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Ask Dr. Knowledge

Cats and water

January 3, 2011

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Why don’t cats like water?

Not all cats hate water. In fact, some wild cat species are quite good swimmers, and those that are native to hot climates tend to swim often, just to cool down. Cats in this class include tigers, lions, ocelots, and jaguars.

Cats in warm climates will also swim across rivers and lakes, and some cats will fish, diving into water to get food.

Cats that live in cold climates tend not to like getting wet. For example, snow leopards, lynxes, and cougars all try to avoid getting wet and the reason is clear — if they get wet they lose heat rapidly and get cold.

In many ways then, cats are just like us. We like to get wet and cool off in the heat, but are unlikely to jump in the water in the middle of winter.

Now what about domestic cats and their famous avoidance of water?

Experience likely plays a large role. Cats that are entered into shows are often bathed frequently and they may get used to it and stop making a fuss.

In fact, the reason that people don’t bathe cats as often as dogs is that cats clean themselves — in a sense, people teach domesticated cats to rarely come into contact with water. In addition, some people use a spray bottle to discipline their cats. Cats often dislike having water flicked or sprayed on them, but that’s not really all that surprising since it’s annoying.

That said, most cats will at least show some curiosity for water, especially if it’s moving and many like playing with water, like a dripping faucet or a shower, even if they don’t like getting completely soaked.

There is a rather interesting breed of domestic cat called the Turkish Van that completely upends the “cats don’t like water’’ concept.

These cats from the Lake Van district of southeastern Turkey have water-resistant coats and really like to go into water. They’ll go into bathtubs and sinks and are sometimes colloquially referred to as “swimming cats.’’ Interestingly, their fur is hypo-allergenic, making them a good choice for people who would otherwise have an allergic reaction to cats.

Ask Dr. Knowledge is written by Northeastern University physicist John Swain. E-mail drknowledge@globe.com or write to Dr. Knowledge, c/o The Boston Globe, PO Box 55819, Boston, MA 02205-5819.