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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?’ is one of those frequently asked questions amongst those of us who have feline family members. If you’ve invested in a quality water bowl or one of the best pet water fountains only to find that more water ends up on the floor than in your kitty, rest assured, this behavior is super common. 

While there are some cat breeds that like water,, most of our feline friends would be terrified at the mere thought of being submerged in the cold stuff. And yet, although the majority of cats don’t like being in the water, almost all of them are fascinated by it. That’s why it’s not unusual for cats to paw at their water bowl.

That being said, while your kitty may be engaging in this behavior purely because they’re curious and love watching moving water or playing with it, there are instances where pawing at their bowl or fountain may be a cause for concern. Sometimes it can be a sign of stress and anxiety or compulsive behavior and this is worth being aware of.

Below, we walk you through some of the most common reasons your cat may be pawing at their water bowl or fountain and when you need to be worried. Plus, we share our top tips on how to get them to stop. If you find that your feline friend isn’t pawing at their water so much as sloshing it about all over the place, you’ll find our guide on how to stop a cat from spilling their water bowl helpful in dealing with this behavior too. 

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. 

Kathryn is a freelance writer who has spent the past two years dividing her writing time between her two great loves - pets and health and wellness. When she’s not busy crafting the perfect sentence for her features, buying guides and news pieces, she can be found hanging out with one very mischievous Cocker Spaniel, drinking copious amounts of Jasmine tea and attempting to set numerous world records for the longest ever FaceTime calls with her family back home in NZ.