It doesn’t seem to make sense: why do cats hate water when their bigger cousins – like the tiger, bobcat and leopard – don’t mind taking a dip to cool off or catch prey? Veterinarians and researchers aren’t entirely sure, but exploring the theories is fascinating.
How is it that some cats are fascinated by running water or even drink from a kitchen tap yet hate still water? “The appeal is likely more about the movement of the water, the noise it makes, and the light reflecting off of it,” says veterinarian, Dr Eve Elektra Cohen. “This stimulates the cat’s strong prey drive.”
Other experts think cats evolved and prefer clean and safe tap water over the stagnant water found in nature.
A curious cat that falls into your bubble bath or is caught outside in the rain may avoid water for the rest of its life. Why do cats hate water once they’ve experienced it? We could write it off as one of those unexplainable cat facts, but Dr Cohen has a theory.
“When a cat becomes wet, their hair/coat is heavier, colder and uncomfortable. It can also take a long time for a cat’s hair to dry on its own,” she says. “Another aspect of discomfort is that cats are quick and nimble creatures, light on their feet and adept at jumping and balancing. In water, they may feel a loss of control as it slows them down.”
Just one negative experience can turn your cat off water for good.
The cuddly cats we love to snuggle are descendants of the Felis silvestris lybica, a small wildcat that lived in dry, desert environments in the Middle East. Since there were limited water sources, they weren’t prone to frolicking in the water and preferred to keep their paws and coats dry, sunbathing under a desert sky.
Sun worshipping is a preference likely passed down to modern domesticated cats, who relish stretching out in sunny spots while they snooze.
Cats aren’t big fans of unfamiliar things, and they’re not used to bodies of water larger than a water dish. So a bathtub or a pool? Pretty scary stuff.
“Like anything else unfamiliar, the initial reaction may be fear,” says veterinarian, Dr Jennifer Kasten. “This fear reaction can be exacerbated if owners have used a squirt gun or spray bottle to dissuade cats from being on surfaces such as furniture or the kitchen counter.”
If your furry friend is afraid of water, you’re probably wondering: do cats need baths? Your kitty is all about grooming; around 30 to 50 percent of its day is spent licking and fluffing its coat. So you might not need to force it into a bath. That said, some cats might not be able to groom those hard-to-reach places, especially if they have arthritis or an illness, and may need help in the bathing department.
Have you ever spotted your cat sticking its nose up at its water dish? Though a cat’s sense of smell is 14 times greater than a human’s, it’s not likely that your cat is turned off by an odour in the water, whether it is for drinking or bathing, says veterinarian, Dr Zac Pilossoph.
The lack of interest can be traced back to their ancestors. In nature, cats got most of the water their body needed from the food they ate. They weren’t particularly drawn to open water unless they were dehydrated, Dr Pilossoph says. “There are theories that the reason domesticated cats drink water is because their food is actually dehydrated and does not supply them with water, so they need to drink a bit.”
Why do cats hate water? Well, it’s in their nature. They’re not a particularly water-loving species, and they evolved in dry climates with little exposure to rivers and lakes.
Surprisingly, though, not all cats flee the scene when they hear the tub filling with water. But do cats like to swim? It depends, but some cats are curious about water and love playing in it.
Some of the cats that enjoy water the most also happen to be the cat breeds that get along with dogs. That’s right – the Abyssinian, Turkish Van, Maine Coon, Norwegian Forest Cat, Bengal and American Shorthair are some of the water-loving kitties that could be besties with your pup. These cat breeds have a different texture to their hair that makes it more resistant to water, so they don’t experience discomfort and can actually enjoy the water.
But can cats swim? Yes, and Dr Kasten says those cat breeds are known to love swimming.
If you have a kitten, take steps to help it feel more comfortable around water. “For kittens, the most impressionable time of life is between three and 16 weeks of life,” says Dr Kasten. “That is the ideal time for a pet parent to expose their kitten to water using treats or toys as positive reinforcement.”
And while you may or may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, you can certainly teach an old cat to be comfortable around water. “Older cats can also be conditioned to tolerate or enjoy the water, but it may be a bit slower process,” she says.
Summon your patience because training your older cat is worth the time commitment. If your cat’s grooming is limited because of health conditions, you’ll need to bathe it – and you’ll be glad you taught it to enjoy water.