Feline behavior has been baffling humans for thousands of years. From their perceived arrogance, (they were once worshiped as gods after all), to their obsession with squeezing into boxes—we can all agree cats are unique creatures.
But it’s their reaction to getting wet that is stranger yet. Why do cats hate water when they love fish so much? Why do they not enjoy a dip in the lake like their tiger cousins?
Newsweek asked animal behavior experts to explain this aversion and whether you can train your cat to feel differently.
Why Don’t Cats Like Water?
Not all cats are afraid of water but most will avoid it as much as possible and one of the reasons can be found in their ancestry.
Anna Ewers Clark, veterinary research and standards lead at UK pet charity Blue Cross, told Newsweek: “Historically, cats lived in dry, desert environments which means they weren’t adapted to swim or spend time in water, and this trait has passed down to many of our domestic cats.”
Celia Haddon, a cat expert and author, shares this sentiment, telling Newsweek: “Domestic cats are descended from a small desert cat, Felis silvestris Lybica. This wild cat lives in desert areas. That is why our kitty cats enjoy warm areas, sunlight, and dry paws!”
Haddon notes that if your cat did fall in water by accident, it’s not the end of the world as they should be able to swim.
Other reasons for your cat to steer clear of a full bath are matters of comfort and their innate predatory nature. Studies show the average temperature of a feline is around 98.1 to 102.1 degrees Fahrenheit, which is much more than a human body, meaning they have a high heat tolerance and ideally want to stay warm. This warmth is key to preserving energy between lively hunting or play sessions.
As their fur absorbs a lot of water, a drenched coat can make them cold and “can pose a risk to safety as it limits flexibility and mobility,” Pam Johnson-Bennett, an expert from Cat Behavior Associates, told Newsweek.
Why Are Cats Afraid of Water?
Cats hate water as they understand their environment through their nose and getting wet can remove their personal scent. They can also notice chemicals in the water that humans cannot sense.
A study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science, reveals cats have more sensitive noses than humans and even dogs. Olfaction (sense of smell) is the main method a cat uses to analyze their surroundings and is essential to communication, hunting and detecting predators, as well as a cat’s sense of identity.
The study even goes as far to suggest that cats have the ability to sniff out drugs, bombs and medical odors. Although convincing them to do so might be more difficult. The study explains that a mammal’s nose has three different kinds of scent receptors and one of these, VC1, is believed to control their ability to differentiate between scents. Humans only have two variants of this protein, dogs have nine, while cats have 30.
Water contains chemicals and dissolved matter which a cat’s sensitive nose can pick up. Therefore, cats may avoid water as they don’t want to be contaminated with any unnecessary smells.
Similarly, cats spend a lot of time rubbing themselves on furniture and their humans in order to spread their scent, so understandably they aren’t that keen on having it washed off.
A cat’s fear of water may also be shaped through negative past experiences with getting wet, “such as being squirted as punishment or have had traumatic bathing procedures,” Johnson-Bennett said. As cats do not understand punishment, training a cat with treats and rewarding good behavior is much more effective and less likely to damage their relationship with you.
Why Do Cats Put Toys in Water?
Despite all this, there are plenty of videos online of cats enjoying dipping their paws into water or even the fish bowl!
Clark explained: “The most likely reason is that cats discover how much fun this can be when either they drop their toys in water by accident, or when we place them there to entertain them. It is a novel experience that once learned, can develop into a favorite activity.”
Haddon said: “It gives them a chance to play hunt them out. So their desire to hunt prey overcomes their dislike of water.”
To activate their predator instinct, pop their favorite cat toy (or even a fish for an authentic experience) into a small washing up bowl and watch your kitty try to dig it out.
Cat Breeds That Like Water
There are reports of some cat breeds who are more prone to seek out water. Although Clark warns it is important to consider the personality of the cat rather than the breed, as most will still prefer to stay away from the wet.
The breeds below are more likely to take a dip, according to Johnson-Bennett:
Johnson-Bennett said: “In fact, the Turkish Van is called ‘The Swimming Cat.'”
This may be because they are known for outgoing adventurous personalities or due to the unique texture of their fur, which is more water-resistant than the average cat.
Can You Train Your Cat to Like Water?
As much as you may want to take your cat swimming, unless they express an interest in playing in water, it is best to let them continue to avoid it.
Haddon said: “There are many more things to train cats to do, which they will enjoy more. Overcoming a cat’s distance or fear of water by training would not be ethical, in my opinion.”
Washing cats is also not necessary, as unlike dogs most breeds don’t need to bathed ever and this can in fact dry out their skin.
“If you do have a breed that requires some bathing, the easiest way to train is to start when they’re a kitten. If your adult cat needs bathing, it’s best to look for a professional groomer or veterinary clinic that practices very gentle, positive techniques,” Johnson-Bennett said.
If on the off chance your kitty does seem interested when you’re in the bath or by the sink, you can test the waters literally and figuratively by giving them a small shallow bowl they can explore at their own leisure.
Clark said: “Never force or drop your cat into water. This can be incredibly stressful for them, especially if they feel they’re unable to escape. If your cat likes the water, always make sure they have an easy escape route and don ‘t let them in water that’s deeper than their chest to keep them safe.”