Cats hate water. It’s a widely accepted part of having a cat, or being your cat’s slave, whichever way you want to look at it. Of course, there’s always individual exceptions, and there are a few cat breeds that seem to enjoy swimming, such as the Turkish Van. Overall though, most cats just don’t like to be in the water, and there’s several explanations why this is.
One of the most scientific explanations is simply that an affinity to water is not in a cat’s genetic make up. Most domestic cats are descended from cat species found in dry habitats. As there wasn’t much water in these habitats, there was never an evolutionary need for cats to learn to swim, or develop any of the other traits that would help with swimming.
Modern day domestic cats are not quite as domesticated as many of us would like to believe. In fact, there’s some argument over whether people domesticated cats, or if cats chose to allow themselves to live alongside people. Either way, the domestic cat remains close to their ancestors, both in their appearance and their behaviour. Part of that is their natural dislike of water, their fight or flight instinct, and their ability to survive in the wild.
As their ancestors never needed to learn to swim, cats never developed traits that would help them swim. Dogs have a semi water resistant coat, but cats don’t. When their coats get wet, they become very heavy. Cats have kept their sensitive fight or flight response, and wet, heavy fur would make it very difficult to flee.
As well as the coat, cats need to maintain a higher body temperature. Water would make them cold, and it would take a very long time for them to get their temperature back up to normal. There’s really no advantage for a cat to take to the water.
Their Natural Personality
While all cats do have their own individual personality, they share some common personality traits. One of these traits is that they like to make their own decisions, set their own pace, and determine their own experiences. If you place your cat straight into a tub of water, he’s going to be upset, lash out, and he’s probably going to run away. This is because he hasn’t had a chance to assess this for himself. As far as he’s concerned, the bath full of water is possibly going to attack him, because he hasn’t had the time to make his own decision on whether or not it’s safe. For most cats, if they have the time to decide, they’re still probably going to want to avoid it.
Their Sensitive Sense of Smell
You may have noticed that your cat would rather drink from a puddle than his water bowl of fresh tap water. A cat’s sense of smell is incredible, and he can smell the chemicals used to treat tap water. Most cats find it off-putting, and it can be the chemical smell that puts them off baths as well.
Some cats can be extremely afraid of water if they’ve had a previous negative experience. This could be something as simple as being caught outside in a really bad rain storm, or even being sprayed by a water bottle as a punishment. Negative experiences previously mean that it can be incredibly difficult to get your cat to come into the bathroom, let alone the bath.
Another possible explanation as to why cats don’t like water is their own grooming routine. Cats are very clean, and spend about half their day grooming themselves. There’s a few reasons why they groom, but one of them is hunting. When they hunt, they want their smell to be as neutral as possible, so they’ll groom to remove the scent of food residue from their coats. Bathing the cat replaces their natural smell with an artificial smell, which would make it more difficult for them to hunt.
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Why Do Cats Stare at Water?
Some cats like to stare at water, or even dip a paw in, but they still don’t appreciate a full body dunk. Some experts say that they like to watch how the water moves, and that they might find the changes in their reflections interesting. Others say that watching the water is linked to their predatory instincts. They see the movement of the water as being something that they could possibly eat.
Can You Make Your Cat Like Water?
The only answer to this question is: sort of. You’re probably never going to get your cat to be an avid swimmer, but you may be able to teach him to tolerate having a bath. You won’t need to give him a bath every day, or even every week, but there may be times when you do have to give him a bath. These could include:
- Medicated baths, such as cat flea treatment.
- Oil, or other stains – some stains will need to be washed off your cat, especially things like oil, as it may be harmful for your cat to do this himself, or he may not be able to reach the stain.
- Shedding – bathing can help your cat shed so there’s less risk of hairballs
- Shows – if your cat is a pedigree breed who goes to cat shows, then you’ll probably need to bathe him before every show.
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If you’re going to bath your cat, you should start when he’s still a kitten. Positive bath experiences as a kitten can mean that your cat will be more relaxed about it as an adult. Experts recommend clicker training your kitten and rewarding him with treats or praise to get him in the bath. Always use warm but not hot water, and run the bath while he’s out of the room. The noise of the water may scare him. Always use a shampoo meant for cats, and look for a no-tears formula. Be patient and take your time. Let your kitten relax and get used to the experience.
- Megan Sullivan, Pet Myths: Do Cats Really Hate Water?, PetMD
- Dr. Wailani Sung MS, PHD, DVM, Why Does My Cat… Hate Water?, VetStreet