Cats have developed a reputation for being rather aquaphobic, but do our feline friends really hate water? If you’ve ever tried to bathe a cat, you may think so, but the truth is that cats have a complicated relationship with H2O.
Many cats are fascinated by water and may enjoy dipping their paws into the bathtub or dunking their heads under the faucet for a drink. Certain breeds of domestic cat are even known to go for the occasional swim. For example, the Turkish Van has earned itself the nickname “swimming cat” because of its affinity for water.
However, even though cats can paddle just as well as man’s best friend, your average feline likely won’t have any interest in going for a swim. Why? Scientists and animal behaviorists say there a variety of reasons.
The first is evolution. While wild cats in warm climates may go for the occasional refreshing dip to cool off, most domestic cats descend from felines that lived in dry regions so swimming simply wasn’t necessary for survival. “Domestic cats were descended from Arabian wild cats,” Dr. John Bradshaw, a professor at the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences, told Mental Floss. “Their ancestors lived in an area with very few large bodies of water. They never had to learn how to swim. There was no advantage to it.”
Also, despite thousands of years of living alongside us, cats still retain the same instincts as their wild ancestors and are only “semi-domesticated,” according to a team of researchers from schools including Washington University School of Medicine and Texas A&M and published in the journal PNAS. This means that felines are always on the lookout for potential danger and want to remain in good shape in case they must fight or flee. However, when a cat’s fur is wet, the animal is weighed down, which compromises agility and makes him vulnerable to attack.
Another reason cats may not care for water is because of negative experiences — or lack of experience — with it. If your cat’s only exposure to water was being trapped in a downpour, forced into a flea bath or squirted as a disciplinary measure, it’s hardly surprising that they’re not fond of it.
Felines that aren’t accustomed to water may also shy away from it because cats are creatures of habit and they typically don’t enjoy surprises. Cats that have received regular baths since kittenhood, or those that have warmed up to water on their own terms, may love to join you for a dip. However, trying to force a cat into water will likely initiate the animal’s fight-or-flight response, potentially injuring you and your cat — and making your pet wary of both you and H2O.
Finally, being wet is simply unpleasant for cats for a variety of reasons. Cats spend nearly half of their waking hours grooming themselves, so it’s understandable that they wouldn’t enjoy having all that hard work ruined. Plus, cats have numerous scent glands that produce pheromones used for marking and communication, and water — especially scented bathwater and chemical-laden tap water — can interfere with this.
And in addition to weighing them down, wet fur is also cold and makes it difficult for them to move. "Their coat doesn't dry quickly and it's simply uncomfortable to be soaking wet,” animal behaviorist Kelley Bollen told LiveScience.
So if cats aren’t all that interested in swimming, why do so many felines splash in their water bowls and stare so intently at bathwater? It turns out it’s not so much the water itself that interests them as how it looks and moves.
“That flickering pattern, the light coming off the water, is hard-wired into their brain as a potential sign of prey,” Bradshaw said. “It’s not because it’s wet. It’s because it moves and makes interesting noises. Something moving is a potential thing to eat.”