I had a question since I was a child. I was always curious about the fact that all animals can swim in water. They don't need any training or to learn swimming. But humans need to learn to swim. Why ?

I am a technical person and not in biology after my 10th year in school. Can anybody please shed some light on this question?

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    $\begingroup$ Can you back up the assertion that all mammals can swim without being taught? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 20, 2013 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ i think it's reasonable to say that a new born porpoise or otter needs very little instruction compared to a human baby to learn to swim. Human learning is an unusual process, even though some animals have the capacity to learn it takes years and hardly ever goes past the abilities of 5 year old, say. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Commented Mar 20, 2013 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ I found a website that claims "Most animals are good swimmers. In fact, they can swim from the time they’re born. But some animals have to be taught how to swim. This group includes people, gorillas and chimpanzees." $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2013 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ Wow .. Thank you all for the quick responses . I thought only humans cannot swim without learning. But some animals also have the same case. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2013 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ possible duplicate of Can all mammals swim? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 8:33

2 Answers 2


While I am not sure I buy your assertion that all mammals know how to swim, I would say that humans are at least as good as dogs when swimming. If you drop a human in water we will instinctively flap around and try too keep our head out of the water in about as elegant a way as a dog. The main problem for humans is panicking. Someone who does not know how to swim is likely to panic and not manage to keep their head out of the water. Remember that humans float in water, if you keep calm you should be able to keep your head above the water line easily enough.

Dogs can't swim as such, they simply do the same motions in the water as they do on land. There is no different action happening, they don't instinctively do a breast stroke.

In addition, human infants actually have a couple of instincts that make them "swim" (source):

The Diving Reflex

The diving reflex, or bradycardic response, means that infants whose heads are submerged in water will naturally hold their breath. Their heart rate will also slow down while they are underwater. This reflex disappears after about six months of age.

The Swimming Reflex

Newborns placed stomach-side down in water will move their arms and legs in a repetitive "swimming" motion. This is known as the swimming reflex. This reflex, too, begins to fade at about the six-month mark.

That is no better and no worse than any other non-aquatic mammal can do. Try dropping a cat in water* and telling me she is a graceful swimmer :).

* Don't, that's not nice.

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    $\begingroup$ I know cats hate water :) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2013 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ It is almost funny to see a cat in the water though :) ...If you're lucky enough to see it before they come flying back out XD $\endgroup$
    – L.B.
    Commented Mar 30, 2015 at 18:46

Unlike Terdon I think that you are generally correct in your assertion that animals can swim whereas humans can't (although I'm sure there are exceptions). However, I think his answer contains the real answer:

Dogs can't swim as such, they simply do the same motions in the water as they do on land. There is no different action happening, they don't instinctively do a breast stroke.

Try making walking motions underwater, see how well they work for you. Whereas for a four legged animal their land based motions function as a passable swimming motion and the shape and weight distribution of their body means they can keep breathing simply by holding their heads up, humans need to learn a new skill in order to swim.

I'd note, however, that a human who has learnt to swim is much better at it than the natural swimming ability of a quadruped.


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