Funny memes featuring cats swimming, surfing, and even scuba diving abound on the internet. There are also numerous feline Esther Williams videos online, according to YouTube. Is that actually the case, though? Ingrid Johnson, a CCBC (Certified Cat Behavior Consultant), claims that she has never encountered a cat who can swim in her 19 years of working with cats. And when we inquired about if it was possible to make cats appreciate water, Ingrid King, a cat specialist and publisher of The Conscious Cat, responded, “Anything is conceivable, but unless you live on a boat, why would you want to?” Why do cats detest water then? Do all felines detest water? Is it possible to teach cats to adore the water?
Cats hate water because it’s in their DNA.
It is believed that cats domesticated themselves around 9,500 years ago in the Middle East. This evolutionary scenario helps explain why Felis catus is just not engineered to jump in the pool.
“Some individual cats may be curious about water, but historically they evolved in a dry, arid environment,” Johnson says.
Paula Garber, MA Ed, CATEP, CFTBS, agrees saying, “Cats’ general lack of experience with swimming and being submerged in water may originate with their ancestors. Our modern domestic cats evolved from desert-living cats (Felis silvestris lybica) who did not have a lot of experience with water.”
And unlike many dog breeds, cats are just not physically built to like water. “Many dogs’ coats repel water,” Johnson says. “But cats’ coats hold water, which brings down their body temperature.” Wet and cold does not a happy tabby make!
But why do some of them like water?
Some of our cats’ more distant relatives, like tigers, actually enjoy water. Tigers appear to enjoy water to cool off and sometimes swim from island to island in the Sundarbans — an expanse of forest in the Bay of Bengal.
Lions have also been seen swimming, but they don’t necessarily seek out the experience. These big cats evolved to swim out of necessity (like finding a mate) and proximity (water is part of their terrain).
Some household cats enjoy the water
While it’s true that most cats avoid water, there are some cats and some cat breeds who have an affinity for splashy fun. “My cats like water, and they are Bengals and Savannahs,” says Marilyn Krieger, CCBC and author of Naughty No More! “They have a water faucet they can turn on and off themselves. Sometimes I find them sitting in the middle of the stream or lying in the sink with water cascading over them.”
Garber includes the Turkish Van and Turkish Angora on this shortlist of cats who like water: “Both breeds originated in Turkey. It’s believed that they learned to cool off by playing in shallow water.”
Another cat behaviorist, Lana Fraley Rich, shares, “The Turkish breeds have a reputation for enjoying water and their coats are somewhat water resistant.” She also adds that her Maine Coon cat is fascinated by water: “I have to remind friends to keep the toilet lids closed so he doesn’t make a huge mess.”
Can a cat be taught to enjoy the water?
A wet brown cat who’s not too happy about being in the tub. Photography by ollegN/Thinkstock.
“The majority of cats don’t like it,” Krieger says. “Cats can be acclimated to water — but you need to start when they’re kittens. Gradually acclimate them to the feel of the water on their fur, on their paws and finally their whole bodies. It’s important the process is done slowly and consistently in a way that’s not stressful for the kitten.”
“You can absolutely desensitize a cat to water,” Garber adds. “Desensitization involves exposing the cat to water gradually, always staying below the cat’s fear threshold.” She recommends clicker training — start by clicking and rewarding when the cat steps into a shallow tray of water. As the cat becomes more comfortable, increase the depth of the water while maintaining his comfort zone. Remember — cats like to feel in control, so don’t force him to do anything he doesn’t want to do.
Rich adds that temperature also affects how cats feel about water. “[Water] should be warmed before introducing the cat to it,” Rich explains.
While your cat may never really swim, he could have his environment enriched by playing with water. Johnson makes ice cubes out of chicken broth as fun toys for her cats. She places the cubes on a cookie sheet and a bout of delicious play ensues. Other games include filling the bathroom sink and floating ping pong balls on the surface or dropping marbles to the bottom.
For most cats, water will be something on the periphery of their daily lives. Some cats will enjoy playing with water more than others, but all cats should be able to make that decision for themselves. Genetically, water and cats don’t exactly mix.