Why do tigers swim?

Swimming Tigers

Tigers beat the heat by taking a swim.
ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

To understand why certain tigers swim, let's first learn about where they live. The tiger species is critically endangered with a global population hovering at about 4,000 [source: World Wildlife Fund]. Of those, six subspecies still exist: Amur, Siberian, Bengal, Indochinese, South China and Sumatran. In the wild, those subspecies are dotted around the Eastern Hemisphere, largely concentrated in Southeast Asia in tropical evergreen forests. If we were to rate the heat of that area's climate on a pepper scale, it would probably reach the Thai chili level, just below the scalding habanero. For instance, summer temperatures in south India regularly top 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 degrees Celsius).

When the mercury rises outside, where do humans flock? The pool. Same thing goes for tigers in steamy climates. The primary reason tigers swim is to cool off [source: Robey]. Since tigers hunt at night, they may spend a majority of their day lounging in the water, like summer guests at a Miami resort [source: Sunquist and Sunquist]. As the largest species in the big cat family, tigers have more surface area that heats up, which is probably why they swim for pleasure. Likewise, smaller cats such as the domesticated ones living in our homes might refrain from getting their fur wet since it would make them uncomfortably cold.


Odin's habit of diving to the bottom of his pool, eyes wide open, is an oddity for his species. Swimming tigers will usually submerge their bodies but not go completely underwater. The big cats generally dislike getting water in their eyes, so they often wade up to their necks [source: Animal Planet]. Like those human swimmers who take precious care not to ruin their 'do in the pool, tigers may shield their eyes by entering a body of water backwards [source: Animal Planet].

Strong bodies and webbed paws also make tigers quite capable swimmers. They have been recorded to cross rivers as wide as 18 miles (29 kilometers) and go for 9-mile (15-kilometer) stretches in open water [source: Seidensticker et al]. Aside from swimming as a mode of transportation, tigers swim as a hunting advantage. They may chase prey into the water in order to trap it.

But tigers aren't the only big cats that regularly swim. Other warm climate species, including jaguars and lions, will relax in water and swim when necessary. African lions in Botswana's Okavango Delta swim to dry land when seasonal flooding wipes out their regular range [source: Robey]. Panthers in the Florida Everglades practice similar flood-related migration as well.

Although Fido still has domestic felines beat in the swimming department, tigers and other big cats may offer a reason to reconsider the term "doggy paddle."

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  • "All About Tigers." Animal Planet. (Aug. 15, 2008)
  • Dacres, K. and B. Lundrigan. "Panthera tigris" Animal Diversity Web. 2007. (Aug. 15, 2008)
  • Robey, Jason. "Swimming Lions." Animal Planet. (Aug. 15, 2008)
  • Seidensticker, John; Jackson, Peter; and Christie, Sarah. "Riding the Tiger." Cambridge University Press. 1999. (Aug. 15, 2008)
  • Slobig, Zachary. "Swimming Tiger Wows Zoo Crowd." AFP. Discovery Channel. June 19, 2007. (Aug. 15, 2008)
  • Sunquist, Melvin E. and Sunquist Fiona. "Wild Cats of the World." University of Chicago Press. 2002. (Aug. 15, 2008)
  • "Tiger." HowStuffWorks. (Aug. 15, 2008)
  • "Tigers." World Wildlife Fund. (Aug. 15, 2008)