To Bathe Or Not To Bathe, That Is the Question

By Howard J. Bennett

Let’s start today’s column with a quiz.

Which of the following would you LEAST like to do?

A. Read The Red Badge of Courage.
B. Eat a big bowl of Brussels sprouts.
C. Go swimming with a great white shark.
D. Take a bath.

Although “C” is the correct answer, if you’re like most kids, you may have been tempted to pick “D.”

What is it about baths that makes children cringe and hide when their parents fill the tub? The main reason kids don’t want to take baths is that, like brushing your teeth or cleaning your room, hopping in the tub takes you away from something you’d rather be doing. (Grownups often feel the same way about their monthly bills—they procrastinate about paying them for as long as possible.)

But what about animals? Do they put up as big a stink as humans when it comes to getting clean? The answer is an emphatic NO!

For animals, staying clean is as necessary as eating. If birds don’t have clean feathers, they wouldn’t be able to fly fast enough to catch a meal or avoid becoming one. If chimpanzees didn’t groom each other, their fur would be inundated with insects and parasites that could make them sick.

Of course, animals don’t have tubs, soap or washcloths at their disposal, so let’s review some of the ways they “bathe.”

Birds remove dirt and insects from their feathers by taking dust baths. After wallowing around in the dust, they shake dirt and tiny invaders from their bodies. They also preen (clean) their feathers with their beaks.

Elephants, rhinos and other mammals take baths by rolling in dust and mud. Like birds, shaking the dust or caked mud off their bodies removes dead skin and many unwanted critters. Elephants have the added ability to spray their skin with dust or water using their trunks like built-in garden hoses.

Lions and other felines keep themselves clean by licking their fur. In addition to removing dirt and insects, the animals cool off in hot weather when the saliva on their fur evaporates.

Oxpeckers and egrets are two types of birds that patrol the backs of large mammals and ostriches. They pick tiny insects and parasites from their host’s fur and feathers. In exchange for the cleaning, the birds get lunch. Some birds use the same technique to remove debris from a hippo’s teeth.

Coral reefs are home to “cleaning stations.” In Hawaii, the cleaner wrasse fish and scarlet cleaner shrimp swim and crawl around their hosts like a four-star maid service tidying up your house. The larger fish recognize the cleaners by certain behaviors and let them remove parasites, bacteria and dead skin cells from their bodies. There is an amazing video on YouTube that shows cleaners doing their work inside the mouths and gills of giant moray eels and other fish. At the end of the video, one of the divers lets a cleaner shrimp romp around inside his own mouth! Here is the link:″

Now isn’t it time for your bath?

© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 10/2/11.)

For more KidsPost articles and lots of other cool stuff,
please visit Dr. B’s website at