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Why do cats hate water?

Two wet tabby kittens wrapped in a towel

Negative experiences of water during kittenhood may mean your cat hates water.

© Nils Jacobi - Shutterstock

Does your cat have a tepid relationship with the bathtub? Here we look at why many cats hate water and how you can help them overcome their fear.

By Greta Inglis

Published on the 04/04/2021, 17:00

Cats seem to love running water and will spend many moment playing with the droplets that fall from your bathroom tap. The movement of water can stimulate their hunting instinct, which draws them in.

In spite of this interest, the majority of cats hate bodies of water. The prospect of a bath will lead most cats to scratch, wriggle free and run for cover the second the opportunity presents itself. This reaction can leave cat owners wondering why their cat despises getting wet, and baths can become very stressful occasions.

Why do cats hate water?

If your cat spends their time following you to the bathroom, yet hates the prospect of getting wet, you may have wondered why. Here we take a look at why giving your cat a bath can prove such a challenge.

Cats historically didn’t evolve around bodies of water

The earliest evidence of domestication dates from around 9,500 years ago, taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. Cats in these locations didn’t develop the need to swim from an evolutionary perspective and learnt to survive in areas without much water.

Having developed in dry, arid environments where they were not exposed to rivers or lakes, water was seen as an obstacle to avoid. It is thought that this instinct kicks in when your cat is confronted with the bathtub.

Negative experiences can have a lasting impact

If your cat has had negative experiences of water as a kitten, then it can be a scary prospect. Kittens that are introduced suddenly and without positive reinforcement to water can find the sensation of getting wet very stressful.

As creatures of habit, cats aren’t particularly fond of surprises. Imagine how you would feel if you thought you were being picked up for a cuddle, only to be stuck in the bath! For cats, it’s all about building the right associations from an early age.

Their fur isn’t designed to get soaking wet

The majority of cat breeds do not have fur types that are designed to get wet. The Domestic Shorthair has relatively thin fur, and this can make bathtime very chilly.

Find out all about the Domestic Shorthair here.

As your cat’s fur is not water resistant, their coat can become waterlogged. A heavy coat is not only very uncomfortable, but also compromises the movement and agility of your feline friend. This can leave them feeling trapped and unable to move away when needed.

Cats have a very sensitive sense of smell

It will come as no surprise to any cat owner to hear that cats have an excellent sense of smell, able to pick up on odours that are almost imperceptible to us humans.

Tap water can contain chemicals, and the smell of this can be very off-putting to your cat. Certain products such as human shampoos can also be overpowering and carry the additional risk of drying out your cat’s skin.    

Can I give my cat a bath or is it bad for them to get wet

If you’ve been on the receiving end of your feline friend’s hatred of water, you may have asked yourself whether getting wet is actually damaging to your cat.

Domestic cats spend many of their waking hours grooming themselves meticulously. Cats groom themselves to keep clean, and in licking their coats, are able to distribute oils evenly. Grooming also helps keep tangles at bay. Bathing your cat too frequently can cause the natural oils to be removed, which may cause problems for their coat in the long run.

Whilst your cat’s own grooming abilities, combined with regular brushing, should usually suffice, there are certain circumstances where washing your cat may be necessary. Your cat may suffer from allergies requiring medicated shampoo, their coat may become contaminated or your cat may cease to groom themselves effectively.

Whilst washing your cat is not bad in itself, it must be done carefully so as not to surprise them. Cats should not be bathed too often, to ensure the natural oils on their coat are not damaged.

Can you get a cat to like water?

Teaching your cat to like water takes time and practice. It’s all about building up positive associations and making the experience as pleasant as possible. If your cat hates water, getting them to truly enjoy it may be difficult, but you can teach them it’s not the horror of all horrors!

Build positive associations with the bath

Encourage your cat to approach, using food rewards, cat-nip and praise, and allow them to leave on their own terms. Gradually increase the intensity of the running water, letting your cat get used to the sound slowly. Build up their engagement and interest over many, short sessions. Start by simply letting the water touch their paws, then their tail, then their legs, always building on the practice of previous days. If your cat seems nervous, you may need to go back a step.

Help your cat feel safe and supported

Having worked to build positive associations, lower your cat into a small, shallow body of water and let them get out quickly. Reward this time spent in contact with the water and repeat this over multiple sessions. Over time you can increase both the amount of water and the time your cat spends in it. Be sure to soak your cat from the neck down, using a cup to pour water and not a stream of running water. This will help to keep them calm.

 Take a look here at how to give a cat a bath. Be sure to remove any tangles first and only use vet recommended shampoo.

Are there any cats that like water?  

Surprising as this may seem, there are some cat breeds that are actually drawn to water. Whilst each individual cat is different, here we take a look at those that like to swim:

Maine Coon: These cats are gentle giants, affectionately referred to as the dogs of the cat world. They are thought to be the first of American cat breeds, though mystery still surrounds their origins. They have dense, fluffy coats and usually make lively and cuddly companions.

Turkish Van: An adventurer at heart, the Turkish Van is a unique breed in more ways than one. With their striking markings and beautiful coats, this breed’s fur is impervious to harsher weather. The Turkish Van is often nicknamed the ‘swimming cat’ due to an unusual interest in water.

Bengal: The beautiful Bengal is the leopard of domestic cats, with boundless energy and a zest for life. The Bengal guarantees lots of laughter and fun, which, in combination with the most striking of looks, makes these guys some of the most sought-after companions.

Every wondered if a cat could swim?

Whether you share your life with a cat who hates water or a cool kitty that loves to swim, make sure you don’t force them into it. Build associations over time to show your feline friend that getting wet doesn’t have to be scary.

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