Why Do Cats Paw At The Water Dish?
You would expect drinking to involve only your cat's mouth, wouldn't you?

Well, for some cats, drinking water can involve their paws as well. Members sometimes ask in the cat behavior forums about "weird" cat behaviors associated with drinking water, so let's take a look at some of these quirks, why they're happening and what - if anything - you should be doing about it.

Feline quirks around the water dish

Over the years, we've had cat owners tell us about all kinds of kitty rituals taking place around the water dish. Sounds strange? Well, it is, if you only expect Kitty to get to the dish and lick up some water.

Here are some of the quirky feline behaviors reported on the forum -
  1. Scratching the floor around the water dish.
  2. "Kneading" or pawing at the floor or carpet next to the water dish.
  3. Staring at the water for a few seconds before drinking.
  4. Pawing at the water before drinking.
  5. Pawing at the water and then licking it off their paws - instead of drinking directly from the bowl.
  6. Sloshing water around in the dish.
  7. Dropping objects into the water dish.
Some cats were reported to splash so much water around, the dish would be empty by the time the owner got back home in the evening!

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So why do cats mess around with their water

Well, the short answer is that nobody really knows. We have no way to ask our cats about the reasons for these behaviors. Or rather, we can ask but they're not likely to answer :wink:. However there are a couple of theories as to why these cats use their paws and not just their tongues when getting a drink.
  1. Cats paw at the dish to discover where the surface of the water is. Consider the location of the cat's eyes as he or she approaches the dish: Kitty can't actually see the water right under its muzzle. Pawing first helps some cats ascertain the distance between their tongue and the water. This would also explain why some cats tend to stare at the water before lapping it up.
  2. Some cats like to play with water. We're used to thinking of cats as being averse to water, but the truth is some cats enjoy playing with and in water. Looking for a source of entertainment, these cats - especially kittens - may discover that sloshing water in the bowl and getting the surrounding area wet is actually fun.
As for scratching or pawing at the floor next to the dish, this type of behavior is often associated with food dishes. Some experts believe that this is a remnant of our cats' need to bury their food, while others see this as a form of territorial marking around food sources. Whichever explanation is correct, these cats could be including the water dish in the act - especially since owners often place the food and water bowls next to one another.

Should you stop your cat from pawing at the water dish?

Generally speaking, if your cat is merely pawing at the water a few times before drinking, he or she is most likely trying to gauge the exact water level. Trying to avoid a wet nose is perfectly legitimate, and it's not a behavior that should bother you.

However, if Kitty has taken to sloshing water around to the point of getting the area wet or even emptying the dish, you may want to make a few changes. Here are some ideas brought forward by our members over the years. See if any of these may work for you and your cat -
  1. Use a shallow dish to diminish the allure of splashing water all around.
  2. Try a drinking fountain to generate a constant flow, creating a sense of movement without resorting to splashing.
  3. Add a place mat under the water dish to protect carpets and floors from excess water.
Do you think Kitty is simply playing with water out of boredom? Consider fighting boredom using various environmental enrichment techniques. Cats that spend their lives indoors need constant stimulation to compensate for lack of access to the sights, sounds and scents of the great outdoors. Fortunately, there are many ways to keep our cats entertained while in the safety of our homes! The following articles offer dozens of ideas that will help you keep your cat happy -
Beating Boredom - What Indoor Cat Owners Need To Know
Playing with Your Cat: 10 Things You Need To Know
7 Proven Ways to Get Your Cat to Be More Active

Remember that the important thing is for your cat to have uninterrupted access to fresh water. Feline "water dish rituals" are harmless. Unless your cat ends up splashing water to the point of emptying the bowl, you probably should just let him or her enjoy what comes naturally.

Does your cat paw at the water dish or have other "weird" water behaviors? Let us know in a comment! And if you have any questions about feline behavior, please start a thread in the cat behavior forum.

Photos in this article submitted by TCS members.