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Cats rarely need baths, but when they do, it risks being a traumatic experience (for you and the cat). The good news is you can probably dial down the stress—for all parties involved—by making sure you have the right cat shampoo on hand. More good news: cat shampoos and cleaning are very affordable and come in small bottles and packages.
In many years of owning cats, I’ve used cat shampoos only a handful of times: When I adopted two flea-ridden kittens, when an adventurous cat ran through a puddle of oil, and a few times when an elderly cat suffered bouts of diarrhea.
This is about right, according to the experts who say that cats should rarely be given baths.
“Cats are desert creatures,” says Rose Silcox-Rither, Certified Master Groomer, and owner of the Seattle-area company Better Kitty. “Their fur resists sand and dust, and they need the natural oils from their skin to stay healthy.”
That’s why, when your cat does need shampooing or spot-cleaning, your best bet is to use a product specially formulated for cats’ skin and fur. Don’t use your own soap or shampoo and avoid most products formulated for dogs (I’ll explain why later). Stick with cat shampoo! Of course, there are a few types of cat shampoo, for different uses.
It turns out that one of the most frequent reasons for shampooing a cat has nothing at all to do with the cat’s needs—it’s for the humans in the household. Many cat shampoos are designed to reduce the amount of dander (dead skin cells) on the cat—because dander is what triggers allergy attacks in humans.
More good news here, though: Reducing the amount of dander in your house does not require hauling your kitty off to the sink or bathtub on a weekly basis. There are many highly effective foam-type cat shampoos that you spray on, gently rub in, and then wipe off—and most cats enjoy them. Check below for “waterless” shampoos like Tropiclean and Earthbath that are designed to minimize dander.
Of course, there are times when you absolutely have to shampoo your cat—especially after a litter box accident.
This comprehensive article from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts covers several approaches to bathing your cat—in a sink, with foams, with dry powders, and with wipes. Three of the cat shampoos we list below are recommended in the article (Vet’s Best, Burt’s Bees, and Earthbath).
When it comes to a fairly substantial cleanup, here are some tips I’ve come across that I wish I’d know years ago. (In fact, these tips might have been written by someone who’d observed one of my cat-bathing disasters!)
- Put your kitty on a bath mat or towel in an enclosed room.
- Bring warm water (in a bucket or large bowl) to the cat. (Putting your cat in a tub with a few inches of water will usually trigger a panic-and-escape reaction that makes everything worse.)
- Put the cat shampoo on a wet washcloth and rub the shampoo onto the paw, backside, or another area you’re trying to clean.
- Use additional wet washcloths to sponge the suds off of the cat.
- Towel-dry the cat or, if they resist, leave them in a safe, warm room to air dry. (Avoid letting a wet cat run off to hide.)
No cat shampoo? No worries. If you need to do some emergency spot-cleaning of your cat (after a litter box accident, or because of filthy paws), Silcox-Rither recommends using a bit of original Dawn dish liquid, diluted. Keep in mind that original Dawn, used to clean wild animals after oil spills, is the only household product safe enough for spot-cleaning your cat.
In addition to removing dirt and controlling dander, you may need to shampoo your cat to deal with fleas, dermatitis, or a medical issue such as a fungal infection. In those instances, it’s wise to rely on your vet for advice. Most vets have particular shampoos they have found to be both effective and safe—plus they are familiar with your cat’s specific health issues.
Unfortunately, just because a bottle says “pet shampoo,” does not mean it’s safe for your cat. Pet shampoos can be formulated with essential oils or other compounds that might be safe for dogs but not necessarily for cats. Some essential oils, for example, can cause allergic reactions—and even poisoning if ingested, because cats groom themselves often.
Be sure to read the shampoo label carefully. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association warns that ingredients such as eucalyptus, lavender, citrus, rose, sandalwood, tea tree, ylang-ylang, and several types of mint can be toxic to cats.
Shampoos formulated for humans can have similar problem ingredients—plus, they contain harsh soaps that can dry out a cat’s skin and fur.
You can keep your cat safe, clean, and even relatively dander free by selecting cat shampoos, wipes, and washing products such as the ones below.
Vet’s Best is a veterinarian-crafted foam that includes aloe vera, oatmeal, and neem oil (a vegetable oil from the fruit and seeds of the neem tree). Spray on the foam and massage it through your cat’s fur. It does not need to be rinsed off. Users report that it’s a great solution for cats that are not doing a good job of grooming themselves.Buy on Chewy
Burt’s Bees formula for cats is a waterless spray-on shampoo formulated to be the correct Ph for a cat’s fur and skin. Spray on, rub in, and then towel the cat dry. If your kitty doesn’t like being sprayed (some cats don’t), you can put the shampoo on your hands and rub or brush it onto their fur.Buy on Chewy
This is a gentle formula you can rub in and wipe off. Removes dust, dirt, and dander with no harsh soaps to irritate the cat’s skin.Buy on Chewy
Made with oatmeal, coconut, and cucumber, this no-rinse, spray-on cat shampoo removes dander from a cat’s coat, which will help humans with allergies to cat dander.Buy on Chewy
Another effective solution for cats who need baths and won’t put up with water. Reviews say it’s effective for spot cleaning if your cat steps in something yucky or has a litterbox accident.Find on Chewy Find on Amazon
LiveClear is a rinse-free, foaming shampoo designed to reduce dander on a cat’s coat. If you have been subjecting your cats to water baths to reduce dander, this is a quicker solution.Buy on Chewy
If your cat puts up with baths, this is a safe shampoo to use—one that will protect the cat’s skin and fur.Buy at Petco
Cat people report these are excellent for daily cleaning of older cats that are lax about grooming. There is no spray to upset the cat—just a sturdy wipe to apply the non-rinse cleaning formula.Buy on Chewy
Use the original formula for dishes, for removing grease spots from your clothes, for cleaning wild animals caught in oil spills, and, yes, for emergency spot cleaning of your cat. A tiny dab, diluted, on a wet washcloth, should be enough if your cat gets into something yucky. Rub gently to remove gunk from the fur, then rinse off using another wet washcloth before toweling your cat dry.Buy on Amazon
- The Best Cat Grooming Supplies for a Healthy Kitty
- These 8 Cat Brushes and Grooming Tools Will Keep Your Cat Purring
- How to Groom a Cat: Step by Step Advice
Featured image via Chewy video