Cats seem to have a love/hate relationship with water. If a faucet is dripping, my cat is there to play in the drips. And my mom likes to tell a story about her childhood cats who would flush the toilet just to watch the water go down.
When it comes to taking a swim, or—horror of horrors—a BATH, nearly all cats will forcefully decline the offer. If you’ve ever tried to bathe an unwilling cat, you may have scars to show for it.
Why do cats play in running water but flee from bath time, when many dogs will jump gleefully into any lake or muddy puddle?
It turns out, there are a few theories on that. Here’s what we know about why cats hate water.
One important clue is in the difference in their fur. As Eve Elektra Cohen, DVM, told Readers Digest, “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.”
Many dogs have fur that’s somewhat water repellent because it’s naturally coated in oil and has more than one layer. For those dogs, taking a swim is kind of like wearing a raincoat during a downpour. But a cat’s fur is absorbent, soaking up as much as 30% of the fur mass in water, so it feels more like being wrapped in a soaking wet towel.
Dr. Cohen says that water can really weigh a cat down: “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.”
Cats are fastidious groomers and their rough tongues are beautifully engineered to keep them clean and cool.
Cats spend as much as 50% of their waking hours grooming themselves. This thorough grooming has a few important purposes. Of course, grooming cleans the fur by removing dirt and loose hair. Grooming is also the way that cats spread their unique, personal scent over their fur (which will then mark you as THEIRS when they rub against your ankle).
By bathing a cat in soap and water, you are removing that scent, erasing the hard work they put into spreading it over their fur, and (it must be said) insulting them in the process.
There are a few special circumstances when a cat needs a bath:
- Your cat has been sprayed by a skunk or her fur is soiled with feces or something dangerous. (My childhood cat once dipped her tail in a paint pan and happily side-swiped her way along the pants legs of several people before getting a much-despised bath.)
- You’re caring for a cat that has fleas, skin problems or is too dirty to bathe himself
- Your cat is not grooming herself because she is elderly, injured, or can’t reach all her body regions.
- You have a hairless cat whose active oil glands can cause buildup, and whose reduced grooming behavior is part of her hairless breed personality.
Cats are very curious about water! The trickling sound of a faucet and the glimmering surface of a puddle can be irresistible, maybe even taking a cat back to her ancestral roots among her desert-dwelling Egyptian cat ancestors. Water can mean refreshment and might provide a great hunting spot for other animals seeking a sip.
Cats can be quite brave around water, even if they’d rather not take the plunge. Check out best pals Didga the cat and Ice the dog as they show off their dog surfing routine!
Maine Coon cats love to dip their paws in water, which can get them in trouble, like that time Bella Meowy, my regal and over-proud Maine Coon make a tactical error that landed him in a hot tub.
American Bobtails share a reputation for being playful around water and sometimes willing to take a swim.
Among wild cats, tigers are particularly avid swimmers, and even have webbed toes for improved speed. Tigers use their swimming prowess to survey their territory and hunt animals that visit riverbanks.
In contrast to domestic cat breeds, several dog breeds have been developed by people specifically for their swimming abilities. Hunting dogs like the Labrador retriever and Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever work as a team with a hunter to retrieve ducks from water after they have fallen from flight. Newfoundland dogs are used as water rescue dogs, and can swim long distances to help bring a stranded swimmer back to shore.
While cats aren’t going to rescue us from drowning, it is a fun game to slowly pour water between cups and watch a cat bat playfully at the drops.
Some experts say that cats can learn to love water, but even here in Seattle where water falls from the sky daily, I haven’t seen a cat willingly step in a puddle. I’ll believe it when I see it.