First of all, not all cats hate water and avoid it. Some cats, both big and small, domesticated and wild, enjoy water and even like to go swimming. Tigers, for instance, have been known to go into the water voluntarily. So, if you ever get chased by one, don’t think water is a refuge!
Still, the average cat seems to be downright afraid of water. Even house cats who like leaky faucets and playing with other sources of trickling water might hate getting a batch, and will freak out, make horrible noises, clawing and biting to escape as if their lives depend on it. What’s the deal with cats and water?
There are two competing theories.
The first is that cats are indeed afraid of water. According to this view, whether a cat is afraid of water has to do with the cat’s and its ancestors’ experience and relationship with water. Most domesticated cats derive from desert-dwelling wild cats from somewhere along the fertile crescent, from Mesopotamia to Egypt. The earliest evidence of the cat’s domesticated ancestors was found on the island of Cypress, dating from 9500 years ago.
These cats from arid lands had very little experience with water. Even today house cats need very little water to drink. If they are fed wet food they can get most of their water from it. And, ever since cats became our partners, humans have protected cats from the elements. These cats simply did not evolve to have much to do with water and our cats today have limited exposure.
It is suggested that if you bathe a cat as a kitten you can get it used to water and that the cat may even learn to enjoy it. It is not recommended to bathe cats, however, unless absolutely necessary, as this washes away essential oils and dries out their skin, exposing them to itchy problems.
On the other hand, not every single domesticated cat would have come from such dry places. Why would cats like fish if a cat hated water? Well, a cat can learn to like the taste of fish even if it has never fished, but some cats native to the wetlands of Indonesia or India are indeed fishing cats. When cats fish, they do not go in the water. Instead, they sit near the edge waiting for prey, tapping the surface of the water with their paw and then trying to snatch fish out of the water with their claws.
So, the first theory is that cats avoid water because being in the water is outside of their experience, and they evolved mostly in dry, arid climates.
The second theory is that cats avoid water for practical reasons. Cats, unlike dogs, don’t have a lot of protection from the water. They don’t have oily coast or a pronounced guard coat (see the explanation of cat fur) like dogs. Their undercoat soaks up water and it takes them a long time to dry. This can cause a cat to become cold and sick. So, simply speaking, cats avoid water because they don’t like getting wet. You’ll have noticed that if you get a cat wet, they will often shake off excess water like a dog does, but unlike a dog, they will immediately set about licking their fur to remove the remaining water as quickly as possible, sometimes laboring for hours. Incidentally, a bath is a good way to stimulate grooming in a cat who has let himself go — at least sometimes.