Legend would have us believe that cats are incapable of swimming. This gains further credence when we consider that most felines are water averse. A cat caught in the rain, or falling into a pond, will look wholly sorry for itself.
All felines are capable of swimming, but most breeds prefer not to. A cat falling into water will instinctively swim to save its life. However, many cats are poor swimmers due to a lack of practice. While some cat breeds actively seek out the opportunity to swim, most prefer dry land.
It may be important to build your cat’s confidence around water. If you live near a lake, some swimming lessons may save your cat’s life. Drowning and the shock of submersion can put your cat in a perilous situation.
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Do Cats Know How to Swim?
Felines are born survivors. If your cat falls into a body of water, it will rarely wait to be rescued. The cat will move its limbs in motions that we would consider swimming. The cat will typically reach dry land and immediately shake water from its fur.
Just because a cat is capable of swimming does not mean it will enjoy it. Most cats steer clear of water as a matter of course. Do not expect a domesticated cat to swim for recreation. This activity is usually a survival mechanism following a mishap.
There are exceptions to this rule. Some cat breeds are strong swimmers and will actively seek out water play. These include:
- Turkish Van
- Norwegian Forest Cat
- Maine Coon
- Japanese Bobtail
These cats will enjoy swimming, cooling off in the water, and playing with running water. You’ll find that they turn on kitchen taps to splash their paws. They may show unwelcome interest in a garden pond or fish tank.
If your cat does not belong to these breeds, it will prefer to remain dry. If you have a pool, cover it up when in use. If you live near a lake, river or other body of water, do your best to restrict access.
This could save your cat’s life. Drowning through a lack of swimming ability is not the only danger. The surprise of a fall could place your cat in shock, and the sudden drop in temperature could lead to hypothermia.
Why Do Cats Dislike Water?
Cats are not necessarily averse to water. Big cats in the wild swim for recreation and to cool off in hot temperatures. Most housecats have limited access to water, though. This makes them innately distrustful of it.
Part of this stems from evolution. Cats are descended from desert animals. Water has not been hardwired into their behavioral instincts. This became especially prevalent once cats were domesticated. Owners protect cats from negative experiences. According to PNAS, domesticated cats have not grown to fear potential dangers for this reason.
Risks could include falling into bodies of water. While cats are innately curious and adventurous, they are also safety conscious. Being soaked to the bone is a new experience for a cat. It’s unlikely to be one they enjoy.
We also need to consider the impact of water on a cat’s temperature. Cats need to run a body temperature of around 100 degrees Fahrenheit to remain contented. Wet fur will leave a cat’s skin ice cold. This will be understandably uncomfortable, and dangerous.
We need to consider that domesticated cats simply do not need to swim. Feral cats hunt land animals for food. While cats enjoy eating fish, there is no need to swim to capture such prey. A skilled cat can scoop fish from water without getting in itself.
How To Teach a Cat to Swim
If you live close to water, you may wish to test your cat’s swimming abilities. This is a safety precaution to protect your cat from drowning. In truth, though, it’s safer to simply keep your cat indoors. Unless your cat has a natural affinity for swimming it will rarely take to it.
All the same, you may wish to give your cat swimming lessons. These will work in tandem with your cat’s natural instincts. The process is gradual and comes with no guarantees of success. You’ll need to be patient.
If you can teach your cat to become a stronger swimmer, it could be game changer. The cat may discover that aquatic play is fun. Consider this a bonus though, not a target. Focus your efforts on ensuring your cat is equipped to manage an accidental fall into water.
Laying the Groundwork
Before attempting any kind of swimming lesson, you need to help your cat adjust to the water. If your cat is completely averse to this idea, abandon swimming lessons. The experience will be fruitless.
Start by placing your cat in the bathtub, not applying any water. The bathtub will never be large enough for your cat to swim in. You are trying to show your cat that water sources are not always something to fear.
Play with your cat in the tub, offering soothing verbalizations and treats. You need to build a positive association. Remember, the only time most cats see a tub is for a bath. This is rarely a positive experience for anybody.
Once your cat is no longer cautious of the tub, add some lukewarm water. Not too cold, but certainly not hot. Do not dunk this water over your cat. Leave the tap running. Let the cat play with the running water if it prefers.
The idea here is to slowly but surely fill the tub. Eventually your cat’s paws will be submerged. Stop running water at this point. Any more will push your cat too far. Encourage your cat to play and splash around in this shallow water.
