Can Cats Swim? Should you even let them?

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Yes! All cats have an instinct to swim – whether you are talking about your everyday house cat or the Bengal tiger – but some felines are more avid fans of water than others! 


The Myth


It is a commonly held belief that cats despise water or can’t swim, but this is not true! Some cats are even known to play in the family swimming pool!


Can Cats Swim?


Yes, cats have an innate knowledge of how to swim. If you put a cat in water, they paddle their feet out of instinct (we refer to this as ‘doggy paddle”). Whether they keep their head above water or actually excel at swimming is another matter altogether.


Cats That Enjoy Swimming


Housecats can be picky when it comes to the water, but in a family of thirty-seven cat species, some other felines can’t get enough of the wet stuff! These cats include:

  • Tigers
  • Lions
  • Jaguars
  • Panther
  • Leopards
  • Ocelots

There are even some domestic cat breeds that love to swim! These include the:

  • Maine Coon
  • Abyssinian
  • Burmese
  • Savannah Cat
  • Bengal
  • Sphinx
  • Turkish Angora
  • Japanese Bobtail
  • British Shorthair
  • Manx
  • Turkish Van
  • Selkirk Rex
  • American Bobtail
  • Norwegian Forest Cat
  • Siamese Cat

Why Do Big Cats Like the Water So Much?


Compared to domesticated cats, big cats are much more comfortable with water, but why?

It all comes down to climate!

Big cats live in hot climates, so water is one of the most efficient means of cooling down – wallowing and swimming are about temperature control. Our domestic cats don’t have the same problem with temperature regulation because they live with us.

Big cats also have to co-exist with water in the wild in order to take full advantage of natural resources. For example, big cats must cross streams and lakes to get to food sources and many fish in the water too!


Why Don’t Domestic Cats Like the Water?


Domestic cats don’t necessarily dislike water, but they are often reluctant to swim – something that is contributable to:

  • Evolutionary Purpose
  • Age
  • Sensory experience
  • Medical conditions

Evolutionary Purpose


Cats are terrestrial animals, so they have never have been animals that get exposed to large bodies of water. Since they did not develop as aquatic animals, the cat has few evolutionary developments to help with swimming.

For example, a cat’s claws make terrible paddles in the water; their long slender tail provides little steerage like a Labrador’s tail might; and, their slim body – while perfect for slipping into tiny spaces – does little to aid in water propulsion or floatation.

Since the cat lacks these water-friendly features, they have a healthy respect for and a natural drive to avoid larger bodies of water. Bigger cats, however, have a larger body mass and stronger musculature to propel them through the water.


A cat’s age can influence how they feel about the water, too.



  • Kittens can be fearful of water because they have never seen it before, and the fact that it is a new stimulus is enough to scare them out of investigating it.
  • Kittens can also develop an aversion to water and swimming after struggling to swim for the first time because they don’t have the necessary dexterity to be strong swimmers. Kittens also lack the strength and stamina that is needed to swim for any significant distance – which can make falling into the water enough to cause drowning.


Adult cats

  • Adult cats can (and will) generally swim if they have to and may even enjoy swimming if they have had a gentle introduction to the water from an early age.
  • Adult cats that have had a traumatic experience with water are likely to avoid water at all costs.  


Senior Cats

  • Senior cats can encounter the same trouble as kittens when it comes to swimming – their limbs aren’t as strong as they once were, and their stamina is lower. As a result of these changes, a senior cat may get into trouble and start going under the water after over-estimating its ability to swim.
  • Kittens can also develop an aversion to water and swimming after struggling to swim for the first time because they don’t have the necessary dexterity to be strong swimmers. Kittens also lack the strength and stamina that is needed to swim for any significant distance – which can make falling into the water enough to cause drowning.

Sensory Experience


Sensory experience is another factor that causes cats to avoid water. For example, when a cat gets into the water, its coat becomes heavy and weighed down – an unpleasant feeling to say the least!

The smell of pool chemicals may also deter cats from swimming. Humans have five million odor sensors in their noses, but cats have two hundred million, and this means that the pool water that smells strong to you can be unbearable to your cat!

Lastly, having a wet coat is unpleasant, and some cats prefer not to endure that discomfort unless they have to.

Medical Conditions


Medical conditions can also influence a cat’s ability to swim and, consequently, their preference for swimming. For example, a cat with an amputation may find swimming much more difficult and consequently, they might avoid the water altogether.

Early Introduction to Water is Important


One of the best things you can do for your cat is to introduce them to the water as early as possible. This early introduction to water helps your cat to get used to being in the water and make it a more familiar environment for them decreasing their chances of shying away from the water later in life.


Experience Matters


Just like with humans, an experience can have a major impact on how cats view water and swimming in the future. You must do everything possible to be sure that your cat has only positive associations with water and swimming.

The following tips can help your cat to have a more positive experience with water:

  • Never drag your kitten or cat to water and force them to get in – doing this will only create a negative association with water which is the last thing you want to do.
  • Be sure to stand by at the ready in case your kitten or cat needs help while in the water. Kittens especially can get into trouble very quickly, so it’s important to be as close as possible so that you don’t waste time!
  • Always keep the pool completely covered with a taut cover so that there is no chance that your kitten or cat can fall in and drown. Even falling into the pool without drowning causes many cats to sidestep the wet stuff for good!
  • Be sure that you have a pet ramp in your pool so that if your cat does fall into the water, they can help themselves to get out again if no one else is around to help.

Conclusion / Summary


The belief that all cats hate water and/or cannot swim is simply untrue. Many big cats frequent water sources for food and to control their body temperature in warmer climates. It isn’t just big cats that can enjoy the water, though, with early exposure and the right guidance, even housecats can come to love a lap or two around the pool!

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