Can cats swim?

It is well known that domestic cats often seem to have an intrinsic fear of water. Bathing a cat, for example, is no easy task! Something about water just seems to spook them and put them on edge; it can even make them run in the opposite direction. Cats often seem to avoid water at all costs even from a very young age – be it a hose pipe, a bath tub full of water, or even rain falling outside on a drizzly day, in which case many cats will opt for an indoor litter tray just to stay inside and keep their paws dry!

The fact that this behavior is present from birth suggests it is a natural, inbuilt instinct of domestic cats. It is often regarded as a fussy behavior, thus contributing to the idea that cats can be very demanding and particular pets. But why do cats have this fear; and why do we humans play along with it, allowing cats to have their own way? For a muddy dog you would not hesitate to get the hose pipe out, but with cats we seem more understanding and forgiving! How does the behavior of domesticated cats compare to wild cats? And, more to the point, regardless of fear, are cats actually able to swim? There seems to be no definitive answers to these questions. Some breeds of cat are naturally more water-loving (or hating!) than others and, of course, specific behaviors can always vary from cat to cat for no apparent reason. But this article will address these questions and investigate the ability of cats to swim.

Ancestry

Domestic cats are common household pets today. Feral cats, by contrast, are unowned domestic cats that distance themselves from human contact. They descend from the African wildcat, which was first domesticated 10,000 years ago and originates from dry, hot climates where water was scarce. The natural habitat of most wild cats today, such as tigers, jaguars and leopards, remains similar – dry, arid regions, particularly in Africa and Asia. It is thought that this ancestry relates to why cats today, both wild and domestic, have minimal interest in water – or even a fear thereof. In the past, fresh springs and lakes to play in would not have been found at every corner! It is therefore thought that wild cats likely never had the chance to experience water in a way that other animals did – as a means of enjoyment – and so there was no advantage in learning to swim. Any water that was available would have been essential for drinking and nothing else, thus perhaps influencing the behavior of modern domesticated cats and their attitude towards water. Perhaps it is more of a nonchalant characteristic than an inbuilt fear; just that cats have no strong interest in water. The fear itself, when present, is maybe reinforced as a result of human interventions – introducing them to water, encouraging them to swim, attempting to bathe them etc. Otherwise, water is perhaps generally nothing more to cats than a means by which to hydrate, hence the lack of enthusiasm shown by many domesticated cats.

Food chains

Since most large cats in the wild sit at the top of food chains, swimming as a means to escape predators is rarely, if ever, necessary. Instead, cats have to hunt prey – this is essential for their survival. Cats are generally well-adapted to hunt and capture land-based prey; being able to swim is not really essential and very few wild cats are seen to readily submerge themselves in water – be it playing, swimming or otherwise. Tigers and certain jaguars are the most likely cats to do this, but it is not a widespread common behavior.

Natural swimmers

There are always exceptions, however; and certain types of wild cats are known to be strong and powerful swimmers. This suggests that the apparent fear of water is not truly instinctive across all cats. Strong swimmers include the Scottish wildcat and the fishing cat, which is of Asian origin. Both of these cat populations are able to swim long distances, often remaining underwater for extended periods of time. This is generally either a method of exploration or a means by which to catch prey, which is essential for the survival of wild cats. Fishing cats are, in fact, well-adapted to swim and catch prey in water – adaptations include their body shape, fur structure and webbed toes (discussed further below). For example, the fur structure of fishing cats is double layered – an inner layer of short, dense hairs and an outer layer of longer so-called guard hairs. Together these hairs provide the necessary coat to support time in and out of water.

Anatomy

The paws of cats, both wild and domesticated, are usually at least partially-webbed. This means that there is connective tissue between the individual toe digits, making each foot more of a single object (like ducks’ feet). Wild cats generally display the most webbing, whereas the extent of webbing can vary significantly between modern breeds of domesticated cats. Wild Sumatran tigers, for example, have almost fully-webbed feet. This enables them to walk in and explore muddy, wet landscapes, as well as to swim and hunt in water when prey on land is perhaps scarce. As large predators, features such as this, supporting their ability to hunt, are essential for survival. By contrast, domesticated cats usually only have partially-webbed feet. Breeds with a stronger tendency to swim (eg, Turkish Van cats, discussed below) generally show more webbing than those with a greater dislike to water. The Sphynx cat is a great breed of domestic cat for studying webbed feet. They are hairless, hence it is much easier to observe than in other breeds.

In addition to webbed feet, cats (wild and domestic) generally have powerful limbs, particularly their hind legs. This goes hand in hand with webbed feet when it comes to swimming. Thus, whilst domesticated cats do largely choose to avoid water, if it came down to a matter of survival, they are generally suitably-equipped to swim if necessary.

