Cats hate water. That’s a given — or is it? The stereotype of the water-hating cat does have a grain or two of truth to it. It’s certainly true that most cats are at least a little hesitant around water, while some seem outright terrified of it. As anyone who’s tried to give their reluctant cat a bath will attest, the discomfort cats show when they’re forced to cope with water can be quite pronounced. The question of whether cats can swim or not seldom comes up. Why would cats swim when they hate water so much?
Can cats swim? Yes. Some cats enjoy swimming; most cats have at least some natural swimming ability even if they don’t like water. Whether or not they are good swimmers will depend on experience. Cats should be supervised around deeper water as they can get into difficulties and drown if they fall in.
You’ve arrived on this page because you have questions about your cat and her natural swimming ability. Maybe you have a pool or a garden pond and you’re concerned about your cat falling in. Maybe you’ve bought a cat from a breed reputed to enjoy swimming and you want to make sure your pet has a good time. Perhaps you have one of those rare cats who loves jumping into the water and you’re puzzled as to what’s going on.
- Can cats swim?
- Why does my cat like water?
- Should I let my cat swim?
Keep reading to find out the answers.
Can cats swim?
Assuming normal ability levels, pretty much any cat can swim at least a little — even if it’s just enough to get out of the water. They simply choose not to. Cats can become quite accomplished swimmers if they happen to enjoy it.
Most cats don’t much care for water. Some cats don’t even like to walk on wet surfaces and many will come tearing into the house at the first sign of rain. The majority of cats seem to hate getting wet. It’s surprising, therefore, to discover that quite a few cats actually enjoy a swim now and then. Some breeds are especially notable for this but swimmers can crop up in any breed of cat.
I remember the shock I felt when I saw a friend’s Maine Coon jump eagerly into a paddling pool and start doggy-paddling around. My friend laughed and said that the cat absolutely loved a nice dip, especially on hot days. Being smart, he’d even learned how to turn on the bath taps (lever style faucets are no match for a Maine Coon’s intellect) and would sit underneath them, meowing for someone to put in the plug.
Not all cats are fans of cold water, but many are very happy in a warm tub. If the water is deep enough they will swim up and down quite contentedly, often refusing to get out until the water gets too cool for them.
One reason that cats don’t generally swim is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cats are assumed not to like water so they’re kept away from it, perhaps only encountering water when it’s used as a punishment (please don’t do this as it’s rather cruel). If the only time you had contact with water it was a thin, cold stream being used to interrupt your favourite activities, you probably wouldn’t like it very much either.
The swimming ability of cats seems to be innate. They will reflexively doggy-paddle if they fall into water. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t mean cats will be safe around water. Obviously a cat who doesn’t normally swim will quickly get tired in the water and might get into difficulties. It’s important to supervise cats when they are swimming, or if there are bodies of water that they might happen to fall into. It’s quite possible for a cat to end up drowning while trying to catch the neighbour’s goldfish. This is yet another reason I prefer to keep my cats indoors — they can so easily get out of their depth if they happen to stumble into a pool or a garden pond.
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Why don’t cats like water?
Cats seem to have very acute senses. Not only do they have incredibly keen senses of smell and taste but their physical sensitivity is highly developed. Coldwater is very distressing to cats who haven’t been acclimated to it. They are apt to react badly to a cold dip, especially shorthaired or hairless cats. Warm water might be better received but if your cat hasn’t had positive experiences with swimming or playing in water, you’re probably going to have a very miserable pet on your hands if your cat gets wet.
Cats can be wary of standing water. In the wild, still water sources might be dirty or carry disease; it seems that some atavistic caution has survived in the modern domestic kitty, making her suspicious of water that isn’t flowing. Incidentally, this may be why some cats prefer to drink running water rather than imbibing from a bowl. If your cat is one of those pets who insists on slopping all the water out of her bowl and licking it up, try a drinking fountain.
A cat might also be afraid of water if she can’t see the bottom of the container properly. Cats are curious by nature but they’re also wary of spaces that might contain a threat. A cat who shies away from a murky pond might be quite happy in a bath full of clean, clear water, where the bottom of the tub is visible and she can check for danger.
Odours are another reason that cats might be uncomfortable around water. Although undetectable to humans, water might carry smells that cats can pick up. If a pond smells stagnant or a bath reeks of cleaning materials, a cat might want to avoid the water they contain.
Whether or not a cat is interested in water can also depend on the ambient temperature. A cat who leaps happily into the bath during the warmer months of the year may become skittish and reluctant when the air is chillier.
Can I teach my cat to swim?
You can, provided you start young and respect your cat’s limits. If you expose a kitten to water in safe, enjoyable ways, she will be more likely to take to swimming as she gets bigger. Gently bathing your kitten in warm water, letting her paddle in a shallow container that she can easily get out of, and generally letting her get used to the sensation of water will help a lot. Don’t force the issue, just let your cat discover water on her own terms. Eventually, she will learn to swim by herself.
Avoid soapy water, even if you’re only using neutral soaps or pet shampoos. Pet shampoos should be a last resort in situations where your cat’s fur is very badly soiled or there is a severe pest infestation. Used too frequently, soaps and shampoos will strip the necessary oils from her fur and may contribute to skin problems.
Teaching your adult cat to swim may be impossible and a little pointless. By the time they’ve grown up, cats usually fairly distinct likes and dislikes — and water will probably fall firmly into the latter category. You cat probably has plenty of activities she enjoys and doesn’t need to learn to swim.
The exception might be if you have a cat with medical issues that could benefit from hydrotherapy. Just like humans, cats can develop arthritis and other conditions, especially as they age. Hydrotherapy — water therapy — can help with some of these. It’s particularly good for cats who have got a bit on the heavy side; supervised therapeutic swimming can give them the exercise they need while not exacerbating problems with their joints. Hydrotherapy should only be undertaken with professional supervision, however. It’s easy to overdo it or otherwise make things worse for your cat.
Should I worry if my cat wants to swim?
You shouldn’t worry too much. If your cat enjoys water, that’s a good thing; swimming is an enriching activity that provides valuable physical exercise. You should keep an eye on your cat while she’s swimming or playing in water. If you have a cat who loves swimming, you can fill the tub with clean water or set up a paddling pool if you have space and then sit with her while she enjoys a healthy dip. Make sure that the water is shallow enough that her feet can still touch the bottom of the tub or pool.
There are cats who get a little too enthusiastic about the prospect of a swim. It’s not unknown for cats to turn on bath taps, like the Maine Coon I mentioned above. Fortunately this cat couldn’t put in the plug so the bath wouldn’t fill up but some cats might manage it, creating a drowning hazard. If your cat insists on turning your taps on, make sure she can’t get into the bathroom unsupervised.
Some people take their cats out on boating trips and let them swim in lakes or even in rivers. I always feel very nervous when I see a video of a cat swimming in a lake, even if the owner is close by. Just like a human, a cat who loves to swim can still get into difficulties in water that’s deep or cold. I would never let a cat swim in moving water, like a river or the ocean. The risk of watching your pet being swept away just isn’t worth it. Personally, I wouldn’t want my cat to swim outdoors at all.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.