10 Facts and Secrets About Cats and Water


Cats and water, secrets and some related mysteries… What impresses you most about cats? For me, it’s how deftly they adjust to the peculiar situation of living with us and, often, taking over. Then, there’s the thing they have about water.

By David Stone

Assorted Ideas, Large & Small

What’s The Thing With Cats and Water?

Have you noticed that most cats live in a world dominated by another species? Us.

Not only do they make it work, they do so on their own terms.

No other living creature drinks water like cats do, as it turns out.

Cats’ fascination with water may seem obvious. We all need water, right? But like much about them, there’s a catch.

In nature, cats evolved as desert animals. They get most of their water from foods, not from sipping at ponds or streams.

Yet when it comes to water dishes, an unnatural innovation, cats drink with enthusiasm. They seem to find pleasure in it.

For contented cats, especially those eating mostly dry food, a water dish is important and gets frequent visits.

And there’s reason to believe that, for cats, water is more important than for other animals. Cats evolved a special, highly efficient method of drinking that makes them look elegant while dogs look like slobs and people like klutzes.

Funny Not So SecretThings About Cats and Water

Some of it’s amusing, as are many things cats do. But the issues range from simply humorous to deadly serious.

Cats evolved to become highly effective and selective water consumers. Survival in the desert required getting most of their fluids from prey.

Cats aren’t like any other species… or each other. Often, the water’s fun for them. Cats are most in their element when they find play in daily activities.

cat lying on table
Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

The oddest thing that ever happened with our cats and water happened when my wife left spinach leaves soaking in a bowl on our kitchen counter.

A little later, she saw George removing each leaf individually and carrying it to a spot on our floor.

There, he flattened them, licking all the water from the surfaces. He spread a half-dozen of so in a hallway. He stopped only after he realized he was being watched. Never happened again.

Figure that one out!

Mark Twain Noticed

“A home without a cat — and a well-fed, well-patted and properly revered cat — may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?”

Mark Twain

So infatuated was Twain with cats, he borrowed kittens from neighbors during summers in Elmira.

The idea that “the cats think they own the place” is a familiar one.

Cats leave their mark with more independence than dogs.

The remarkable thing about domesticated felines is that, for all their dependence on people for food, water, shelter and health care, each has a point at which they stop compromising.

They don’t see themselves as inferior or members of the pack. A cat will bend only so far.

Cats are miracles of creation, and how they manage water is one of the proofs.

Secrets of Cats and Water: An Individual Approach

For our spinach water-loving cat George, water was a simple and easy proposition.

If we kept a fresh supply in a bowl next to his food, he’d drink whenever he felt like it. When more cats arrived, the need to express preferences arose according to their perceived level of competition.

Billy, our second cat, insisted on two sources of water, bottled and tap, and he let us know which by staring at the two bowls necessary to meet his requirements. He might also complain until his request was fulfilled.

Most often, the squawking begins with his need to have, not simply water, but water served in the bathtub in a bowl. I blame my wife for letting him think this is okay, but it’s too late now.

Secrets of Cats and Water: Techniques

Sam, our third cat, pioneered new water-drinking techniques. His initial success came when he stuck his snout in the fresh glass of water my wife poured for herself and lapped away until he quenched his thirst.

Next, he took note of the full tub of hot water drawn for a good, soothing soak and, placing two hind feet on the toilet and bracing his front feet on the edge of the tub, quaffed the warm liquid until satisfied.

To this day, he comes running as soon as he hears water running in the tub, and yes, he somehow knows when it’s for a shower and not worth bothering with.

Not to be outdone, Billy also adopted this practice.

In my opinion, you haven’t lived or laughed enough until you watch two cats, side by side, sticking their tongues in a full bathtub and lapping away… especially when you are soaking in the tub while the assault goes on.

A few other shenanigans…

  • When we asked a friend to cat sit, he discovered that George liked to drop catnip mice into his drinking water. Catnip tea? Who knows?
  • Billy was so disoriented from a hospital stay that he wasn’t eating or drinking. I finally got him to try some water by splashing it with my finger, which seemed to wake him up to its being something he liked.
  • Our friend’s cat Mishka prefers to drink his water from a glass positioned beneath the tap in the bathroom sink. It doesn’t have to be running, just in position.
  • Tookie will drink only bottled water chilled in the refrigerator.
  • Ed wants to be sprayed until he is soaked… Wait. No, Ed’s a friend’s frog… but I wouldn’t be shocked.

The point is that water is so important for many cats that they create rituals around it, much as we make our rituals about wine and other drinks.

