[From Tufts March 2011 Issue]
Editor’s note: This article launches a new Catnip series that debunks common misconceptions about cats.
In spite of their reputation for tolerating only dry land, a surprising number of domesticated cats not only tolerate but love pawing water or swimming. Some like to play in standing water; others are fascinated by running water and prefer to drink from a faucet rather than a bowl.
“I’m not sure how these myths that cats hate water or don’t swim ever got started,” says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, veterinarian and director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “Some indoor cats prefer drinking from inside a flushed toilet bowl rather than a water bowl. It may reflect an adaptive behavior from their wild cat ancestry. Wild cats that preferred to drink from streams or waterfalls rather than from standing water or puddles may have had a survival advantage, because running water is less likely to contain contaminants.”
He continues, “As for the notion that cats don’t swim or like to swim, well, that is also unfounded. Certain breeds, like the Turkish Van, do swim. This breed was raised in a mountainous area near Lake Van and learned to get in the water to capture fish as their main way of surviving. These fishing cats are very skilled swimmers. Most of the swimming cats originated from warm climates with warm bodies of water. Conversely, some breeds originating in cold regions like the Maine Coon or from desert regions in Africa tend not to have a great affinity for swimming. “
Certain breeds drawn to water play
Certain lines of the American Shorthair breed display a compulsive desire to splash water from their bowls and even tip their water bowls over.
“Professional breeders of the American Shorthair know not to leave these cats alone with water bowls inside cages at cat shows,” notes Dr. Dodman. “Or, they come with an alternative arrangement of cutting a hole in a gallon plastic jug and tethering it in place so these cats can’t spill the water, but can still drink.”
Their curious nature can lead some cats to perch on the sides of a bathtub or walk into showers when their owners are bathing. Dr. Dodman explains that some cats are attracted by the sound and the motion of water pouring out of the faucet.
He adds that the paw pad represents one of the most sensitive areas of a cat’s body. Some cats scoop water with their paws to test the temperature and check for possible dangers that may be lurking under the water.
“You can teach some cats to get in a warm bath and wade or swim if you gradually introduce them and nothing bad happens to them, like being splashed,” he says.