Over time, you can slowly and steadily add more water. You could also allow your cat to keep your company while taking a bath. This will all combine to increase your cat’s confidence around water.
This exposure will also build your cat’s tolerance to getting wet. A bathtub is no substitute for falling into cold, wild water, but it’s a start. Convince your cat that wet fur does not equal the end of the world. Then, and only then, can you start swimming lessons.
You will not be teaching a cat to swim. Rather, you will be building on existing and instinctive behaviors. Even if your cat starts swimming the moment it touches water, your work is not done.
Swimming lessons for a cat need a range of considerations. You need to find an appropriate location before you start. When you’ve done so, you need to take a gradual, patient approach to the training.
It is inadvisable to attempt feline swimming lessons in a public body of water. Lakes and rivers carry dangers for your cats. These include:
- Cold temperatures that plunge a cat’s body into shock
- Strong currents that a cat is ill-prepared to swim against
- Stagnant water that causes fungal or bacterial infection
- The potential presence of underwater animals, such as water snakes
A swimming pool is better. If you have a private pool on your property, this is ideal with certain precautions. You’ll need to ensure the water is heated appropriately. Around 90 degrees Fahrenheit will be fine, as long as the ambient temperature is warm.
You will also need to consider the chlorine content in the water. Your cat will swallow water, so it has to be safe. Chlorine content above 4mg per liter will be deemed harmful.
When your pool is ready, pick the best time to introduce your cat to swimming. This should not be straight after food. You also need your cat to be energetic but not too skittish. Play with your cat before the training to improve its mood and improve alertness.
Prepare all safety precautions in case of an emergency. Have a range of soft, fluffy towels handy. A fishing net to capture a cat that escapes your grasp is advisable. Ensure that you can quickly gain access to a hot water bottle or hairdryer afterward.
When you’re ready to start, scoop up your cat and soothe it with words and petting. Carry your cat toward the pool, shielding its vision. You do not want your cat to see the water too soon. This will cause a panicked response.
Gradually lower yourself into the water, with the cat still in your arms. Never drop the cat straight into water. The shock will make your cat sink like a stone. Be prepared for some squirming and scratching at this stage. The cat will smell chlorine and know something is up.
Step into the pool, gradually dipping your cat’s paws into the water. Keep holding on the cat at this stage. It may panic and get itself into trouble. Keep petting and soothing your cat. You need your cat to completely trust you.
If your cat is not distressed and you can continue, kneel in the water. Do not submerge your cat, but make it clear that you are underwater. The cat will watch this with curiosity. It will start to think that if you in the water, it may not be so bad.
If you are confident that the cat is calm, loosen your grip. Loosen is the key word here. Under no circumstances let the cat go completely. It is not ready for this yet. Just let the cat a little further from your own body. This should trigger the feline swimming instinct.
Cats swim the same way that they walk. Both legs on the left side of the body will move in tandem, then the right. This can look surprisingly ungraceful in water at first. Let the cat practice its stroke while you hold on. From here, one of three reactions will happen.
Some cats will freak out, meaning you need to leave the pool. Do so at once and dry the cat off. Other cats may enjoy the feeling of being water, but only with you. Judge your cat’s body language and confidence. Finally, we have cats who decide that swimming looks fun.
These cats will kick away and start to swim. Stay close to your cat at all times, in case it gets tired. Gradually steer your cat to help it understand changing direction while in water. Let your cat swim for a minute or two, then take it out of the pool.
If your cat takes to swimming lessons, make them a regular feature. Your cat will enjoy the experience, and you will have cemented a lifesaving skill. Never leave a cat to swim for too long though. Cats are sprinters, not marathon runners. Their energy levels deplete quickly.
Once your cat is out of the pool, dry it and warm it up immediately. This is vitally important. If you leave your cat wet, it will be cold. This, in turn, will make the cat miserable. It then has no motivation to attempt another swimming lesson.
Praise and reward your cat heavily for its bravery. The more pleasurable you make swimming lessons, the likelier the cat is to accept a repeat. Keep training your cat until you consider it safe in the water. If the cat enjoys swimming, it can become a recreational exercise.
This can be ideal for older cats. The BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Rehabilitation, Supportive and Palliative Care confirms that hydrotherapy can be an animal-appropriate regime. If your senior cat is arthritic, swimming could be a soothing form of exercise.
Cats instinctively know how to swim, but it’s not a skill many felines willingly utilize. Never force a reluctant cat to interact with water and observe safety protocols around pools and lakes. Most cats are happier with all four paws on dry land at all times.