A rainstorm, garden hose, kitchen faucet, and bucket of water all make up a cat’s worst nightmare, at least that’s the age-old rumor. If you’ve turned on the shower as your cat accompanied you in the bathroom, you probably witnessed the sheer panic flow straight across your kitty’s face with dilated pupils and pressed back ears. So, why are cats afraid of water?
Cats are afraid of water because it’s in their DNA. Their ancestors lived in Middle Eastern deserts, where rain and bodies of water were scarce. A bath could make your cat feel uncomfortably cold and wet, and the water might have a distinct scent that bothers your cat’s sensitive smell receptors.
Your cat’s relationship with water could be as tumultuous as the one she shares with your dog. On the other hand, your cat may be one of the select few felines that join their humans in the shower or hop in the pool for a swim. To learn about why cats are afraid of water, read on!
It’s in the Family Tree
As of 2020, cats are one of the most popular domestic pets in America, with about 25.4% of households owning at least one. But before they swatted at wand toys and nuzzled up with their favorite humans on the sofa, cats roamed the Middle Eastern deserts over 10,000 years ago.
Felines wandering the arid climates of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Israel rarely had to worry about getting caught in a rainstorm. After all, some areas in this region see just 0.79-7.87 inches of rainfall per year.
For reference, the average rainfall amount in the United States is 30.21 inches. Aside from perhaps small lakes and the Nile River, there weren’t enough bodies of water in the Middle East where a cat’s survival depended solely on its ability to swim.
Now you might be wondering, what about fish? The meaty aroma of fish undoubtedly captivates a cat’s powerful olfactory receptors and makes it a delectable snack among the species. But even before cats became a fully-domesticated species, cats still relied on humans for food. Most cats could steer clear of the Red Sea while begging for fish from the local anglers.
In other words, cats are afraid of water because there was no evolutionary need to enjoy it.
But that doesn’t mean that all cats dislike water. Big cats like tigers, lions, and jaguars tend to be huge fans, swimming across rivers and lounging in the water to keep cool on hot summer days. The video below shows the relationship that big cats have with water.
Yes, Water Has a Smell (At Least to Cats)
Olfaction (smell) is the most sensitive of a cat’s five senses. The average cat may have over 200 million olfactory receptors in its nose, making a cat’s sense of smell up to 14 times more powerful than a human’s. As bizarre as it may sound, many domestic cats are afraid of water due to the strange smell of chemicals that comes with it.
Now you’re probably thinking, “but water doesn’t have a smell.” Pure freshwater may be entirely H2O, but the tap water flowing in the kitchen sink and bathtub could contain chemicals like:
If your cat gives the running faucet a good sniff and then darts away, chemicals in the water may be scaring her. The presence of any chemicals in your tap water may also explain why your cat refuses to drink anything but fresh bottled water.
Water: The Mysterious Liquid
If there’s one thing cats love, it’s consistency. Your cat may become suspicious if you rearrange the living room furniture, begin leaving for work at a different time of day or even buy her a brand new food bowl. It also explains why your cat growls when there’s a knock at the door or runs away when you turn on the faucet.
Rushing water is nothing more than a mysterious liquid in the mind of a cat. And if Fluffy’s never had a bath or experienced a drizzle out in the wild, the sound and movement of water might be enough to scare her straight. The unknown is terrifying!
Other times, cats stray far from water because of bad past experiences. For example, a cat who’s gotten caught in a torrential downpour or fallen into a filled tub may have ended up soaking wet, chilly, and uncomfortable.
A far shot from the warm and dry sensation your kitty enjoys typically. Your cat quickly connects the dots. If I go into the big white basin in the future, I might get wet and feel cold again.
The Disappearance of Your Cat’s Natural Scent
Cats have several scent glands scattered from head to toe, including their paws, foreheads, cheeks, and base of their tails. If you ever wondered why your cat rubs her cheek against yours, this is why! Cats rub these areas against people and objects as a way of transferring their unique aroma elsewhere, usually as a sign of marking their territory and what makes them feel safe.
Now, let’s say your cat’s dandruff has gotten out of control, or she spent the afternoon rolling around in the mud outside. Your cat may spend up to five hours a day grooming herself, but getting knotty clumps out of her hair and keeping her pristine is your responsibility as a pet owner. A bath may be in order.
The problem is that the slight chemical smell of water or the overpowering scent of kitty shampoo might overwhelm your cat’s natural scent. Since pheromones, the chemicals your cat’s scent glands release, help a cat to feel calm, washing them away in the bath can cause severe stress and anxiety in your cat. It is an unpleasant feeling that cats prefer to avoid.
Why Do Cats Hate Getting Wet?
Cats hate getting wet because it makes them feel cold, water-logged, and uncomfortable.
Most cats enjoy a body temperature of 100.5°F and 102.5°F (38.06°C and 39.17°C). But when a cat’s thick fur becomes weighed down with water, even a slight breeze or draft will make your cat feel chilly. This uncomfortably cold sensation can last for hours after the bath as your cat’s fur slowly dries. In a way, it’s similar to how cats lick their fur to cool off on hot days, but much more intense.
However, felines also hate being wet because it’s completely unnecessary in most instances. Cats may spend hours a day meticulously grooming their fur, and getting wet essentially reverses any progress made grooming during the day while getting rid of their natural scent at the same time.
There’s also the obvious explanation. Cats hate getting wet because wet fur weighs them down, which takes a toll on a cat’s usual agility and quickness.
Cats aren’t necessarily afraid of water as much as they’re fearful of the unknown. A cat may go her entire life without needing a bath or getting caught in a rainstorm. So why start now?
However, your cat’s distaste for water can become problematic, such as when your kitty needs a bath. Help your cat become comfortable around water by:
- Letting her play in the sink or tub with the water off
- Gently rubbing a damp washcloth on her fur
- Slowly filling the tub with warm water enough to dampen her paws
Water doesn’t have to be your cat’s arch-nemesis.
- Pets WebMD: Bathing Your Cat
- AVMA: U.S. pet ownership statistics
- Wikipedia: Climate of Egypt
- NRDC: What’s in Your Drinking Water?
- PAWS Chicago: Cat Senses—How Felines Perceive the World
- Vet West: Communication – How do cats communicate?
- SPCA of Texas: Cat Grooming
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.