How to Paddle with Cats

kayaking with cat

Ahoy there, adventurers! Exploring nature with your cat doesn’t have to end at the shoreline. 

If you enjoy activities like kayaking, canoeing or sailing, your adventure cat may be able to join you on the water. But before you begin paddling with kitties aboard, it’s best to review some guidelines and safety tips.

If you think your kitty may enjoy life on the high seas with you (or at least a cool morning on a still lake), then you may have a future paddler on your hands. Plenty of cats are already riding aboard with their humans, who document their adventures online. 

We’ll help you figure out if your cat is cut out for paddling, where and how to take them on trips, and — most “impurrtantly” — how to keep them safe and happy. Take a “paws” and let your kitty lead the way.

Do Cats Like Water? 

If you’re a cat lover, you’ve probably heard that your feline friends are no friends of the water. But in many ways, that’s a myth. 

Think about this: Have you ever seen your cat sneaking a sip from your kitchen sink? Cats are curious by nature, and some of them are especially interested in moving water.   

Believe it or not, cans can even swim — it’s just that most of them don’t particularly want to.

Suki explores the crystal waters of Canada's Lake Louise.

Suki explores the crystal waters of Canada’s Lake Louise.

They’re accustomed to routine, and taking a dip isn’t usually one of their habits. Additionally, wet fur compromises cats’ agility, leaving them more vulnerable (in their minds) to predators. 

So, while you may not be swimming laps with your cat anytime soon, you may still be able to try water activities with them. 

“We have undersold cats,” says Dr. Ken Lambrecht, a Wisconsin veterinarian who paddles with his cats Bug and Kangaroo (or Roo for short). “They are very comfortable on or near water, as long as they feel like they control the situation.”

How Do You Train Your Cat to Paddle?

The first step to training your cat to paddle is to, well, train them to do everything else. That means your pet should already be comfortable in other outdoor settings, and they should know how to walk on a leash and travel in a carrier. Clicker training can help get them used to the adventure life. 

You, the human, should be trained as well — don’t take your cat paddling unless you’re already good at it yourself! And make sure you understand basic adventure cat safety, such as knowing when your kitty needs to drink water, eat a meal, or head home. 

“You know your cat’s body language,” says Jessica Horkan, who paddles with her cat Ruby in Wisconsin. “Use your best judgment on whether or not it’s for them.”

If you’re confident you can handle both watercraft and your cat, you might be ready to try paddling. Every cat is different, but here’s a general guide to getting yours ready for a trip:

  1. Get your cat used to a lifejacket. Before hitting the water, your cat should feel safe and comfortable in a lifejacket or “purrsonal” flotation device, because they should be wearing one at all times on a boat. 

“I just let Ruby wear it around the house a couple of times a day, so it wouldn’t freak her out,” Horkan says.

  1. Try some practice runs on land. If you can, let your cat explore your paddling mode of choice ahead of time — and on dry land. That might mean letting them sniff and climb around your canoe, or maybe helping them perch atop a kayak. (Placing treats on the watercraft is very effective for this.) 

Dr. Lambrecht has many boats on his property, so his cats are used to navigating them. “The cats climb on them all the time, so they think that’s normal,” he says.

  1. Take to the water slowly and safely. Even if you feel your cat is ready for paddling, don’t rush into a big journey. Start with a short, easy trip to gauge how your furry friend feels on the water. 

“The key is to always go slow with new things,” Horkan says, “and to bring whatever motivates your cat — whether that is treats, toys, or attention.”

  1. Take all your cues from your cat. If they appear frightened or uncomfortable, it’s time to pack it in for the day. You want to build positive associations for your cat, and forcing them to stay on the water is not the way to do that. 

What to Pack When Paddling with a Cat

You’ll need more than just your cat on board with you. Here’s a packing list to guide your outings: 

  • Water for your cat — and lots of it 
  • A shady place where they feel safe (like a backpack)
  • Cat food and treats
  • A fan (because it can get hot on the water)
  • Personal floatation devices for both you and your cat 
  • A leash and harness that they can’t slip out

Nanakuli surfing cat swimming

Feline Overboard! 

It’s scary to think about, but it can happen: Your cat may fall overboard at some point. But with a little planning, you should be prepared to handle the situation. 

Dr. Lambrecht recommends keeping your cat leashed and harnessed while on the water, because that would allow you to more easily rescue them should they fall. 

“When they come up,” he points out, “they’re going to use claws, so having a life jacket or something that floats and they can climb up on easily is vital.”

You also may want to keep a long-handled fishing net on board, or a rope or steel ladder if your cat is on a regular boat.

Cat on a rope

Photo: Louise Kennedy

And you can even train your cat to climb out of the water just like Bailey Boat Cat does!

What Can Advanced Paddlers Do? 

If your cat enjoys paddling, you can sail into a new world of adventures together. Dr. Lambrecht has been paddling with Bug for several years, and she’s an expert on the water. 

“She’s very comfortable in my arms,” he says. “I’m on boats for much of my free time, as I live on a lake.”

Dr. Ken paddle boarding with his cat Bug

Bug is comfortable both on land and water. (Photo: Lambrecht)

But Bug and Dr. Lambrecht’s favorite place to paddle is Lake Superior, where they go camping together. 

“That’s kind of our heaven,” he says. Now Bug is “mentoring” Roo, who’s become a pro paddler in her own right.

“I didn’t think I would ever meet a spunkier cat than Bug, but then Roo came along,” Dr. Lambrecht says. “She’s a force.”

Horkan and Ruby, meanwhile, love paddling to an island, where they’ve met fish and baby turtles. Recently, Horkan adds, she bought an inflatable paddle board for the pair to try. 

“Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have gone on half of these adventures if I didn’t have her,” Horkan says. “She wants to go everywhere with me, and I love adventuring with her.”