Many cats (particularly wild-cat hybrids such as the Bengal), play with standing water in bowls, toilets, and bathtubs, or water running from faucets. This water play likely arose due to an instinct for self-preservation.
When a cat dips her paw in her drinking water or splashes around in it, she may be testing for hidden dangers. Is the water too hot? Is there something scary in it? Although cats have very good distance vision, at close range their eyesight isn’t as strong, so they tend to rely on their sensitive noses and paw pads to answer questions about their immediate environments.
Many cats prefer to drink from (and play with) water running from faucets or fountain-type water bowls, much the same way wild animals prefer to drink from streams rather than ponds. Cats are probably attracted to running water because it tends to harbour fewer contaminants than standing water.
Cats may also play with water for the sheer enjoyment of seeing the ripples form and spread. In some cases the attraction goes beyond simply dipping a paw or splashing around a little. There are cat breeds that are naturally drawn to water, such as the Turkish Van (known as the swimming cat). Many Turkish Vans will actually dive into pools or lakes, or join their owners in the shower.
How to Stop Cats Playing with Water
Water play can be exasperating because owners have to clean up the resulting mess. To reduce or eliminate water mess, you can cut a hole in a large plastic milk container, a couple of inches above the bottom, and provide water in the container (the hole should be large enough to accommodate the cat’s whiskers). Although many cats don’t mind drinking from a plastic jug, some dislike the taste of water that has been in contact with plastic, so not all cats will take to this.
You could also train your cat to drink from a hanging water bottle designed for rabbits and guinea pigs. Adding a little tuna juice to the water can help your cat make the switch (use tuna that’s packed in water and contains no additional flavourings, as many of these are toxic to cats). To show the cat that water comes out when the tip of the bottle is touched, place a little food on the tip. When the cat licks it off, she’ll figure out how the bottle works.
If all else fails, you could move the cat’s water bowl to the bathtub where spills won’t matter. Be sure to place her in the tub to show her where the water has been relocated.
If a cat has suddenly begun spilling her water after a traumatic event such as the introduction of a new pet or moving house, the behaviour may be a stress reliever or a request for attention and reassurance. Providing extra attention and playtime can be beneficial.
There are certain illnesses such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and kidney disease that can cause excessive thirst and urination. If your cat has suddenly changed her drinking habits or developed an obsession with water that she didn’t have before (particularly if she’s an older kitty), consult a veterinarian.
For more articles on the way cats think and the reasons they do the things they do, visit the main Cat Psychology, Communication, and Behaviour page. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Heinzen, D., TNT Purrfect Persians. (2007). “Water Bottle Tips.” Chocolate Cat Fanciers, ChocolateCats.com.
- Moore, A. (2007). The Cat Behavior Answer Book. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
- Shojai, A. (n.d.). “Ask Amy: Cat Play in Water.” About.com.