Why Do Cats Dip Their Paw in Water Bowls?

"Better check this water. Could be trouble."
"Better check this water. Could be trouble." / ninelutsk/iStock via Getty Images

Cats: People love them, but few understand them. From chilling out in bathroom sinks to having their tongue hang out of their mouth, felines have certain behaviors that can be puzzling to owners. One common cat habit is to stick a paw in a bowl of drinking water. Is the cat afraid their owner is poisoning them? Do they realize this is not hygienic behavior? Why do cats do this?

According to cat behavior expert Pam Johnson-Bennett, cats have a number of motivations for wetting their paw. One relates to the sensitivity of their whiskers. If a cat dips their head into a bowl before sampling how shallow or deep it might be, they run the risk of feeling pressure on the hairs from the sides or bottom of the bowl. To avoid the discomfort, cats will assess the bowl’s “feel” or just use their paw like a spoon, slurping water from it to avoid irritating the hairs.

Cats dislike deep water bowls for another reason. If lowering their head inside one means they can no longer visualize their environment, they might feel vulnerable, especially in a multi-cat household. If the bowl is too close to the wall, this may motivate them to use the paw-as-utensil trick as well, otherwise they’d have to keep their back turned toward the room in order to drink from it.

Cats may also dip their paw because it creates ripples in the water. This may be of interest to them for two reasons. One, cats may have an instinct from an evolutionary standpoint to choose water sources that are flowing rather than stagnant and potentially harmful. (If they prefer moving water, you might catch them drinking out of faucets.) Two, the cat may be doing it for amusement.

If you’re displeased with your cat’s habit, you can try using a wide, narrow water bowl to relieve any whisker discomfort. If you think it might be for personal security reasons, try having multiple water bowls for the cats in your home. If the cat is doing it for stimulation, then maybe more recreation time is in order.

In rare cases, cats might be interacting with their water bowl owing to poor eyesight due to age or a health condition. You can always get them checked out, but in most cases, cats pawing at their bowl is typical cat behavior—slightly weird but mostly justifiable.

[h/t Cat Behavior Associates]