Not all cats dislike water. Cats who have had positive experiences around and in water, especially during their key socialization period (early socialization occurs between 3 and 8 weeks, late socialization between 9 and 16 weeks), often like water. There are also specific breeds that love water! It's important to treat your cat as an individual without any expectations.
Many Cats Evolved to Dislike Water
It is believed that cats were domesticated 9,500 years ago in the middle east. They evolved in arid desert climates and were not exposed to rivers, lakes, and rain. This resulted in present day cats mostly avoiding bodies of water. Even community cats often seek shelter from rain and thunderstorms. Hiding from water has become an instinct in present day cats.
This is not true of all breeds though, as some breeds of cats enjoy being in the water due to their own evolutionary background. The Turkish Van and the Turkish Angora, for example, are known for their love of water and swimming abilities. They adapted to their climate in the Lake Van region of Turkey by shedding their hair in the summer to swim and fish. Some other breeds that are more likely to enjoy water are the Bengal, Maine Coon, and American Bobtail.
Cats Are Sensitive to Scents
Cats have an extraordinary sense of smell, fourteen times more sensitive than ours. The strong scents associated with shampoos and conditioners can contribute to cats aversion to water and baths. Some have also speculated that your cat may not like the scent of chemicals from tap water.
Cats Love to Be Clean and Warm (The Wet Factor)
Cats are meticulous in their natural cleanliness and spend much of their time grooming themselves by keeping their fur clean, detangled, and well-conditioned. Cats also maintain a higher body temperature and cleaning themselves helps maintain and regulate their body temperature. When a cat's coat becomes soaked, it becomes quite heavy, making it hard for them to return to a dry, warm state quickly. A wet coat can also make the cat feel slow and not as nimble as usual, which results in an uncomfortable sensation of not being able to quickly get out of a situation.
Aversion to Water
Many cats' experiences with water are not positive—being stuck in a downpour without shelter, being sprayed with water, and forced baths are a few examples—so it’s understandable why many cats do not like water.
Do Cats Need Baths?
As aforementioned, cats do a wonderful job of keeping themselves clean and can spend up to 40% of the day cleaning themselves, so you may never need to bathe your cat.
Cats may need a medical bath due to a skin issue and senior, arthritic, and overweight cats may have a hard time reaching certain parts of their body. A bath may also be necessary if the cat happens to roll in something sticky or smelly.
How Can I Get My Cat to Enjoy Baths?
Before the Bath
Acclimate to the space. To get your cat comfortable with water, try acclimating her to the tub weeks before a bath, so she can get used to the space. Place your cat in an empty tub or sink with toys, catnip, or treats so that she makes positive associations with the location. Try spreadable treats, like a small amount of squeeze cheese, whip cream, or anchovy paste, and spread it on the tub for your cat to lick.
Once your cat is comfortable with playing and eating treats in the sink or tub, fill the tub with an inch or two of warm water and scatter toys throughout the bath so she can have some fun with it. Encourage your cat to play with the toys and reinforce her with praise and treats when she does.
Have everything ready prior to bathing the cat. Be sure to be prepared with everything you need. This includes shampoo specifically made for cats, special treats and toys your cat loves, warm towels, a plastic cup for pouring water over your cat, and a non-slip surface, such as a rubber liner, and a bath mat or towel to place in the sink or bathtub for your cat to stand on.
Create a calm environment. Close the door and keep noises to a minimum. Be calm and speak softly. If your spray attachment is noisy, rinse your cat with cups of water instead. If you are stressed, your cat will be too!
During the Bath
Use minimal restraint and positive distractions. Avoid scruffing and holding your cat down. Instead, be gentle, watch your cats body language, and provide positive distractions, like a special spreadable treat and/or a wand toy.
Use extra care not to spray the face or get water in the ears or eyes. Avoid washing the whiskers. A cat's whiskers are where many of the cat’s touch receptors are located and it's only natural for cats to hate getting these receptors grazed by water, food, and dirt. Be sure to rinse shampoo thoroughly to prevent skin irritation.
After the Bath
Towel dry. Gently lift your cat out of the water and immediately wrap up in a warm towel to dry or, if your cat does not prefer to be carried, allow water to drain out and towel dry while still in tub. Your cat will dry naturally in a few hours and in that time, they should be kept warm and away from drafts. End this with a cat cuddle or play session and your cat's favorite treat!