By Helen Anne Travis
While most cats have an innate drive to keep themselves clean, kittens might need a little help here and there. Maybe they made a mess in the cat litter box, or they got a little dirty at feeding time. Some kittens might need special care if they’re dealing with a nasty skin condition like ringworm.
A quick bath can help kitty stay clean and healthy, but it should be done with care. Kittens don’t have the fat reserves necessary to keep their body temperatures in check. If they get too cold during or after a bath, they may become more susceptible to illness or infection.
That's why it’s always a good idea to check with your veterinarian before giving kitty a bath. “Keeping kittens clean and dry is important,” says Dr. Liz Bales, a veterinarian and founder of the Feline Environmental Enrichment Design Company. “But it’s a balance between understanding how fragile they are and how important the bath is.”
Here’s how to do bath time right so no kittens—or humans—get harmed in the process.
The first few months of a kitten’s life are critical socialization periods, Bales says. We don’t want bath time to be so traumatic that it threatens their future ability to bond with humans.
Before you even think about plunking kitty in a tub of water, you want to make sure the cat is completely comfortable being handled dry, says Dr. Anne Lorkowski, a veterinarian at Norco Animal Hospital in Norco, California.
After that comfort level is established, you can introduce a damp washcloth into the equation. Start by wiping down the paws and then slowly working your way up the legs and trunk. Once kitty is used to the sensations of dampness and being rubbed, you can move on to the full bath experience.
Again, the key is to move slowly. Let the kitten hear the water running and splashing. Play with her and show her she’s in a safe place. Lavish the cat with praise, cuddles, and cat treats throughout the process.
“The more gradual and relaxed the experience, the more relaxed you are,” Bales says. “Cats are perceptive to our feelings. If we’re in a high state of anxiety, they will sense that.”
“The absolute number one piece of equipment you need is patience,” says Lorkowski.
In addition, you’ll also need a place to bathe the cat, kitten-friendly shampoo, a cup for pouring water, and plenty of warm fluffy towels. (Bonus points if they just came from the dryer.)
A small plastic tub, roughly the size and shape of a litter box, will come in handy if your sink is too small or your bathtub is too big.
Add a few inches of lukewarm water, roughly 100 to 103 degrees. You also want to make sure the room is warm. If it’s cold outside, you don’t want the cat to catch a draft.
Start by placing just the kitten’s feet in the water. After she is comfortable with that, place a folded towel on the bottom of the tub. When kitty is ready to stand on her own in the water, this will give her something to sink her claws into (besides your hand).
“Giving kittens something to grip will make them feel more secure, which makes bath time easier for everyone,” says Bales.
Throughout the process, you want to make sure to keep the kitten’s face dry and above water to prevent her from drowning or aspirating the water. A small cup will help you rinse off the areas that can’t be submerged under water.
Be sure to use a cat shampoo that explicitly says it’s kitten-friendly. Don’t use a human or dog shampoo; the detergents could dry out the kitten’s skin. Opt for an unscented brand. Unscented dish soap is also a safe and easy option—it’s gentle and inexpensive.
Cats have a strong sense of smell, says Bales. For them, a scented shampoo could feel like “they’re being dumped in a bottle of perfume,” she explains.
Avoid putting the soap directly on the kitten. Bales advises mixing some shampoo and water in a small dish and using the lather to wash the cat.
Both doctors advise against wearing gloves during the process.
“When you put on gloves, you lose that sensitive sense of touch,” says Lorkowski. “It’s hard to tell how forceful you are when holding the kitten.”
If the cat is not having a good time and you fear you may get scratched, let the cat go. Even if it makes a mess.
“It’s easier to clean up water than it is to go see the doctor,” she says
Avoid using soap and water around the face and eyes. A damp washcloth is all you need here. You also want to avoid rubbing the rectal area, as it could cause irritation.
Lorkowski recommends rinsing the cat off three times so the soap doesn’t stick to the skin and cause irritations.
When bath time is done, pat the kitten dry with those fresh-from-the-dryer towels. While it’s important to get kitty dry and warm as soon as possible, don’t be tempted to use a hair dryer; the hot blast of air could burn her delicate skin.