The Truth About Cats and Water
Cats and water? You probably think of a cartoon image where a startled kitty scrambles to get away from a bath, but the truth about cats and water is a bit more complicated.
You just have to watch your own cat play with a dripping tap or a full water dish to realize that, well, cats may not be totally opposed to the liquid stuff after all. While it's unusual for a pet cat to seek out submersion in water, there are some breeds who tend to like swimming and bathing more than others.
Do Genetics Play a Role in Whether Cats Like Water?
Let's look at wild cats—the animals our domestic pets are descended from—to better understand how cats handle water. Big cats in warm climates will often use water as a way to cool off, but those in cold climates avoid water because it can prevent their coats from holding in warmth.
Domestic breeds that are directly descended or mixed with cats who like water, like the Bengal and Savannah breeds, tend to be fine with a swim. A breed called the Turkish Van seems to actually delight in going for a swim. As well, felines without tails, like the Manx and Japanese Bobtail, seem to also like water—perhaps in connection with whatever genetic mutation creates the short tail.
Can Cats Be Trained to Like Water?
As long as they don't need to get wet, many cats like to be near the water. Your pet may like to perch on the edge of the bathtub while a family member soaks or hang out near your hot tub. But that's a far cry from wanting to jump in.
"It's uncommon for a #cat to seek out submersion in water, but some breeds like swimming & bathing more than others." TWEET THIS
If your cat is strongly opposed to getting wet, there's probably not much you can do to force the issue. Some pet owners use positive reinforcement and/or clicker training to entice their kitties into water, but for most people, that's not a battle worth fighting.
Cats that already show an interest in water may be trained to perform activities like swimming and skiing. Some cats seem to enjoy unconventional activities that put them close to the water, like Max in Minnesota who loves to journey by paddleboard. But these behaviors are not usually the norm for domestic cats.
Do Cats Ever Need a Bath?
For those cats who dislike getting wet, is there ever a time when you may need to override their displeasure and go for a bath? Fortunately, cats rarely need you to clean them. Healthy cats can use their tongues to effectively clean their fur, but in some circumstances or for some types of kitties, baths are sometimes required.
Some breeds that lack fur, like the Sphynx, need regular baths to reduce the oils on their skin. Older or obese cats that can't reach everywhere on their bodies to groom may need bathing every couple of months. And of course, if your cat has become dirty, rolled in something yucky, brushed up against fresh paint or encountered a skunk, you'll need to start the bath. Make sure to use a shampoo created just for cats to avoid stripping essential oils from their skin and coats, and never use a dog shampoo—especially one that contains flea repellents, as those products may be toxic to your cat.
If your cat begins to act dramatically different around water, such as an older cat who suddenly wants to sit in the running shower, call your vet. This can be a sign of early dementia. Likewise, if your cat begins to smell to the point where you're thinking about a bath, a medical check may be a good idea, as excess odor in pet cats can indicate a dental issue or infection.
Otherwise, don't worry too much about whether your cat is interested in getting wet. Just like people, some individuals will like water more than others.
About Dr. Natalie Waggener
Dr. Natalie Waggener has 17 years of experience in emergency work and general practice in Rhode Island, Florida and Massachusetts. She has a special interest in dentistry, wellness care and rehabilitation therapy. She is currently licensed in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island.