Although cats are notoriously clean creatures that spend around five hours each day self-grooming, from time to time they need an extra helping hand. They could have rolled around in something dirty outside or have come into contact with something potentially toxic or dangerous to them.
When this happens, it is, much to their dismay, time to bathe your cat! But when doing so you may be wondering “Can I use human shampoo on my cat?” The short answer is no – human shampoo is too acidic for their skin and can end up causing dryness and irritation!
In this article, I will run through all the reasons why using human shampoo on cats isn’t a good idea, what you should do if you have used it, and some great cat shampoo alternatives. Your cat may never be a fan of bath time, but at least this way you can ensure the products you are using are safe.
Why Can’t You Use Human Shampoo on Cats?
Human shampoo cannot be used on cats, and instead a shampoo designed specifically for use in felines that was developed with their skin in mind is necessary. But what is the difference between cat shampoo and human shampoo, and why is using regular shampoo on cats so unsafe?
1. Humans & Cats Have Different Skin
Humans and cats are two different creatures, and although we both have skin, the skin itself has very different properties in felines compared to humans. This means that the shampoo designed for your scalps has not been formulated with cats in mind.
Here are the main differences between cat skin and human skin, and why these affect the safety of using human shampoo on cats.
Difference in Skin pH
The pH of the skin is a measure of how acidic it is. The pH scale ranges from 0 up to 14, with pH values of less than 7 being classified as acidic. The lower the number, the more acidic the substance. Comparatively, pH values of more than 7 are alkali, and the greater the number, the more alkali the substance.
The average pH of the skin of a human adult is 5.7 but ranges between 4 to 6, meaning it is acidic. On the other hand, cat skin has an average pH of 6. Therefore, whereas cat skin is still slightly acidic, it is less acidic than humans.
You may think that a difference of 0.3 wouldn’t matter all that much, but the pH scale is logarithmic. This means every unit on the pH represents a 10-fold change in acidity or alkalinity. So, this means that on average human skin is 3 times more acidic than that of cats!
Human shampoo is formulated to help maintain the healthy pH of human skin and averages around a pH of 5.84. However, as this is more acidic than a cat’s skin, it could lead to dryness and irritation as it turns your cat’s skin more acidic with use.
Difference in Sweat Glands
Cat and human skin also differ when it comes to sweat glands. Whereas human skin is covered in pores that release sweat and moisture as a natural lubricant, cats don’t have sweat glands on their skin covered with fur. Instead, their sweat glands are limited to hairless areas including their paws, between their toes, and their lips.
Therefore, human shampoo is designed to be used on moist skin that can sweat, and the products work to remove the sweat and oils that make our hair look greasy and dirty, leaving us with a clean head of hair. Humans can replace this by producing more sweat from their glands. However, cats don’t have this ability.
Stripping the natural oils in your cat’s skin can have several consequences. Short-term this will further cause dryness, itching, and red irritated skin. Long-term it can also affect the effectiveness of the skin’s natural barrier in protecting against infection.
2. Human Shampoo Has a Different Formula
As mentioned, cat and human skin are different in terms of acidity and moisture, and human shampoo is formulated with human skin in mind – not cat skin. Regular human shampoo brands such as Head and Shoulders or Aveda are harsher, more acidic, and more drying than specifically formulated pet shampoo.
Just by reading the label, you’ll notice a difference in ingredients when compared to shampoo for cats. Products for humans often contain sulfates, parabens, colors, and fragrances that could provide further irritation and, in worst cases, be toxic to cats. This does depend on the brand of shampoo as each product is slightly different.
Fragrances are a big issue for cats who have a sense of smell that is 15 times stronger than humans. Certain smells cats also hate, such as lavender, citrus, and mint. These are found in many human shampoo products and may smell great to you, but can distress your cat further during an already-stressful bath time experience. Plus, many cats have allergies to certain smells.
3. Regular Shampoo Isn’t Tested on Cats
Human shampoo does have a different formula to pet shampoo, but there is also a huge variety in the formulas of different shampoos made for people.
For example, the ingredient list for Dove shampoo is going to be completely different from L’Oreal shampoo. Some products will be more acidic or more drying than others, and each will have different fragrances and consistencies. Each brand is unique.
We can get away with using all of these different products on ourselves as they have all been thoroughly tested on humans. However, none of these products would have been tested on cats as their intended use was for people – not felines.
Therefore, there may be a whole host of other issues and side effects that may present in cats that we are unaware of. What’s more, your cat could react to one brand of shampoo completely differently from how they react to another, so it is best to not take the risk and simply avoid using them altogether.
4. Their Use Can Cause Long-Term Issues
You rarely have to worry about how to bathe a cat as they do groom themselves the majority of the time. Therefore, you may think that using your bottle of Pantene on your feline is okay in the case of an emergency. If your cat has rolled in something horrible and sticky, or even potentially toxic, temporary dry skin and irritation is a small price to pay, right?
