My husband, Tim, used to go to this summer camp when he was a kid. One day, when he was swimming in the lake, he noticed this furry shape paddling determinedly alongside him. Being extremely nearsighted, he couldn’t quite make it out. Once he returned to shore, he put his glasses back on and did a double-take.
The critter shaking itself dry next to him was a cat.
The camp owner, Tim learned, made a point of teaching kittens to swim, and they took to it immediately. The man’s method left a lot to be desired, however; basically, he just tossed them in and let them figure things out on their own. It was not — is not — a method to be emulated, so don’t do this at home or anywhere else.
Wild Cats and Water
“Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats,” says psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. Well, with all due respect to Mr. Kahneman, I don’t think that that’s as witty as it sounds.
First, it’s not true that all cats hate water (wit usually has to have some basis in truth to work). Let’s start with a look at some of their bigger and wilder cousins. Tigers, ocelots and jaguars are excellent swimmers; in fact, jaguars rely on rivers for much of their prey. Lions and leopards can also swim but tend to be wary of crocodiles and other river-dwelling predators.
The most intriguing feline swimmer is, of course, the fishing cat. A native of South and Southeast Asia, the fishing cat “has webbing between its toes and partly protruding toes which help it to catch fish,” explain Mike and Peggy Briggs in their book Spirit of the Wild Cat. “It will even dive in pursuit of prey, sometimes swimming underwater to snatch unsuspecting waterfowl from below by their legs.” They also have a water-repellent coat.
Back in 1996, keepers at the San Diego Zoo found themselves having to train 3 baby fishing cats who had been rejected by their mother. The kittens took to the water without hesitation; learning to catch fish took them a little longer, but not much.
Domestic cats are no slouches when it comes to swimming, either.
First up is the Turkish Van. The elegant white cat with the red facial markings and bushy red tail also goes by the nickname “the swimming cat.” According to legend, the Turkish Van hopped off the ark once the flooding was over and swam ashore, not bothering to wait for Noah and the others.
It’s a good story, but the Turkish Van actually shows up officially in a 1955 account: 2 cat-loving tourists happened upon some angora-like cats swimming in Lake Van in Turkey. “These cats could not only swim, they appeared to enjoy the water,” observed Gloria Stephens, a licensed all-breed judge and expert on cat genetics, in Legacy of the Cat. “Intrigued, the fanciers obtained a pair and returned with them to England.”
Other domestic cats who have a strong liking for water and swimming include:
- Turkish angoras, who are, of course, cousins to the Turkish Van.
- Savannahs and Bengals.
- American and Japanese bobtails.
- Manxes. They, like the Japanese bobtails, are island-born, so water is a familiar element to them.
- Abyssinians. The Aby, wrote Gladys Taber in 1970, “is said to have been the fishing cat of the ancient Egyptians 4,000 years ago.” Now, this could be another good story. Having seen my own Abys and half-Abys play paddle-paws in their water dishes and hang out in the shower, I’m not so sure, though.
- Maine coons and Norwegian forest cats. These big, fluffy cousins both have double-layered water-repellent coats. The Maine coon has a long history as a ship’s cat in New England, where it’s still a very popular breed. The Norwegian forest cat loves playing in the water and, according to CatTime.com, “thinks nothing of fishing in a body of water for a nice meal.”
What a natural!:
Some Do, Some Don’t
So most cats can swim. What’s more, some of them revel in going to the beach with their people and hitting the waves. Nathan the Beach Cat has been making a name for herself — not just in her native Australia but also internationally.
“We brought her down to the beach and thought we’d teach her how to walk on a lead,” one of her humans, Rian Crandon, says. “I wandered into the water and there, splashing at my legs, was Nathan, who had followed us out there. She just kept following us out further and further, and now she swims.”
The important thing to remember here is that swimming was Nathan’s choice — she didn’t just get flung off the pier and into the water.
As Laura J. Moss points out in Adventure Cats: Living Nine Lives to the Fullest, “forcing your cat into water could be traumatic and make her fearful of it, the outdoors, or even you. If your cat encounters water either at home or on the trail, it’s best to simply let her natural curiosity lead her to the water’s edge … then let her decide if she wants to get her paws wet.”