We probably all know the theory that cats hate water. Although all cats can naturally swim and big cat species such as tigers regularly wallow in pools, a quick scroll through online video sites certainly supports the likelihood that many of our pet cats do indeed hate water. So why is that? The short answer is that nobody knows for sure, however there are several theories that could explain this dislike.

It might be their DNA…

The ancestor of our modern-day domestic cat lived in the dry climate of North Africa. Therefore, one of the main theories around a cat’s dislike of water, is that it is an evolutionary trait, passed down from this origin. A lack of association with water means never learning to consider it part of their normal environment, resulting in a fear of unfamiliarity now.

This might seem an odd thing to have retained after thousands of years of domestication, and a worldwide spread to a variety of alternative environments; but genetically, cats have not changed much from their ancestors. As a result, the retention of an inherent trait like hating water may not seem so unlikely after all.

Or their love of a tidy coat…

Any cat owner will know how much cats love to have the perfect fur coat. Cats can spend up to half their day taking care of their fur with self-grooming. In a multi-cat household, mutual grooming can also be an important bonding behaviour. Most of us have probably had a moment where we have stroked our cat or ruffled their fur, only for them to immediately lick that spot and smooth it all back out again. So, another theory behind the dislike of water relates to their desire to avoid getting a dishevelled coat.

Most cats are not naturally waterproof either; so getting excessively wet can lead to a loss of body heat which takes a lot of energy to counter. Wet fur is also heavier; which is thought to hinder either hunting behaviour or slow down an escape from a potential threat.

There are some cats however that will test this theory. Some of our feline companions like to dip their feet in water, stick their head under a dripping tap, or go out in the rain. This may be more about intrigue, play or novelty. But there are breeds of cats which have a naturally increased interest in water.

Although uncommon in the UK, the Turkish Van is known as the swimming cat; it will actively enter water and take opportunities to swim where most cats would deliberately avoid this. The more common Abyssinian, Maine Coon, Norwegian Forest, and Bengal cat breeds also have a higher interest in water. Like the Turkish Van, these breeds have a different type of fur which provides a relative amount of waterproofing.

Perhaps there is something in the water…

Cats have a strong sense of smell and with tap water containing additives such as chlorine or fluorine, it is possible they are put off by these. If you are trying to wash your cat, then shampoos, soaps and other grooming additives may not only smell unpleasant or overwhelmingly strong to your feline companion’s aroma-sensitive nose, but they can also remove the natural oils of the coat; changing the feeling and condition of the skin and fur.

But it is not only the smell of the wash that could be off-putting. It can take hours to fully dry off after a thorough wash. That means your cat will be surrounded by the product aroma for some time afterwards. Cats will also naturally start grooming themselves after being washed in order to help smooth down their coat. This means they will also be tasting any product residues, creating a potentially negative association with getting wet or being washed.

Or simply the fear of the unknown…

There is a critical period in a cat’s life when they learn how to interact with their environment. If they are not exposed to water for the purposes of getting washed or swimming, then this can become something to fear later in life. Likewise, if an interaction with water has been scary, such as accidentally falling in their owner’s full bath, or being squirted with a water gun, then this may feed a fear of water for the future.

Although washing a cat should not be done routinely; it is possible that doing so with a kitten, in as stress-free a manner as possible, may allow an individual to accept getting wet when it is older. Bum baths may be a necessary part of hand-rearing kittens, or tending to sick or elderly cats. Limiting water application to essential areas only, or using a moist towelette instead of submersion, may appease a cat and make them more tolerant.


It is likely that these theories apply at least in part to many of our domestic cats. Whether it is due to their breed or their individual experience, or a preference for a perfect coat, there will always be a reason to think that cats hate water. Just as there will always be exceptions too, whether a big cat in the wild, or our playful companion that curls up on our lap.

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