Wrong! Whereas the major concern with using human shampoo on your cat is the short-term dryness and irritation, many owners overlook the severe long-term issues that this can cause.
As mentioned earlier, thanks to the harsh formula designed for more acidic and moist human skin, your cat’s skin will be stripped from the natural oils and sebum. As well as keeping skin moisturized to prevent dryness, these natural oils also have antibacterial properties, making it the body’s first line of defense against infection.
Therefore, a healthy level of oils on your cat’s skin is important in protecting against bacteria, viruses, and other microbes. Using human shampoo regularly on your cat could cause them to have problems with their immune system, and any infections caught will carry additional consequences.
5. It Can Lead to Toxicity
On rare occasions, using human shampoo in cats can also lead to toxicity if they end up ingesting any. This could happen if you don’t wash all of the shampoo out of your cat’s fur properly and it gets into their mouth when they are self-grooming.
If your cat does become poisoned, you may notice several symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, breathing difficulties, collapse, and behavioral changes related to eating, drinking, and urinating. You will need to seek medical attention from a vet as soon as possible to give your cat its best chance of a speedy recovery.
Cat shampoos, on the other hand, will be made from ingredients that are safe for cats and non-toxic. Therefore, if any shampoo does accidentally get ingested, it will have no harmful effects on your cat. That being said, you should always ensure you completely rinse out any shampoo used as even cat shampoo could cause digestive upset if a lot is consumed.
I Washed My Cat With Human Shampoo – Now What?
If you have used human shampoo on your cat, you may be unsure about what to do.
If you are lucky, washing your cat with human shampoo will cause no issues and you won’t need to worry. This is completely dependant on the specific brand of shampoo you used, how drying it is for your cat’s skin, and what ingredients it contains. It could also depend on the sensitivity of your cat’s skin.
However, if you have used human shampoo on your cat, there are a few steps you should follow to ensure they stay happy and healthy.
1. Look for Signs of Irritation & Illness
After using human shampoo on your cat, you should always check for signs of skin irritation, specifically looking out for:
- Excessively dry and flakey skin
- Red, sore, or irritated skin
- Increased scratching or discomfort
- Excessive or unusual loss of hair
- Lethargy, vomiting, or diarrhea
If your cat’s skin is only showing mild signs of irritation, you can keep an eye on your cat and leave their skin to reset to its optimum pH and moisture levels. However, more severe symptoms will need additional help.
2. Moisturize The Skin
If you notice your cat’s skin is dry after you washed them using human shampoo, you could try moisturizing the skin to help it recover.
Coconut oil is an excellent option as it is a natural lubricant and also has anti-inflammatory properties that can effectively soothe and improve irritated skin. Plus, it also helps to make their coat super shiny! That being said, it should only be used occasionally as everyday use could cause issues.
Another option is to use olive oil. This is great at adding moisture back into dry skin, but it does not have the same anti-inflammatory effects as coconut oil and will not help to reduce irritation. That being said, it is still worth a shot if your cat has reacted badly to the shampoo you used.
3 – Take Them to The Vet
If your cat has severe signs of irritation and is clearly in discomfort, don’t wait around and try moisturizing their skin at home. Whereas this could be effective for mild irritation, adding products to skin that is already sore could cause it to become more inflamed. Instead, always take your cat to the vet ask for their advice.
If your cat is showing the symptoms of lethargy, vomiting, or diarrhea these could indicate toxicity, so take them to see a professional immediately. When it comes to poisoning, symptoms can become rapidly worse if left untreated so you must seek urgent medical attention.
What Shampoo Can You Use on Cats?
Human shampoo cannot be used on cats, however, there are some great options available that can safely be used on your feline. Cat shampoo has to make the list and is always your best option, but there are also a few DIY options made from common items found around the home and alternative products that can be used in case of an emergency.
Here is a closer look at all the available options.
1. Cat Shampoo
The best option for washing your cat on the odd occasion they get themselves into a sticky situation is cat shampoo. This has been made with cats in mind and tested on felines, ensuring it is safe, non-toxic, and won’t cause any dryness or irritation. You can get cat shampoo from your local pet store.
In the case of an emergency, you may not have a bottle of cat shampoo on hand. However, if you have a cat, it is a good idea to buy a bottle to be prepared just in case.
2. Baby Shampoo
Whereas regular human shampoo is too harsh for cats, baby shampoo is a much safer option as this is designed for more delicate and sensitive skin. Additionally, baby skin has a more neutral pH than adult skin, making it closer to the pH of cat skin. Therefore, baby shampoo is a much better option for cats as it is less likely to affect the acidity of their skin so severely.
