By Anita Kelsey: Copyright Jan 2015

I recently had a discussion regarding a short haired moggie being introduced to the bathing process and disliking it intensively. When I said that most cats clean themselves very well without our help, the reply came “yes, your cat can clean himself but it’s his saliva all over his body and how good is that?”

I think that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard, so I decided to write this article.


Do cats need bathing?

All animals and all humans are dirty to varying degrees and we all carry bacteria.

If one was comparing human self-cleaning methods to that of animals, I guess cats could be seen as unhygienic. However, cats are not human beings. Nature has given the cat the correct and necessary tools to keep itself clean and these have worked very well for the cat for thousands of years. The cat has a barbed tongue with which it licks itself. The forepaws are moistened with saliva and used as a surrogate washcloth and a cat’s teeth are superbly designed to dig out tougher debris.

Saliva also aids in healing wounds. Dogs, cats, small rodents and primates all lick wounds. Their saliva contains tissue factor which promotes the blood clotting mechanism. The enzyme Lysozme is found in many tissues and is known to attack the cell walls of many gram-positive bacteria aiding in defence against infection.

As well as cats being fastidiously clean animals, using saliva like we use soap and water, they also use their saliva as an individual scent stamp. Their own personal scent gets deposited over their bodies. As scent is extremely important to cats, saliva and the process of licking is used to make the nervous or anxious cat feel safe and secure. It’s the reason why a cat will lick itself in stressful situations or as a distraction mechanism.

Another important function that cat saliva plays, during grooming, is to enable the cat to dissipate heat. It does this by depositing saliva on the surface of the coat and this helps the cat regulate its own body temperature. When a cat gets an unnatural unnecessary cut, like a lion cut (I admit there are several scenarios where a lion cut is needed such as aggression issues or terrible matting), it means the cat cannot naturally regulate its body temperature.

Why have a cat if you are trying to make it smell and clean itself  like a human. Why feel uncomfortable with the fact it uses saliva to clean itself? You kiss your cat, your have your cat lay on the bed and you hug your cat everyday. If you didn’t like the fact it deposited saliva on its body every day, you would have to shampoo your cat day and night.

What happens after a human has bathed a cat?

The cat spends the next hour or so licking itself all over to get back to smelling like a cat and to remove the horrid unfamiliar scent and feel of human shampoo. Kind of defeats the object really. It will continue to lick itself everyday, like before, until its owner decides it needs to be ‘clean’ again.

So.. is there a situation where cats ever require bathing and do I ever bath cats?

YES! Sometimes.

Sounds ironic after the above paragraphs but, due to humans messing with genetics, or other scenarios which I am about to list below, some cats require a little helping hand from us.

Here’s some reasons why a cat may require the odd bath from its human

Do cats need bathing?

  1. An elderly cat who has stopped cleaning itself and or may suffer from incontinence
  2. Long haired cats who have oily skin which contributes in making the coat much easier to matt
  3. A cat who has had an accident with something smelly or sticky
  4. An ill cat who cannot clean itself and has started to smell
  5. A disabled owner who may benefit from having their cat bathed and groomed (as a one off) due to long-term lack of coat maintenance.
  6. A friendly stray cat who has acquired a new home (a semi-feral cat would probably have to be sedated to be cleaned up – if a human or cat lives on the street, amongst daily dirt and rubbish, they are likely to be in need of a bath)
  7. Certain breed of cats, such as The Sphynx, require regular bathing. For example: The Sphynx needs bathing due to body oils, which would normally be absorbed by the hair, building up on the skin.

Most cats I see are quite capable of cleaning themselves, but occasionally I have to weigh up the odds of bathing a cat versus the stress and fear a cat may have of water. I only ever do what is necessary on a groom. A long haired cat with very oily/greasy skin is likely to suffer from a matted coat far easier than a normal short haired moggie or long haired cat with a normal skin type. That, combined with a lack of grooming knowledge from the owner, will likely result in a coat whereby matts form and turn into pelts easily.

I see many cats every week and the percentage that could benefit from or need a wet bath is minimal. The client is shown how to comb correctly and what tools to use and the anxiety of bathing the cat is sidestepped.

Its easy for pedigree cats that have been introduced to the bathing process as kittens but for many cats the ordeal is terrifying and miserable for them.

Do cats need bathing?

Why doesn’t a cat’s coat matt in the wild? 

Briony Smith, the head keeper at the Wildlife Heritage Foundation, had this to say when I asked her the above question:

Domestic cats which are most likely to have fur which is prone to matting are likely to be the long haired species (Turkish Vans etc) and so I would suggest that by ratio, most wild cat species don’t have such long hair as these breeds of domestic cat. Some species of wild cat such as the Pallas cat do have very long fur but this is not common in wild cats. Male lions obviously have very long manes but they also have a family group to help groom them and at our collection they have been known to get matted if seeds or burrs get tangled in them. In these cases they just get groomed out in time. Also, it is my personal belief that wild cats have longer barbs on their tongue by ratio of size, than domestic cats do. In other words, if you increased a domestic cat to the size of a lion, the lion would still have longer barbs on its tongue. They are therefore more able to ‘comb’ their coat thoroughly than a domestic cat. The reason I believe this is because parasites like fleas appear to be very rare in captive wild cats and I believe they are removed by the cat’s tongue.

