I spent the last two weekends speaking at local pet events about the feline care and trying to bring them into 21st century standards of hygiene. The audience was overwhelmingly positive (hooray!) and recognized that their cats where pretty dirty, however frozen with fear at the notion of undertaking a cat bath themselves.
Well, you don't have to. That's why I'm here. To help you and your feline maintain a peaceful and healthy relationship. BUT, if you are determined to take the plunge, let me help with some advice and suggestions. Preparation and planning are the keys.
Desensitizing may be necessary for some, especially those with a previous bad experience. Usually those with absolutely no experience do fine, as long as you go slowly. Desensitizing means running water and/or blowdrying in the background paired with positive things, like treats, toys, playtime. We are trying to reduce a cat's natural tendency to bolt when they are unsure of a situation. This may take a day or two, or weeks, depending on your cat's individual tolerance and social skills. If these sounds can be happening in the same room without a disappearance act, you are ready.
Things to think about ahead of time:
B. Have your cat thoroughly combed out, not brushed. If your cat is matted, stop now. You definitely need professional help. Bathing a matted cat at home will only result in larger and tighter mats. Call a professional to help get your cat back on track, and then you may be able to consider continuing the maintenance at home.
C. Bath location. It must be up high to make the cat feel secure, and not so deep that it becomes an echo chamber. This means the bathtub is ruled out for the majority of cats. Kitchen sinks work well, especially if they have a flexible hose.
D. Shampoo. If you are going to undertake bathing a cat, you want good results with minimal fuss. Human and pet shampoos are not designed for a cat's naturally greasy hair. They are designed for dogs. Cat specific shampoos are so benign that they don't work at all. You need to find a safe shampoo that can cut the grease easily, but no ingredients that are toxic when ingested. This means no d'limonene, essential oils, solvents, dish detergent, or aloe (a common ingredient in cat shampoos thats on the ASPCA Pet Poison list. I use mostly organic, vegan Chubbs Bars because it is cat safe and does a fabulous job in purifying dirty skin and hair.
E.Attitude. You must remain calm and in control at all times. Patience and understanding is a requirement for this to be a good experience.
1. I recommend wearing long sleeves. Assemble your bath kit and have everything in arm's length: Minimum 2 towels, cup for rinsing if no hose available, shampoo, witch hazel for ear cleaning, cotton balls, baby washcloth for face washing, nail trimmers, blow dryer, fine-toothed steel comb. Lay the towels open ready to receive a wet cat.
2. Start running the warm water in the sink from the hose. If you have no hose, fill the basin with warm water. Keep the sound of water running in the background while you move onto the next step.
3. Bring your cat within 10 feet of the sink. With treats or toys available, trim your cats nails FIRST. They have 18+ claws and are not hesitant in using you as a scratching post. Be sensible and disarm them. If your cat is a wiggler, escape artist, or potentially aggressive, wrap them in a towel and extract one paw at a time to do the job. Timid cats often feel more secure if their heads are under the towel.
4. This is the critical and sensitive step. Bring your cat slowly over to the sink. Be prepared for the flight reaction. You know it's coming. You may need to scruff your cat for these few critical moments until the cat is over the flight reaction. Often keeping them wrapped in a towel helps while you are starting to run the warm water over them and you can remove the towel slowly before starting to shampoo. If it is a basin you are using, slowly back them into the water, hind legs first. When cats feel the warmth of the water they usually relax. Go slowly, Keep a firm grip until you feel them relax. Talk soothingly to them. Once the water is flowing over them and they are relaxed, you can usually stop scruffing and place your three middle fingers on top of the head and thumb and pinky below each ear to keep contact with your cat in a relaxed but alert manner. If your cat decides to make another break for it, your hand is there and ready to scruff temporarily until the flight reaction has passed again. By the second shampoo cycle, most cats are just sitting there enjoying the rubbing and warm water. Yes, you must shampoo and rinse twice (at least).
5. Because of the nature of the greasy hair, it is hard for the water to penetrate down to the roots. Run your hand back and forth on the cat's body to flatten the hair and remove air pockets. Begin shampooing. Yes, you can wash the forehead and chin, just be mindful of shampoo or water getting in the ears or eyes. The shampoo and water should feel smooth against the cat's body. If you are feeling textured or high spots, you need to add more shampoo or water. The cat should feel smooth to ensure you are getting down to the skin. Shampoo twice, thrice for very dirty cats.
6. Once you finish rinsing your cat, rinse one more time, and double check there are no suds left on the under or back side of the cat. Your cat's hair should squeak on the back and chest. If it doesn't squeak, it's not clean, and you need to shampoo again. For basin washers, drain the water and refill to rinse. You may need to do this several times. Be mindful of the sucking noise some drains can make. It may startle your cat, so be prepared for it.
7. Place your cat in the middle of the open towel, perpendicular to the length. Fold the towel edge over the front paws, and then wrap one side around the cat, tucking the end underneath the body. Do the same for the other side. You now have a kitty burrito. Pat him gently while he's lounging. This is the best time to clean the ears with witch hazel, and wipe out any crusty eye goop.
8. Make another kitty burrito with a new dry towel, wrapping securely at the front, but leaving a small gap at the back end. Prepare for another flight reaction moment. With your forearm resting along your cats back, and your hand resting on its head in preparation to scruff if necessary, turn on the blow dryer away from the cat. The blow dryer should never be on a hot setting. Once the cat has gotten over being startled, start blow drying at the rear, moving your dryer constantly in circles. Slowly uncover more of the cat as sections become dry. Like the bath, most cats relax and enjoy the warmth once they are over the initial flight reaction. Be sure to keep the dry away from the ears and face. Some cats prefer you keep a towel over their head.
9. Once the cat is 90% dry, you can begin combing with your steel comb, Easing out loose hair and small tangles. Gently roll your cat on it's side and do the belly and underarms. It is important NOT to let your cat air dry, as it does increase mats and their severity. It is also important not to start combing until the cat is 90% dry in order to prevent hair breakage and damage.
10. Treats, toys, and loving but firm attitude during each step helps the entire process go much smoother.
In closing: You will find your cat soft, silky, very affectionate and personable in the next few days. Cats love to feel and look good, so it is important to praise them. Keep up your combing between baths, and love your cat.
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