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Why Does Your Cat Paw at Their Water Bowl? 5 Common Reasons

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By Nicole Cosgrove

Tabby maine coon cat playing with water in metal bowl

Most people think cats don’t like water, but that’s not always the case. Some cats enjoy swimming or playing in water, including pawing at or splashing in their water bowls. There are many possible reasons for this, ranging from displeasure over the water to territory marking.

The 5 Reasons Your Cat Paws At Their Water Bowl

1. Whisker Fatigue

Whisker fatigue is a stressful condition that cats can experience. The whiskers act as high-powered antennae that send signals to the brain and nervous system. The proprioceptors at the base of the whiskers take in a lot of information about the surroundings, including the cat’s orientation in space. This is why cats can navigate well in darkness and hunt fast prey animals.

Cats have the ability to activate the sensory focus of their whiskers at times, but the proprioceptors mostly respond to the cat’s autonomous system. These nerves respond to the environment without conscious control. When there’s an information overload, the cat experiences whisker fatigue.

If this happens, your cat may prefer to dip its paw into the water bowl and drink the water of its paw rather than touching its whiskers to the water.

2. Vulnerability

Cats may prefer to drink from their paws instead of the water bowl for safety reasons. Cats are both predators and prey, so they tend to be cautious about their surroundings. Even if you’ve provided a safe home, they still have the instinctual response to danger and vulnerability.

If your cat is drinking from its paw, it allows an upright position that enables your cat to survey its surroundings and possible threats. This may happen if you put your cat’s bowl against the wall, putting it in a position where it must leave its back unguarded against the whole room. You may be able to curb this behavior by changing the bowl’s position so your cat can feel safe.

bengal cat playing water in the bowl
Image Credit: kalyanby, Shutterstock

3. Territory Marking

Cats have eccrine glands on the pads of their paws that are used to mark their scent and territory. If your cat wants to claim the water bowl as its own, it may paw before drinking. This behavior is more common in male cats than female cats, though both sexes may engage in marking behavior.

4. Entertainment

Cats like fast-moving, shiny objects that mimic prey behaviors. If the water bowl is brightly colored or reflective—or if the light is bouncing off of the surface of the water—your cat may feel curious and paw at it.

5. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Cats can get obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) just like people. According to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, cats may develop OCD because of stress and environmental factors.

OCD is more common in female cats than male cats, but it can happen in either one. If your cat is pawing at the water bowl compulsively, you may want to consider if the environment is too stressful.

British cat and bowl. The cat sits next to a blue bowl of water on the floor
Image Credit: Yuka Y, Shutterstock

Key Takeaways

Cats may paw at their water bowl for a variety of reasons, including stress, vulnerability, or plain curiosity. This behavior is mostly harmless, but if it impacts your cat’s drinking or it’s part of larger behavioral issues, you may want to speak with your vet or a veterinary behaviorist to determine the cause and treatment options.

Featured Image Credit: Nils Jacobi, Shutterstock

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