Another prominent feature of cats is their fur. When well-maintained, both wild and domestic cats should have a clean, shiny and sleek fur coat, adapted to insulate and protect them. Self-care fills a large portion of cats’ time – up to 50% of their time whilst awake is usually spent grooming. This stimulates endorphins, helping to calm and relax the animals. As a result of so much self-grooming, water is not really required by cats in terms of hygiene and keeping clean – they take care of this on their own, using their tongues and saliva to clean themselves as much as is required.

When cats get wet, it is their fur coats that suffer. Wet fur is, of course, heavier and less comfortable than a clean, dry coat. It therefore slows cats down, which could, for example, make them perhaps easier to predate in the wild. This is a strong biological reason for cats to avoid water when possible. Furthermore, cats will very quickly get cold if their coat is wet. Its key function – to trap and retain heat – becomes difficult or impossible and it can take a long time before the coat will fully dry. This can lead to hypothermia, hence water, and a wet coat, is naturally undesirable for cats.

Pheromones are molecules that are naturally secreted from the surface of animals, such as cats. They are vital for inter-special communication, often stimulating different behavioral, psychological and social responses between animals. Being submerged in water could disrupt the natural production and balance of pheromones on cats, thus interfering with related behaviors, such as marking and mating. This is another instinctive reason why cats may generally prefer to avoid water. In general, cats have not historically evolved to be water-loving creatures. They take great pride in the maintenance of their fur coats and, since water was never historically essential for their survival, it is logical that both wild and domesticated cats today largely choose to avoid it.

Domestic swimmers

Despite most domestic cats having this seemingly inbuilt fear of water, some breeds are able to swim and are, in fact, even quite keen on water – be it swimming or just simply playing with water bowls, sinks, toilets etc. This includes breeds such as Norwegian Forest cats, Maine Coons, Bengals, Abyssinians and the Turkish Van breed. In particular, Turkish Vans are well known for their high affinity to water. These cats originate from the Lake Van area in Turkey and have a particularly water-resistant coat – a unique feature of these water-loving cats, meaning that they will be relatively dry even after swimming. Turkish Vans are known for their love of water and such pet owners will often provide small, cat-friendly pools in which they can swim or play!

Domestic habits

One common behavior of domestic cats is a preference to drink from a water source that is away from both their food and toilet area. This is thought to relate back to their wild cat ancestors who would have avoided such water due to the risk of bacterial contamination. Standing water is more likely to be stagnant and rife with bacteria, potentially putting the cats’ lives at risk. Furthermore, many cats show a preference to drink from a source of running water, such as a kitchen tap, rather than from a standing bowl. Again, this likely relates to a fear of bacterial contamination – but, additionally, cats are far better able to hear running water than they are to see a standing bowl of water.

Learning to swim

As discussed, it is true that cats are generally able to swim, despite largely opting to avoid water when possible. The common idea that they cannot swim and are scared of water relates largely to their evolutionary ancestry. However, with the right approach, it is possible to help domesticated cats overcome this apparent fear of water and learn to swim. Using force and expecting too much from your pet cat too quickly will result in failure, perhaps even leaving them with a lasting, long-term hatred of water. Starting at a young age, before any intrinsic behaviors are reinforced, is a good idea. However, as discussed, some breeds will naturally be more open than others in any case; there are always outliers and exceptions.

Hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy is a form of physiotherapy that takes place in warm water to address muscle strains and skeletal injuries, as well as conditions such as arthritis. It is used for humans, but also for animals including dogs, horses and cats. The knowledge we have of cats, and the common idea that they have this inbuilt fear of water, does suggest that the use of water-based physiotherapy might not be most appropriate for cats. It was even thought that it could do more damage than harm, due to perhaps causing even more stress. However, with careful study and strategic approaches, hydrotherapy has now been successfully applied to cats too.

Conclusion

The primary purpose of this article was to investigate whether cats can swim. Their seemingly innate fear of water is well-documented; however, whether this correlates to a genuine inability to swim or, rather, just an intrinsic dislike to water, is less well-known. As we have now seen, there are many factors contributing to the complex relationship of cats and water – these include evolutionary and biological factors, for example. However, it is now clear that cats, both wild and domesticated, are generally suitably-adapted and therefore capable of swimming when necessary. The apparent dislike of water observed in most breeds is more of an evolutionary behavior relating to their ancestral background as opposed to an actual inability to swim.

Whilst it is largely no irrelevant for cat owners whether or not their pet cat likes water (some breeds have a higher water affinity than others), there is perhaps no harm in attempting to gently acclimatize your cat to water. It is essential, however, that the correct environment is provided for it to dry off and warm up afterwards to avoid any ill-health or other detrimental effects.

 

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