Does your cat dip their paw in their bowl before drinking? I’ve had many people associate this behavior as something wrong with their cat, but to the contrary, it’s completely normal and extremely common.
Like many other cat behaviors, we don’t have a definite answer, but there are a number of likely explanations. Let’s discuss the possible reasons behind this behavior.
Visibility & Water Depth
Rods are cells in our eyes that allow us to see moving objects, and cats have 6-8x more of them than people do. These rods also allow for visibility in low light, although clarity is sacrificed. While that would be a problem for us, it allows cats to successfully hunt even in minimal light.
Since moving objects are easier for cats to see and water is clear, your cat may dip their paw into a bowl with still water to make it move so they can see it better. Next, the paw will help determine the depth of the water. With this action, they’ve confirmed where the water is and how to position their head for drinking.
If you have a senior kitty, it’s possible their vision has declined and they may do this behavior more frequently to help them see the water.
Sticking a paw in water will also help a cat determine the size of the bowl before drinking. Cats hate when the bowl pushes against their whiskers, so it could be another way for them to determine where to place their head and avoid the sizes of the bowl touching their whiskers.
A shallow bowl with a low level of water will likely be more preferred over a narrow but deep bowl.
Moving water is typically fresher than stagnant water, and a breeding ground for bacteria and mold. If wild animals didn’t drink from fresh running water, they would not survive, so it’s most likely instinctual that a cat seeks running (and cleaner) water.
When a cat paws the water to make it move, they may simply be making it more appealing for themselves.
Biofilm is the name of that gross, gunky stuff you’ll find on water bowls, and although it comes in many colors of the rainbow, it can also be clear and hard to spot.
One of the most common types you’ll see in your cat’s water bowl is pink (what you also see on your shower curtain), and it’s a bacteria called Serratia marcescens (S. marcescens). In addition to causing periodontal diseases, it can also lead to other health issues, especially urinary- and kidney-related issues in cats.
Fortunately, cats have the ability to smell bacteria in their food and water. It’s possible dipping their paw in water and making it move helps them smell to determine the freshness of the water before drinking.
Some cats, especially kittens, simply see water as yet another thing they can tap, move, and play with. This can get messy, but the solution is easy: Replace water bowls with water fountains.
Some cats also put their paws on fountains and splash the water. Sometimes this happens when first introducing your cat to a new source of drinking. A good solution for this is installing a waterproof mat below the fountain.
Water fountains are a great alternative to a bowl of water because the moving water in tandem with some sort of filtration system will help the water stay fresher and cleaner.
Also, fountains that have water flowing down from a spout are best because the cat can comfortably keep their whiskers free and position their head to drink without leaning over very much. It will also limit the tongue’s contact with the surface, decreasing the amount of bacteria and keeping the fountain cleaner longer.
Paw Around the Bowl: Explained
Some cats often paw at the floor while they’re drinking water. The reason for this could be that they’re using the scent markers in their paw pads to leave pheromones behind. This would tell them at a later time where the water is or that it’s a safe area to be.
They’ll also do this around food bowls when they are finished eating. Again, this is a sign of marking to either indicate that the bowl is theirs, that the “area” is safe, or simply that food was there.
Although these behaviors don’t make sense indoors, apply it to a life outdoors and the chemical signals would be extremely important to remind them where to go for food and water.
While the habit of dipping a paw in water is messy, it likely has a good intention behind it: Help your cat more easily drink clean water. You can opt for a fountain, which will decrease some of this behavior, or even put a mat under a water bowl for easier clean up. Don’t forget to clean any bowls, fountains, and mats frequently to keep water fresh and healthy for your cat.
Bat Country Pet Sitting, Biofilm: The Common Slime That’s Poisoning Your Pets & Family.
Grabowski, Elizabeth. Space Cat Academy, A Peek Through Your Cat’s Eye.
Johnson-Bennett, Pam. Cat Behavior Associates, Why Does My Cat Dip Her Paw in the Water Bowl?.
Khuly, Patty. VetStreet, Why Does My Cat … Paw at Her Water Dish?.
Ozzi Cat Magazine, 5 Reasons Why Cats Touch Water Before Drinking.
Article by Elizabeth Ann 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist