Meet my cat Enoki. She’s a lynx point kitty living her best life in Portland, Oregon, where she was raised as an adventure cat that enjoys travel and outdoor adventures. I take her everywhere with me, on adventures ranging from cycling, cross-country skiing, canoeing, camping, and more; the activity that gets the most attention though, is paddle boarding.
I’m often asked if she enjoys paddling. Enoki is a curious kitty that is comfortable in a range of environments. She doesn’t always enjoy having a lot of people around and is generally happier paddling in smaller groups, but it will depend on her mood that day. (she’s gotten more comfortable being around a lot of people in the last year) While I wouldn’t say she loves water, (I’d argue she enjoys bike rides more) she doesn’t not enjoy it, she likes being with me and doing things. She can get bored and a bit bitey if she doesn’t get her fill of outdoor stimulation, so if the conditions are glassy, she will contently come along for the ride. One of my favorite things about taking her out on the water is how sweet she is to me on the board, (IE, not bitey, which is how she can be if she’s bored) and afterward. She loves to explore and sniff things along the beaches and islands we paddle to.
We’ve even been featured in the local paper in costume during the yearly “Witches on the Willamette” SUP event. And though I don’t think of myself as a competent cat trainer, I’ve spent a lot of time reading up on the subject and managed to normalize many experiences for her.
We often get a lot of questions about how we got our start, so here are a few tips that we’ve learned in our time paddling the local waterways.
You should be able to swim obviously, and comfortable on a paddleboard with a level of competency. If you fall in the water, can you get back on the board quickly? Before you add a potentially nervous passenger you should be confident in your own abilities, because if you’re nervous, that will affect your kitty and create a negative experience for him/her.
Your kitty should already be accustomed to car rides – after all, unless you have a river or lakefront property, you’ll need to get there somehow!
Start with leash training
Before you take a cat out on a paddle board, they should already be accomplished adventure kitties, which means they should already be comfortable outside on walks and wearing harnesses. Getting them accustomed to a harness and starting the leash training is the first step.
Shoulder training is helpful
I’ve placed Enoki on my shoulder every morning since she was adopted at a young age, and she enjoys hanging out there with me as I make the morning coffee before we head over to give her food. Making that shoulder ride our daily routine paid off later when it came to bike riding; she’s comfortable balancing there for long periods of time. During the witch paddle last year, we paddled over 3 miles with her perched up high, which resulted in quite a few photo ops!
Enoki likes to be up high when there are dogs around; she knows my shoulder is her safe spot. Having a top or outer layer that provides traction is key for this; plus you’ll want protection from claws.
Invest in a cat backpack
The cat backpack is one of the easiest ways to get a kitty on the water as it serves as a safe space for them to observe the outside world.
I’ve been taking Enoki for hikes and bike rides using a cat backpack since she was a small ball of fur. It’s by far the easiest way to get kitties out and used to new sights, sounds, and smells. The hardest part was finding a pack that was suitable for adventuring. The model we settled on has an opening at the top that allows Enoki to climb out of it and serves as a platform for balancing.
On the water, it gives her a place to hide from the sun, and a secure location when there is too much going on around her. Remember, they’re covered with fur and get warm quickly, so having shade for them can improve their experience.
Enoki is fine once we’re on the water, but launching is the most challenging part of the experience. I’ve found that staging my board paddle and gear first is ideal, then I’ll go back and bring her down so I can focus my attention on her. Although she’s an accomplished adventure kitty, she still gets nervous doing things at times, and she needs love and reassurance so she feels safe. While I don’t always use the backpack, (I’d really like something a bit smaller and aerodynamic as I spend the most time on my racing SUP board) she really enjoys having her space on the board.
Acclimate them to water
If your cat hates water, getting them out on a paddle board could prove challenging. We take baths/showers at least once a month. We also did a lot of walks along rivers and streams as well as on docks so she was already used to being near water. Then it was just a matter of placing her on the board and an unstable surface.
First outings: keeping it short
On our first day trying the paddle board, I had Enoki walk around on the inflated board while it was on the lawn. I brought the board down to the dock and then came back for her, as well as a camera (all the while coaching my mom on how to use a DSLR so I could record the moment.)
Being on the water for the first time can be stressful for a kitty, so short excursions are better initially.
Should your kitty wear a life jacket?
Cats instinctively know how to swim and have a long maritime history. However, occasionally when seeing shore, Enoki may decide she’s done with the ride, and want to swim to shore. After she jumped off once, I decided a life jacket would be a good idea to aid in floatation. We started with the Outward Hound model we found on Amazon.
There aren’t a lot of options for cat life jackets, so Enoki has been wearing lifejackets designed for small dogs. Our favorite models have handles built in which make it easy to grab them, which is probably the best argument for a jacket. We did recently discover a life jacket created for cats by a company called “Surfer Cat”, but we haven’t tried it.
Lately, we’ve been going back and forth on jackets. The best part of the jackets is the handle makes it easy to grab them if they end up in the water. The downside though, is we have yet to find a jacket that reliably stays on. The last time she fell in the water, (it was a really windy day – note that she no longer comes out in anything but ideal conditions) she panicked initially and swam out of hers. To make things complicated, I also fell off the board trying to grab her, and the board capsized. There was a moment of worry, as I watched her paddling around, but she’s a smart kitty and swam to me. I quickly flipped the board right side up, grabbed her, and placed her back on the board before carefully getting back on. Again – this would have been a scary situation for a less experienced paddler, as we were in the middle of a lake in windy conditions with swells.
It can take a while for a kitty to become accustomed to a life jacket. Enoki hated hers initially and still doesn’t enjoy wearing it. The first time I put it on her, she fell on her side and refused to move. This seems common with kitties, and if yours is harness trained, you probably have already experienced this behavior. As before, I put it on her a few times and had her wear it around the house for short periods. (eventually, they get up and will walk around)
I’m still looking for a life jacket that fits her better now that she appears to be her full size. I think something that loops around her rear legs may help. I’ve been thinking about sewing her a custom jacket made from neoprene wetsuit material my friend Morgan gave me. If I go this route, I may try buying an anxiety cat onesie and utilize it as a pattern.
Leash or no leash?
I always keep a lease on Enoki while we’re on adventures. While I don’t always attach it, it does make it easier to get to her in a panic situation.
The best type of SUP for paddling with a cat
Inflatable SUPs are the best option for paddling with a kitty, as they tend to be broader and more stable. More importantly, they’re less slippery, with soft material on the deck that is easy for kitties to find grip and balance on. Obviously, you’ll want to make sure they don’t start digging in with their claws, as kitties like to scratch.
I mostly paddle a carbon race board these days, which is less than ideal for Enoki, as she likes to ride on the front of the board to enjoy the views. I do have a wider, composite hardboard, which I’m planning to set up as my main board for taking her out on, and have bought some grippy stick on anti-slip tape.
Pay attention to the conditions. In the Pacific Northwest, once summer hits, our local lakes and some rivers often develop Cyanobacteria algae blooms, and that water can be toxic to animals. Once algae warnings begin, her paddling season is over.
Dehydration and heat. Bring water for both of you. Enoki gets hot sometimes, and while I’ll get her wet, I prefer it to be from my water bottle. I’ll make her drink some periodically. A syringe or dropper can be handy for giving her water, or a collapsable water bowl.
Good luck out there! If you want to follow along on more of Enoki’s adventures, give her a follow on Instagram.com/Enoki.Adventures.
Kitty Backpack. We often are asked about her backpack — Amazon link: SlowTon Pet Carrier $37.99
Likes: Works vertically and horizontally; the level top provides a nice platform for Enoki to balance on. Has adjustable mesh straps, a sternum strap, and a waist strap. (only used while mountain biking; our longest bike ride is 12.5 miles to date. Longest SUP paddle is just over 5 miles) Used horizontally for Enoki to nap in while paddling.
Dislikes: its huge