Except for removing a mat or performing a medical procedure, there is almost no other reason to shave a cat's hair. Cats are built to have a full coat of hair -- taking it away can throw off regulation of their body temperature and expose the usually protected skin underneath. Trimming a longhair cat's coat for appearances and to prevent tangles is fine, but it should be done by a professional groomer.
It's usually not necessary to bathe a cat, either, since they do so well keeping themselves clean. Sometimes, though, a bath is called for to treat or control fleas, to clean up an adventurous feline explorer, to treat a skin condition, or to remove a noxious or dangerous mess from your cat's fur. The squeamish, the inexperienced, and the uncertain should probably let a veterinarian or groomer take care of these mandatory baths. For those who want to try it at home, here are several bath basics.
Be prepared. Lay out your bathing supplies ahead of time. You'll need a good pet shampoo (get medicated shampoos for fleas or skin conditions from your vet, not over-the-counter); a large fluffy towel; a brush and comb; and either a handheld shower head or plastic tumbler for wetting and rinsing. It's a good idea to comb out your cat's hair before bathing, if possible, especially for longhairs. If you know how, now is the time to trim your cat's nails. (Note: You can protect your cat's eyes during a bath with a neutral ophthalmic ointment available from your veterinarian.)
Ready your bathing stations. Use a large sink with a dish sprayer attachment or the bathtub. Start the water before you put the cat in, and make sure it's not too hot or too cold. A comfortable temperature for your hands should work fine. You're going to get wet, splattered with suds, and possibly jumped on by an upset, sopping cat, so dress appropriately in clothes that can get soiled yet protect you from scratches.
Before you add the cat. Bathing a cat is often a two-person job -- one to restrain and one to bathe -- but you can do it yourself. Either way, practice restraint techniques on dry land before the bath. With one hand, grasp your cat firmly but gently at the base of the neck or on the scruff, pressing down slightly. See how well you can reach the various parts of your cat's body with the other hand. Figure out when and how you'll have to change grips during the bath. Get your bathing routine down step-by-step before the cat is in the tub or sink; otherwise, Tabby will be able to make a break for it in your moment of hesitation or confusion.
Start the suds. Wet down your cat, starting from the head and working your way to the tail. Apply the shampoo the same way, lather, and rinse thoroughly. (Read the label directions on medicated shampoos carefully. Some require 5 to 15 minutes before rinsing in order to be effective.) Thorough rinsing is important. Leftover soap residue can irritate your cat's skin or be swallowed when your cat licks her fur. Rinsing also gets rid of fleas and other parasites that are immobilized -- but not killed -- by the bath.
Drying a cat. Gently squeeze excess water out of your cat's fur, wrap her up in a large fluffy towel, and dry her off. If she'll stand for it, you can comb out any tangles right away; otherwise, wait until she's dried off and settled down. If you're lucky, your cat may tolerate the sound and feel of a blow dryer. Don't count on it, though -- many cats are terrified by them. This is not something to discover right after a bath. See how your cat reacts to the blow dryer on a non-bath day. If she's scared witless, stick with a towel. You might be able to gradually get her used to the sound and feel (especially if you begin regular baths in kittenhood) -- and then again, you might not!
A large part of keeping your cat healthy is removing potential dangers from your cat's environment. On the next page, we will show you how to cat-proof your home.