Why Are Cats So Quirky About Drinking?

Some cats prefer running water because they think it's safer to drink. Dzina Belskaya/Shutterstock

When it comes to drinking, most dogs aren't very picky. Slimy water bowl, muddy puddle — even an open toilet bowl will do in a pinch.

But cats, on the other hand, are typically much more particular. Some won't drink out of a water bowl if it's near their food bowl. Others prefer a fountain or even the kitchen sink. Some picky kitties won't sip from plastic or metal containers. Some of these preferences harken back to their ancestors and survival instincts. But in some cases it's just cats being ... well, cats.

Here's a look at the quirkiness of feline beverage preferences and what you can do to make sure your kitty gets enough to drink.

Cats like running water

You put a lovely, fresh bowl of water in front of your cat and it just sits there untouched. But turn on the tap and your kitty laps up the dripping water. There might be several reasons that your cat won't touch unmoving water. Instinctively, your cat might know to be suspicious of still water, realizing that stagnant water isn't always safe, veterinarian Dr. Deb Greco tells VetStreet. Their wild DNA tells them that still water can be contaminated, so they know that running water is safer.

Another reason they might not like being hunched over a bowl is the precarious position it puts them in.

“It’s hard for cats to get water, because they can’t really see still water well, and they may feel vulnerable sitting at a bowl, especially if it’s in a corner, so they have their back to other cats who might jump on them,” Greco says.

The dripping or running water from the tap — or the swirling water from a kitty recirculating water fountain — probably tastes better too because it's cooler and oxygenated. Plus, the movement makes the water more attractive, as you likely notice if your cat paws or splashes at the water.

Water and food bowl location matters

cat sitting in front of food and water bowls
Does your cat ignore the water bowl next to her food bowl?. Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Some cats won't touch water if it's too close to their food bowl. The theory is that in the wild, cats would keep their food far away from water sources in order to keep those water sources free of bacteria and other possible contamination. Keeping their food and water close can risk pieces of food falling into their water when they eat. Cats also have a strong sense of smell and many don't like smelling their food when they drink.

Cats don't like 'old' water

Cats are very sensitive to taste, says cat behavior expert Pam Johnson-Bennett. Be sure to refill your cat's bowl every day with fresh water or it will taste stale to your cat, she suggests. Food and dirt can accumulate in a water bowl, making your cat's daily beverage not only taste unpleasant, but also become rife with bacteria. If your kitty plays in his water, there's also the icky stuff from his paws (think litter box) that is transferred into his water.

Clean your pet's bowl once a day with gentle soap and water. Be sure to rinse thoroughly. Soap residue can taste bad and even burn your cat's tongue.

Cats need wet food

cat eating canned food
Canned food helps hydrate your kitty. correct pictures/Shutterstock

Because today's domestic cat evolved from desert-dwelling ancestors, they have a low thirst drive, according to WebMD.

“We know that a cat’s sensitivity to thirst is blunted compared to a dog,” Linda P. Case, M.S., author of "The Cat: Its Behavior, Nutrition, and Health," tells the website. “They don't [all] voluntarily drink water like a dog would.” And because some cats don't always drink enough and cats naturally produce very concentrated urine “we're setting them up for urinary tract problems when their diet is low in liquids.”

The experts recommend preventing problems by feeding at least some canned cat food.

In the wild, cats eat prey like mice, which are made of about 70 percent water, says Donna Solomon, D.V.M. Most canned foods contain at least 75 percent water, while dry foods contain only about 10 percent. Eating canned food does the double duty of giving your cat nutrition while keeping him hydrated.

Cats fed canned food also have a lower risk of illnesses such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, constipation and obesity.

Bowl size and shape matters

kitten drinking out of glass bowl
You may want to try different kinds of bowls to see which type your cat prefers. MaraZe/Shutterstock

Cats have sensitive whiskers. If a bowl is too narrow, your kitty may have to unpleasantly squish her whiskers to get a drink, leading to a condition called "whisker fatigue." Try out several different sizes and shapes to see which your pet seems to prefer. You may also want to try bowls made out of different materials. It's easiest to keep ceramic and stainless steel bowls clean, but often cats seem to prefer shallow, glass bowls.

Have several water bowls for your cat

Cats can be fickle things. A little unexpected activity can keep them away from their normal hangouts. That's why it's a good idea to have water bowls in a few different spots throughout your home. Put them in out-of-the-way places and other locations where she likes to spend a lot of her time. Just make sure they're always clean and filled with fresh water.

Watch the water level

Make sure your cat's water bowls never gets too low or stay filled too high. Cats are creatures of habit, says Johnson-Bennett, and they just don't like change. Don't fill bowls to the tippy-top one day and then let them get down to the dregs the next. "Some cats begin paw dipping because they aren’t sure where the top of the water is on any given day," she says. "Cats like consistency in their daily routine."

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our cats, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.

View Article Sources
  1. Becker, Dr. Marty, DVM. "Why Does My Cat... Drink From Weird Places Like the Faucet or the Bathtub?" VetStreet. 2016.

  2. Johnson-Bennett, Pam. "How Appealing is Your Cat's Water?" Cat Behavior Associates.

  3. "Mistakes People Make Feeding Cats." Fetch by WebMD. 2012.