Behavioral problems

Why Do Cats Paw at Water?

Josie F. Turner
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. Updated: September 5, 2023
Why Do Cats Paw at Water?

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The reasons why cats paw at their water before drinking are mostly related to their natural instincts. Despite millennia of domestication, cats maintain many of the instincts of their wild counterparts. This includes how they interpret their environment and providing themselves with feelings of security. Since food and water are some of the most important basic needs of felines, it is understandable they will want to know the water they drink is safe. This can help partly provide the answer to why do cats paw at water? It does not reveal the full extent of this idiosyncratic behavior. This is why AnimalWised explains all the reasons a cat plays with their water bowl.

You may also be interested in: Why Do Dogs Lick Your Feet?
  1. Why do cats drink from a water bowl?
  2. Instinctual Behavior
  3. Hunting behavior
  4. Testing the water
  5. Play and curiosity
  6. Stress or anxiety
  7. Health issues
  8. How do I stop my cat pawing at water?

Why do cats drink from a water bowl?

Cats pawing or playing with water before drinking can have several possible reasons, including both instinctual and behavioral factors. While this behavior is generally considered normal, it's essential to understand the potential motivations behind it and recognize when it might indicate an issue.

We know that cats will drink water from their bowl, but how much they drink will depend on varying factors. Wild cats obtain much of their moisture from the prey they consume, but they will also require supplementary water for the following reasons:

  • To supplement their hydration when prey is scarce
  • To quench their thirst after consuming drier or less moisture-rich prey
  • To cool down during hot weather

The domestic cat drinks water for the same reasons. Since many of us will feed the cat dry kibble, drinking from a water bowl helps to supplement their mainly desiccated diet. Cats that eat food with more moisture in it will need to drink more supplementary water, especially on a hit day. This does not explain why cats paw at their water, but it does explain why water is so important to felines.

We look in detail at the reasons cats paw at water in the sections below:

Instinctual Behavior

Cats have sensitive whiskers that help them detect changes in their environment, including water. Pawing at the water may be an instinctual way to test the water's depth or surface tension before drinking, ensuring it's safe to consume.

There is an innate fear of the unknown in cats. They are both curious and fearful animals, a combination which means they can be quite cautious. Although we know it is a shallow water dish, a cat may worry something larger is lurking behind the water. Tapping the water's surface with a paw can help reassure the cat the water is safe to drink.

Why Do Cats Paw at Water? - Instinctual Behavior

Hunting behavior

In the wild, cats often hunt prey that moves. Such prey includes insects or small creatures on the water's surface. Pawing at the water before drinking could be an instinctual behavior to check if there are any small, moving objects like prey on the water's surface. This action mimics their hunting behavior.

Testing the water

There are many factors which will lead a cat to test the water with their paw. Although cats are known for having a keen sense of smell, they may need a little help in testing the water. By slapping the water's surface, they can be better able to smell any potential dangers.

Cats are also known to be sensitive to the temperature of their food and water. Pawing at the water may be an attempt to assess its temperature. Some cats may prefer slightly cooler or warmer water, depending on ambient temperature and personal preference.

Play and curiosity

Especially if you provide the cat with a new water bowl, it is possible the cat is simply curious about the water. Although most cats do not like to swim in water, many of them will try to catch something if they see it beneath the surface. Wild cats will fish in this way, but domestic cats often limite this to play behavior. This is because cats do not need to hunt in the same way as wild cats.

Splashing the water with their paw may in itself be a form of play. They are attracted to running water. Also related to their instincts, running water is usually more clean in the wild so it is usually safer to drink. Even if the cat is not drinking, having a splish splash with their paw might be a good way to spend some time.

This is not usually a problem. However, if the cat is resorting to playing with their water, it could be they do not have enough environmental stimulation in the home. This is especially true for cats which are more active and require greater cognitive stimulation. Learn more with our article on environmental enrichment in cats.

Stress or anxiety

Cats that are stressed might splash water from their bowl out of frustration. There are many reasons why a cat may be stressed or anxious, but lacking a strict routine is one of the most common. Cats need to feel secure in their environment and a consistent routine is one of the most important ways to do so.

If we do not feed our cat regularly or do so at varying times of the day, they may be stressed that they will not be given enough food or drink. This is a form of resource anxiety and may cause the cat to splash water as a sign they are upset.

General stress in a cat's life can also lead to them splashing water out of their bowl. The context of the behavior is very important. For example, introducing a new cat to the home is a common reason why a cat may be stressed. If you see your cat splashing their water from the bowl only after a new cat has arrived, it is likely a sign the cat is stressed.

Health issues

Cats with dental issues, such as gum pain or tooth discomfort, may paw at water as a way to test its temperature or texture before drinking. If your cat consistently avoids drinking or shows signs of dental problems, consult a veterinarian. Dehydration in cats is a serious problem and may be a sign of serious underlying health problems other than dental issues.

Why Do Cats Paw at Water? - Health issues

How do I stop my cat pawing at water?

If you want to discourage your cat from splashing water with their paw, you can try a few strategies. However, it's important to consider whether this behavior is causing any problems or if it's just a harmless behavior. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Provide a larger bowl: cats sometimes paw at water when they feel the bowl is too small or shallow. Offering a larger, deeper water bowl may reduce splashing.

  • Use a splash guard: some pet stores sell splash guards or mats designed to reduce water splashing. Placing one under the water bowl can help contain any splashes.

  • Use a heavy bowl: opt for a heavy, weighted water bowl or dish that is less likely to tip over when your cat paws at it.

  • Change the water temperature: experiment with the water's temperature to see if your cat prefers it slightly cooler or warmer. Cats can be sensitive to water temperature. Finding the right balance may reduce pawing.

  • Interactive fountains: consider using a pet water fountain. Many cats enjoy drinking from running water sources. A fountain can keep them engaged without splashing as much. This is also a good way to encourage your cat to drink water to avoid dehydration.

  • Interactive toys: provide toys or interactive puzzles to keep your cat mentally and physically engaged. Sometimes, cats paw at water out of boredom.

  • Training: if the behavior continues to be a problem, you can try gentle training. When your cat starts splashing water, calmly say ‘no’ and redirect them to a toy or another activity. Be consistent with your response. If your cat stops pawing at the water, reward them with treats or affection. This form of positive reinforcement in cats is both more humane and effective.

  • Consult a veterinarian: if your cat's behavior is excessive or if they show signs of distress or changes in drinking habits, consult with a veterinarian. Pawing at water could be indicative of an underlying health issue, and a vet can rule out any medical concerns.

It's important to remember that some cats have a natural inclination to play with water, and this behavior can be normal for them. If your cat is not causing damage or making a mess and they seem to enjoy it, you might choose to let them continue the behavior. If it becomes disruptive or if you have concerns about their hydration, you can use the above strategies to manage the issue.

Learn more about cats and water with our article on why cats drink water with their paw.

If you want to read similar articles to Why Do Cats Paw at Water?, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.

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Why Do Cats Paw at Water?