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Cat getting a bath

The essentials

  • In general, domestic cats don’t like water Behaviorists believe it’s because the species evolved in dry climates.
  • There are a few other possible reasons They may not like what water does to their fur or they could have had a bad experience with water in the past.
  • Not all felines hate water — Some are curious about it, and there are even cat breeds that enjoy swimming.

Fear versus fascination

Cats have a complicated relationship with water. The vast majority fear the dreaded bath, and they’ll let you know it. But, at other times, cats seem almost fascinated by water, such as when they dip a paw in their bowl or opt to drink directly from the faucet. In short, it’s a myth — or at least an oversimplification — to claim that all cats dislike and fear water. In truth, most cats just prefer to interact with water on their own terms.

Why some cats dislike water

While some cats enjoy playing with water, the vast majority of cats strongly dislike being submerged in it. In terms of why this is, there are a few possible explanations:

  • Genetic factors. Behaviorists believe cats were historically desert animals that didn’t have a lot of exposure to bodies of water, leading domestic cats to avoid it.
  • Their fur. Cats’ undercoats take a long time to dry. Wet fur is also heavier than dry fur, which can be pretty uncomfortable and affect a cat’s ability to move around.
  • Water’s unfamiliar. Cats are skilled self-groomers, so regular baths aren’t typically necessary or something they’re familiar with. If Fluffy gets dirty beyond the point of self-grooming, a bath may take some getting used to!
  • Bad experiences. Shock factor can largely play into a cat’s fear of water. If a cat has fallen into a bathtub or sink accidentally, they might have developed an aversion to or fear of water.
  • They dislike being cold. If your cat’s fur gets wet, they may get cold while waiting for it to dry.

Water breeds

There are breeds of cats that are less fearful of water and may even enjoy swimming (and we aren’t talking about the tigers or lions wading in the water at the zoo). These breeds are typically unique because of the texture of their fur, which makes them more water-resistant.

  • Turkish vans
  • Maine coons
  • Bengals
  • Norwegian Forest cats
  • Abyssinians
  • American bobtails
  • Japanese bobtails
  • Manx

Getting your cat comfortable with water

Since cats are self-groomers, there’s rarely a need for your kitty to be in the water. Even still, it’s a good practice to help your cat become more comfortable around water should they need to be bathed in the future. If possible, it’s also helpful to start while they’re young and make water a “normal” occurrence throughout their life. Keep water sessions short and sweet to start with, and add in a lot of praise and treats. A final word of advice? Be sure to trim your kitty’s nails before introducing them to the water!

How to bathe your cat, in steps

Most of the time, your cat can handle their own grooming. But cats that are overweight or elderly require more help when it comes to keeping clean. If you find your cat in need of a bath, here’s how to get the job done:

  1. Give your cat a bath when they’re at their calmest. You can try having a play session beforehand to tire them out or even plug in a calming diffuser.
  2. As we mentioned before, it’s a good idea to trim your cat’s nails before you start. This is something that needs to be done regularly anyway and can help protect you from getting scratched.
  3. It’s also helpful to give your cat a good brushing before you start to get rid of any loose hair and detangle mats.
  4. If your cat will let you, place a cotton ball in each of their ears. This will help protect against water and ensure they don’t develop an ear infection later on.
  5. Try putting a bath mat or towel in the basin of the sink or tub to help give your cat some grip while you bathe them. Then, fill the tub with three to four inches of warm (not hot!) water.
  6. Use a hand-held sprayer to wet your cat, making sure to steer clear of their ears, eyes, and nose. If your sink or bathtub doesn’t have a spray hose, you can use a plastic pitcher or a large cup.
  7. Gently but thoroughly work some diluted cat shampoo (one part shampoo, five parts water) into their fur. Be sure to keep the suds away from their eyes, ears, and nose.
  8. Rinse out the shampoo with the sprayer or pitcher, checking that all suds and soap are washed away. Any leftover shampoo residue can irritate your cat’s skin.
  9. You can use a damp washcloth with water (not shampoo) to carefully wipe any dirt off your kitty’s face.
  10. When done, wrap your cat in a towel and let them dry in a warm place. You can even toss their towel in the dryer for a few minutes to warm it. If your cat has long hair, you might need to comb and detangle their fur before letting them dry.

Some water-free alternatives

For cats that truly won’t tolerate water, there are some shampoos out there that allow you to give your cat’s fur a refresh without having to get them wet. Burt’s Bees has a popular waterless shampoo option, and our vet’s favorite is Fort Dodge’s QuikClean. These shampoos come out as a foam that you can gently massage into your cat’s fur and wipe clean.

Frequently asked questions

Why are cats afraid of water?

There are many reasons why your cat could be afraid of water. Mostly, though, it tends to be something they’re not used to. Some behaviorists also believe that cats’ ancestors probably grew up in a dry climate with limited exposure to water.

Are cats traumatized by water?

If your kitty accidentally falls into water, they might develop a fear of or aversion to it. Getting them acclimated to water when they’re young can help a cat become more comfortable around it. 

Are there any cat breeds that aren’t afraid of water?

There are certain breeds of house cats that are more inclined to like water, such as the Turkish van, Maine coon, and Bengal. It’s thought that their unique coat makes them more water-resistant and therefore more open to playing in water and even swimming.

What are cats most afraid of?

Along with water, cats can be afraid of many things. Loud noises and unfamiliar smells or places are two other common fears in cats.