If a cat smells horrid, which isn’t the norm, it could very well be a medical reason or a case of its anal sacks needing expressing.


Do cats need bathing?

Franny Syufy who is a freelance writer and  cats expert for explains:

Anal glands are not usually a common topic of discussion among cat aficionados, and are rarely something we even think about until something goes wrong with them. I received a quick, but unforgettable lesson on anal glands one day, when my son pointed out an “odor of infection” around Jaspurr’s hind quarters.

Being quite familiar with the odor abscesses extrude from previous experiences with other cats, I agreed that it did smell like Jaspurr had an infection of some sort. Although I could find no obvious tenderness in any of his nether parts, we whisked him off to our veterinarian for a check up.


Dr. Dietrich asked a number of questions, and when he asked about “scooting around on the floor,” I could sense where he was heading. Sure enough, when the vet tech brought me a sampling of the substance they had “expressed” from Jaspurr’s anal glands, it was exactly what I had smelled earlier. We were sent home with a receipt and a somewhat grumpy and embarrassed cat.

What are anal glands and what do they do?

Technically, what we see and describe as “glands” are actually anal sacs, which contain the glands that secrete an oily, strong-smelling substance. Both male and female cats have anal glands, as do dogs and some other animals. You can see the anal sacs beneath the anus at roughly the 5 o’clock and 7 o’clock position. The above drawing shows the approximate positions of the anal sacs (not to scale.) They are described as “pea-sized” in small dogs, and are smaller in cats.

In the wild, cats “express” this substance along with their feaces, for marking purposes, a practice akin to leaving a calling card for subsequent visitors to read. As the anal canal opens for the feces to pass, the hard contents press against the anal glands, causing secretion of some of the substance. Cats will also spontaneously express their anal glands when alarmed, much as skunks do.

Some veterinarians believe the anal gland is vestigial because it requires hard faeces to properly express. They argue that the commercial cat food we give our kitties produces softer “poop,” which doesn’t exert the necessary pressure to make the gland work right. On the other hand, cats still “express” their anal glands when alarmed or upset (which was evidently the case with Jaspurr), and this would certainly serve as a territorial marking, judging from the strong odor. Commonly-cited spontaneous expressions occur when a rectal thermometer is used on a cat, or when a groomer is working near the rectal area.

Some cats need to have their anal glands manually expressed from time-to-time, usually by a veterinarian.

Other Potential Problems with Anal Glands

  • Impaction: If a cat fails to express his or her anal gland regularly, the material within can build up and turn into a waxy hard impacted piece of “sludge.” Scooting across the floor or licking the anal region can be signs of anal gland impaction. Impaction is not as easily treated as simply expressing the gland, but usually involves cleaning out the impaction under sedation and administering oral and/or topical antibiotics, along with pain killers.
  • Anal Gland Infection: Infection often accompanies impaction, or may be present by itself. Infected anal glands can rupture to the surface much like any other abscess. In this case, veterinary treatment is essentially the same, usually by lancing, debriding, flushing with an antiseptic solution and administering antibiotics.
  • Cancer: Chronic and advanced anal gland problems such as recurring abscesses can eventually lead to cancer. Surgical removal of the anal glands is sometimes offered in chronic cases, to prevent the possibility of cancer. It is serious surgery, but there are no known drawbacks to the cat who has had his or her anal glands removed.

How can I help prevent these problems?

Heightened awareness of your cat’s usual physical condition and routines is as critical with his anal sac as with other body functions. Some experts believe a diet high in fat can contribute to thick, viscous anal sac secretions, which can harden and cause impaction. Others hypothesise that a diet higher in fiber will create firmer stools, thus facilitating the expression of anal sac substance. Your experience will vary, but diet is something you can discuss with your veterinarian. If you are interested in diet modification, the A-Z Food Comparison section offers both fat and fiber percentages (and other nutritional values) of many high quality cat foods, along with major brands.

If your cat has had anal sac impaction in the past, or regularly needs to be manually expressed, you probably already are paying close attention to potential symptoms of problems.

If your cat has had no previous problems, just remain aware and be observant of changes. Being aware of your cat’s normal body condition is probably the best thing you can do for your cat’s overall health, in the long run.


Do cats require bathing? 

Some do … the majority don’t. Always get advice from a holistic cat groomer who will put your cats well being first and be sensible with any bathing suggestions.

and yes, GASP,  cats do lick themselves!