We make the experience special by slanting it our way. So do cats

Power Precision Drinking Machines

Billy would loudly protest if he didn’t have fresh water.

In an interesting study about cat behavior, researchers at MIT asked why cats, unlike dogs and other mammals, are able to drink water without getting their chins or whiskers wet.

(Okay, so you didn’t notice. Neither did I. That’s why they got into MIT and we didn’t. It’s a secret about cats and water they kept to themselves)

Note: our cat Sam doesn’t get his chin or whiskers wet either. He gets his chest wet because he prefers to get his drink from the far side of the bowl. It’s a mystery he keeps to himself

Unlike a dog, which curls its tongue like a spoon and bales water in (and around) his mouth, cats turn their tongues down. They catch water with the tip and flick rapidly to create an upward stream.

Now get this — the MIT team found that the average house cat can create four of these streams per second!

Defeating gravity, cats slam their mouths shut before the water can be pulled back out.

In the study reported in the magazine Science, this “exquisite demonstration of physics” is natural to all cats.

A secret of cats and water that defies physics

The only variation was that the bigger the cat, the fewer streams it created.

Lions, for example, lag along at two streams per second.

The MIT scientists, using multiple videos in slow motion, “…found that cats lap at precisely the rate that would get them the most water for the effort expended,” according to an article in the Washington Post.

Cats are built for speed drinking, and it has probably helped them survive in the wild. It demanded less time paying attention to water and more looking out for predators.

Exquisite Physics: Cats, Water And How Nature Designs Its Creatures

As animals evolve, a common theme is water. Some need a little, some a lot. Some need to swim in it, and some, like Ed the frog, need to keep their epidermal layers soaked.

Years from now, some smart scientists will describe the evolutionary trail that led cats to their uniquely efficient and effective way of drinking.

We will never know what made them want to, however. Or why they choose so many unique and variable ways of getting it done.

Some mystery in the secrets of cats and water

My contribution to the theory is that it has to have something to do with fun.

Cats hate boredom.

They try to make play out of everything. They’re always snooping around for a new angle, something to find that’s different enough to hold their attention for a while.

The story of cats and water is best observed when they’re in a safe situation, not fearing predators or bigger animals competing for limited resources.

Without inhibitions, a cat’s life is full of artful innovation and experimentation. Somehow, through that, they learned to get their water in a way no other species has figured out how to do.

Our cats traveled and wrote travel books… Honest.

Water’s Essential, But It Can Be a Pleasure Too

Like you and me, cats need water just to survive.

In fact, any of us can go much longer without food than we can without water. Water is the key element of life.

As adults, our bodies are on average 60% water, but emphasizing the importance, our brains are 70% water. Newborn babies are as much as 79% water. Cats are similar.

Where things change, especially for cats, is when we realize that cats, like our children, depend on us for water as well as the other things they need for survival.

Unlike our children, cats do not respond to reason or even gentle coercion. If you think your children are stubborn, get a cat.

Cats will go hungry before they eat food they don’t like, and banning them from television or other things they enjoy, as you might with children, will simply make them more stubborn and probably trickier.

They can’t help being cats — a hard thing for people to understand, really — and you can’t reason with them.

Try persuasion, and they look at you as if you’re crazy, and if you’ve tried it, you might be, a little.

That’s why it’s important when you are lucky enough to enjoy the pleasures of cats, it’s essential that they be treated like… well, like cats.

Respect them for the equals they believe they are.

(Actually, some may think they’re not merely equal, but better. Just an observation.)

Cats and Water Secrets: It’s healthy

Anyway, in terms of cats and water, before I wander too far afield, it’s critical that you provide them with fresh, clean water and pay attention when they ask for alternatives.

If you pay attention, they will show you what they want. If you don’t pay attention, your cat won’t bother trying.

I can’t explain why our friend’s cat liked his water in a glass under the bathroom faucet or why hot bathwater gets treated like nectar from the gods, but I can tell you that, if you watch and listen, your cats will show you new ways to think about water as entertainment other than swimming in it.

A final note about cats and water…

If you’re going to be away for a significant amount of time, it’s not a great idea to simply fill up the water bowl and go. Cats are sensitive to things like dust or hair in the water and may not drink it.

Usually, you can find a friend or a sitter to change the water, put out fresh food and clean up the litter box.

Think about it this way. If it were you, would you eat the same food out of the same bowl for two days as well as the same water? And how about living in a place where nobody flushes the toilet?

Speaking of the toilet, it’s not okay to flip open the lid and convert it into an oasis.

Good rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t do it, knowing what you know, don’t stick your dependent cat with it.

That’s the best way to handle cats and water with the care they deserve.

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