucket to bucket of clean water to thoroughly rinse them.

Step 6: Apply conditioner and rinse again (optional)

If you wish to apply conditioner, take your cat out of the bucket, and gently rub the conditioner into their fur. It is a good idea to empty the bucket(s) and refill it with clean water before you rinse the conditioner from their fur.

Step 7: Gently clean their face

Once your cat has been thoroughly rinsed, use a washcloth dampened with clean water (with no shampoo or conditioner) to gently wipe their face.

Step 8: Dry your cat

Remove your cat from the bucket and wrap them in a large towel. Gently rub them dry.

If your cat will tolerate it, you can use a hairdryer on a low, cool setting can be to finish the drying process.

long haired black cat with a white chest in an orange bucket

Other ways to wash a cat

For cats that are very averse to water, there are several waterless options that may be worth a try.

Cleaning Wipes

Specially formulated pet-safe cleaning wipes can be used to wipe down your cat, removing dirt and odours without the need for a full bath.

Waterless Shampoo

A waterless shampoo can be applied to your cat’s coat. These products typically come in a foam or powder form and can be rubbed onto and brushed through your cat’s fur.

Spot Cleaning

If your cat only has a small, specific spot that needs cleaning, then you can use a damp cloth to clean the one site.

  1. Wet the fur at the site needed using a water-soaked cloth.
  2. Apply a small amount of shampoo to the site or cloth and lather it in shampoo.
  3. Rinse with another clean, wet cloth, wiping repeatedly until all the shampoo has been removed
  4. Gently rub dry the spot with a towel.

Tips for a stress-free bathing experience

Choose the right time

Bathe your cat when they are at their calmest, which is often after a meal or play session.

Be gentle, calm, and organised to minimise stress

Fast, rough handling and loud noises can all increase stress significantly for cats. To minimise stress:

  • Use a soothing voice and gentle touch will help reassure your cat throughout the bathing process.
  • Make sure you have everything ready to go before bringing your cat into the area.
  • Try to use regular, steady, gentle movements when washing them.
  • Aim to keep the bathing session as short as possible to minimise stress.
  • Keep sounds in and around the washing area low and calm.
  • Keep all other pets and children out to reduce any additional sources of stimulation and stress, as your cat will feel more vulnerable when confined in the bath.

Reward your cat

After the bath, provide your cat with treats and affection to create a positive association. You can use treats during the bath as well, if they will eat, such as paste treats they can lick intermittently.

Take the time to desensitise your cat to water

Taking the time to acclimatise your cat to water, desensitising them slowly and making the experience as positive as possible, will be particularly important to your cat’s health and well-being. Plus, it will make it future baths a much better experience for you and your cat.

By understanding your cat’s likes and dislikes and choosing a bathing method you know they will tolerate, you can successfully wash your cat with minimal stress.