Besides the more gentle and less acidic formula of baby shampoo, it also contains fewer chemicals, parabens, sulfates, alcohols, and soaps that could cause irritation. Plus, baby shampoo is designed to keep the skin moisturized, helping to prevent your cat’s skin from drying out too much.
Many baby shampoos are also fragrance-free, which is also important for avoiding unnecessary stress for your cat. The main downside is that if you don’t have a young child, you may not have baby shampoo in your home.
3. Oatmeal Dry Shampoo
For an easy DIY cat shampoo made with common household items, try an oatmeal dry shampoo. Not only can this easily be put together in the case of an emergency bathing session, but it is also dry and so you won’t have to battle with your cat that hates water! However, this isn’t a great option for stubborn dirt or sticky residue.
To make this dry shampoo, mix equal parts of oatmeal with cornflower, a teaspoon of baking soda, and 2 tablespoons of cornstarch.
The oatmeal and cornflower will absorb excess oils from your cat’s fur and skin without being too drying, and the baking soda will help to remove any lingering odors.
To use, simply run this mixture over your cat, being careful to avoid their face as the powder could irritate their eyes, nose, or mouth. Some of the mixture will fall onto the floor around your pet, so I advise carrying this out over an old towel to help contain the mess.
After rubbing the mixture over their fur, leave it for around 5 minutes before using a brush to remove it afterward. Be sure to continue brushing until all the mixture is removed so that their skin can breathe.
4. Oatmeal Wet Shampoo
You can also make a wet shampoo using oatmeal and a few other household items. Mix a cup of oatmeal with half a cup of baking soda and 4 cups of water and combine to form a paste. Massage this mixture into your cat’s fur using your fingertips and leave for around 5 minutes to work its magic.
When the time is up, rinse thoroughly with warm water to remove the shampoo and dirt from your cat’s coat before drying them with a clean dry towel.
5. Baby Wipes
You can also try to clean your cat using baby wipes. Most of us will have baby wipes in our homes, or if not then make-up wipes. Either can be used to help clean your cat’s fur as long as they are fragrance-free. Otherwise, they could cause irritation.
Although baby wipes are meant for humans and not cats, they are safer as they tend to touch only the surface of your cat’s skin rather than being massaged into their skin like shampoo is. Also, wipes are best for cleaning up small stains or bits of dirt and can be used on the specific area needed instead of over their entire body. If they do cause minor irritation, it will be confined to a small and specific area.
6. Gentle Dish Soap
You can also use a small amount of gentle dish soap to clean your cat, such as Dawn soap which is commonly used at rescue centers to help clean strays that are brought in.
Dawn soap is different from any old washing-up liquid can be harsh and damaging. Therefore, it is best to stick to Dawn rather than trying your luck with another brand of dish detergent whose safety isn’t well-documented. However, whereas Dawn soap is gentle enough for most cats, you should avoid using dish soap on any cats with existing skin issues or ongoing irritation.
To use, it is best to mix a quarter of a cup of the detergent with half a cup of white vinegar and two cups of water. This solution will lather well on your cat’s fur but can also be rinsed off more easily than using dish soap alone. This also helps to dilute the product to minimize any risks.
What Should I Do If My Cat Doesn’t Groom?
All of the above alternatives to cat shampoo are safe for cats, but only if they are used in moderation and in case of an emergency. Typically, you shouldn’t need to bathe your cat often, if at all, as they self-groom religiously.
But what if your cat doesn’t groom themselves and you need to wash them frequently? Not grooming can be what causes matted cat fur which, in turn, can cause several other health issues. Therefore, it’s an important issue to fix.
Your first point of call should be to take your cat to the vet. There are several reasons why your cat may not be grooming themselves properly which include:
- Being obese and unable to reach certain areas
- Dental issues that cause pain when self-grooming
- Arthritis causing stiff joints and discomfort when grooming
- Stress or anxiety
- General illness such as nausea or sickness
Your vet will aim to determine the reason why your cat has stopped self-grooming and provide appropriate treatment so that your cat’s grooming habits return to normal. This way, you won’t need to worry about how to bathe your cat or which shampoo to use often.
If there is an ongoing issue that cannot be fixed, your vet will be able to prescribe special cat shampoo or recommend great brands that are safe for regular use.
Can I use human shampoo on my cat? No, you cannot!
Human shampoo has been designed specifically for human skin that is more acidic and lubricated than cat skin, and so it can cause excessive dryness, irritation, and can reduce the effectiveness of their immune system long-term. Some chemicals could also be toxic and the fragrances unpleasant for cats.
Thankfully, there are cat shampoos out there that are designed for and tested on cats, known to be both safe and effective. If you’re in an emergency, try using one of the DIY cat shampoos I suggested made from common household products. If you’re all out of ideas, remember that no shampoo is better than human shampoo, and your vet is always there to help if needed.