“How often should I bathe my cat?” I’m asked with surprising frequency. It’s a perfectly valid question, but anybody who’s ever bathed a cat will understand that it usually answers itself the moment you dare to try.
I remember my first job at a veterinary hospital in high school. My inaugural assignment? Bathe this cat. In retrospect, I’m sure I was being hazed. The following five minutes were a flurry of soap suds and blood (mine, if clarification is required). I’m not sure the cat came out any cleaner, but it certainly came out wetter. And angrier.
Luckily, cats are fastidious creatures and require very little bathing, if any at all. Naturally, there are exceptions for egregiously dirty cats, or those who have managed to soil themselves with something you really don’t want them ingesting. But by and large, they take care of themselves. I’ve had my cat for 12 years, and she’s endured zero baths in that time, which is best for the both of us.
Dogs, on the other hand, delight in accumulating the most noxious filth they can find—the deader the better—and usually benefit from a good scrubbing now and then. But there’s still no magic answer when it comes to frequency. I advise that people bathe their dogs as often as is needed to keep them clean, which is admittedly fuzzy but entirely fair. A short-haired couch dog may hardly need to be bathed at all, while a long-haired mud-lover may need weekly attention. It’s true that some dogs can dry out with overly frequent bathing, but so long as you don’t see evidence of that happening (like dandruff and itchy skin), have at it.
Regardless of how often you need to bathe your pets, it’s always wise to brush them out first, especially if they have long fur. Knots and mats only get tighter and more stubborn once they’re wet, and if they get too well-established, there may be no way to abolish them without shaving down to the skin. But even with short-haired animals, the more fur you brush out beforehand, the less you have to fish out of the drain afterwards.
It’s also worth a bit of caution to prevent water from getting in your pet’s ears, especially if she has a history of ear infections. Remember swimmer’s ear when you were a kid? Water collects in the ear canal, providing an ideal home for bacteria and yeast. Plugging the ears with a cotton ball can help keep them dry, and rinsing them with a dedicated ear cleanser after the bath can provide another layer of assurance in dogs that need it.
Is bathing your pet a bit of a chore? Sure, but it’s really not so bad. Unless your pet is a cat, in which case…good luck with that.
Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.