Why does my cat paw at her water bowl or fountain?

Cat pawing at water bowl
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Why does my cat paw at her water bowl or fountain? It’s a question you may have found yourself asking if more water tends to end up on your floors than in your kitty’s mouth. 

Alongside investing in the best dry cat food or wet food, purchasing the right water bowl or a good quality water fountain can be a great way to encourage your feline friend to get their daily fluid intake. But if you’ve done this and your kitty continues to flick water all over the place, you may be wondering what’s going on.

Thankfully, for the most part, your beloved bundle of fluff playing with the contents of their water bowl isn’t usually a cause for concern. Although most cat breeds don’t enjoy being submerged in water, almost all of our feline friends have a natural curiosity for the wet stuff.

While pawing at water can be a sign of stress or a compulsive disorder, it’s more likely that your kitty is simply fascinated by it and sees moving water about as a bit of a game. Check out our guide to the best pet water fountains or read on to figure out whether your cat’s behavior is being caused by normal curiosity or if it’s worth a trip to the vet.

Why does my cat paw at her water bowl or fountain?

While it would be easy to chalk it up to mischief-making on the part of our feline friends, you might be surprised to learn that there are a number of reasons that can drive a kitty to want to paw at their water bowl or fountain. Here are six of the most common:

1. Cats love moving water

It’s true - our feline friends can’t get enough of the free-flowing cold stuff! This love of moving water is deeply embedded into their DNA and is one of nature's very sophisticated survival strategies. Wild cats view still and stagnant water as potentially being contaminated with bacteria that could kill them, whereas moving water is seen as being fresh and therefore safe to drink.

While your kitty is living a life of comfort in your home and certainly doesn’t need to worry about their life being cut short by drinking from their water bowl, it’s still in their nature to view unmoving water with suspicion. Pawing at their water bowl makes the contents more enticing by getting the flow of water to mimic what they would see if they were drinking from a river or stream. 

2. Whisker fatigue

Although pawing at their water bowl or fountain could be a sign of contentment and pleasure, it can also be a sign of discomfort. Whisker fatigue in cats is a painful condition that makes your cat’s whiskers super sensitive to even the slightest touch. 

Most cats have around 24 whiskers placed strategically above the eyes, on the chin, near the ears and above the upper lip. The whiskers that sit above the top lip on either side of their nose are known as mystacial whiskers and these are equipped with sensory organs that help your cat to identify the width of an object. 

When it comes to what kind of bowl is best for cats, wide and shallow is the ideal way to go. Narrow and deep bowls mean your cat’s whiskers will frequently touch the sides, which puts pressure on the sensory organs, triggering pain and discomfort and causing your kitty to try to paw the water into their mouth instead of lapping it up with their tongue. 

3. Stress or anxiety

Stress and anxiety in cats are two other common causes of pawing behavior. Believe it or not, just like dogs, many cats miss their owners and they may become stressed if they’re left alone for long periods of time. This is usually seen in highly social breeds who thrive on human contact, but it can affect any cat.

You may also find that changes to your cat’s routine can trigger pawing behavior as well. Our feline friends are real creatures of habit and don’t take kindly to disruptions. Triggers for stress and anxiety can include home renovations, moving house, having a new child or animal in the home, their feeding schedule changing or their litter box being moved.

4. Compulsive behavior

Yes, believe it or not, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) can affect cats as well as humans and may drive your kitty to engage in repetitive and exaggerated behaviors that serve no purpose. Things like overgrooming, licking or chewing on fabric, tail chasing, frequent pacing and pawing at their water bowl are all potential signs that your feline may be suffering from OCD. 

5. It’s a territorial instinct

If you have more than one feline furkid, you may have noticed that they can sometimes become territorial when it comes to their food or the best cat toys that you’ve picked out for them. Cats aren’t particularly fond of sharing and because their paws contain scent glands, they will often use their paw to deposit their scent into the water to deter other cats from drinking out of their bowl. 

6. They’re playing

Finally, cats often paw at their water bowl or fountain for the pure joy of it. Cats love nothing more than a good play session and they do a pretty great job of creating their own fun, which is why you’ll often spot them happily moving water about in their bowl and, on occasion, splashing it about all over the floor!

Should I be worried if my cat paws at their water bowl or fountain?

Ginger and white cat drinking from red cat bowl

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Most of the time, your cat pawing at their water bowl or fountain isn’t going to be a cause for concern. It’s highly likely in most cases that your cat is engaging in this behavior because it’s a natural instinct or because they’re playing. That being said, take note if the pawing is accompanied by any of the following:

  • Frequent meowing, pacing or other repetitive behaviors
  • Not eating or eating less than usual
  • Lethargy
  • Aggression
  • Showing no desire to engage with you or to play

The above are all potential symptoms of stress and may also accompany other physical and mental health conditions that require further investigation. If your cat’s pawing behavior is new, you’ve noticed it becoming more repetitive or you’re simply worried about it, speak with your vet who will be able to investigate the issue and provide advice and guidance. 

How can I stop my cat from pawing at their water bowl or fountain?

Unless there’s an underlying issue that’s driving your cat to engage in pawing behavior, you don’t need to worry about trying to stop them pawing. As we’ve seen, in most cases this is very normal and common behavior, but if you feel your kitty isn’t just pawing at their water for the pleasure of it or you’re finding that more water ends up on your floors than in your kitty, there are several things you can do.

  • If your cat’s pawing is likely related to their love of play, make sure to invest in a variety of cat toys to help redirect this behavior and give them an outlet for all that energy. Laser toys for cats are ideal for super playful and energetic kitties, but you might also like to try the best automated cat toys if you’re out of the house a lot.  
  • For a cat that’s experiencing whisker fatigue, ensure you’ve got the right kind of water bowl for them if you choose not to use a fountain. Just like the best cat food bowl, look for a water bowl that’s wide and shallow to prevent their whiskers from coming into contact with the sides. 
  • Moving your cat’s water bowl is well worth a try if there’s a lot going on in your home right now and the current location of your cat’s water bowl or fountain is in a high-traffic area. The pawing could be a result of stress and moving it to a quiet spot in the house where your kitty is less likely to be distributed may help to stop this behavior. 

Finally, your vet is a valuable resource when it comes to any concerns you might have. If you’ve tried everything and the pawing continues, it’s worth having a chat with them and seeing if they have any additional suggestions.  

Want to learn more about some of your cat’s other curious behaviors and what they might be trying to tell you? We’ve got you covered in our guide to ‘why is my cat crying?’ 

Kathryn Williams
Freelance writer

Kathryn is a freelance writer who has been a member of the PetsRadar family since it launched in 2020. Highly experienced in her field, she's driven by a desire to provide pet parents with accurate, timely, and informative content that enables them to provide their fur friends with everything they need to thrive. Kathryn works closely with vets and trainers to ensure all articles offer the most up-to-date information across a range of pet-related fields, from insights into health and behavior issues to tips on products and training. When she’s not busy crafting the perfect sentence for her features, buying guides and news pieces, she can be found hanging out with her family (which includes one super sassy cat), drinking copious amounts of Jasmine tea and reading all the books.