Why Cats Turn Up Their Noses at Water Bowls (And What to Do About It)


Cats have a reputation for avoiding drinking water, which has led to the common misconception that they don’t need as much hydration as other pets. However, not drinking enough water can lead to potentially serious health problems for cats. In reality, cats have specific biological drives and preferences that influence their drinking behaviors.

This article provides an overview of the topic of cats avoiding drinking water. It will analyze the evolutionary history behind cats’ hydration needs, their natural low thirst drive, preference for moving water sources, and dislike of water bowls. We’ll also cover signs of dehydration in cats, related diseases, and solutions for cat owners to ensure their felines are getting enough fluids.

Evolutionary History

Cats evolved as desert animals, so they developed ways to conserve water. Their ancestral origins trace back to the Felis silvestris lybica, more commonly known as the Near Eastern Wildcat. This wildcat lived in the arid, desert region of the Middle East where water was scarce. To adapt and survive in this dry climate, the Near Eastern Wildcat evolved physiological and behavioral mechanisms for retaining water and avoiding dehydration.

One key evolutionary adaptation is that cats developed very concentrated urine to conserve water. Their kidneys are highly effective at extracting moisture from their bloodstream and concentrating it into urine. This allows cats to remain hydrated even when they don’t drink much water. It’s an ingenious way cats’ bodies adapted to withstand hot, dry conditions with limited access to drinking water.

Low Thirst Drive

Cats have a much lower thirst drive compared to humans and other mammals like dogs. In fact, cats’ kidneys are extremely effective at retaining water, so they don’t get thirsty as often. This stems from cats’ evolutionary history as desert dwellers where water was scarce. Their kidneys evolved to be highly efficient at concentrating urine and retaining water from food they ate. As a result, cats do not feel thirsty until they are very dehydrated compared to other animals.

Studies show that cats only feel thirsty when they have lost around 10% of their bodily fluids due to dehydration. In contrast, humans feel thirsty after just 1-2% fluid loss. Dogs also have a higher thirst drive and need to consume a lot more water than cats do. Cats who mainly eat dry food are especially prone to dehydration since they don’t have moisture from canned foods. However, due to their low thirst drive, they won’t drink enough water to make up for the lack of moisture in their diet. This puts cats at higher risk of urinary and kidney problems if they don’t get enough fluids.

Preference for Moving Water

Cats tend to prefer drinking running water as opposed to still water. This preference likely stems from their ancestral environments, where rivers, streams, and other naturally moving water sources would have been readily available (Source). In the wild, moving water helps ensure freshness and prevent contamination, an instinct that continues in domestic cats today. Their preference translates to an aversion to drinking out of water bowls, which mimic stagnant pools (Source). The movement of running water not only mimics a natural source, but also oxygenates the water and releases more scent, enticing cats to drink. Understanding this innate preference can help cat owners find solutions to ensure their cats stay properly hydrated.

Avoidance of Water Bowls

Cats tend to avoid drinking from communal water bowls for several reasons related to their natural instincts and preferences.

One major reason is that cats dislike having their food and water sources too close together. In nature, an animal’s kill would often contaminate any nearby still water sources. This programmed cats to avoid water situated close to their food, as it risks contamination and illness (Source).

Cats also dislike water bowls placed in corners or against walls. This leaves them vulnerable to ambush while drinking. Their survival instincts drive them to favor water sources with good visibility and multiple exit points (Source).

Additionally, cats are very picky about water cleanliness. They have a strong sense of smell and can detect foul tastes and odors humans miss. If a water bowl is not cleaned frequently, cats may start avoiding it.

By understanding these picky preferences, cat owners can make simple adjustments to encourage proper hydration. This includes frequent bowl cleaning, placement away from food and walls, and providing running water sources.

Solutions for Cat Owners

There are several tips and tricks cat owners can try to encourage proper hydration for their cats:

– Get a cat water fountain. Cats prefer moving water and find fountains more enticing than standing water in a bowl. The circulation and sound of the water may help to peak their interest. Be sure to clean and replace the filter regularly.

– Offer multiple water bowls in different locations around the home. Provide easy access to water in the rooms your cat frequents. This increases the chances they will drink.

– Try different bowl shapes and depths. Some cats prefer wide shallow bowls while others like narrower deeper ones. Test different styles to determine your cat’s preference.

– Use bottled or filtered water instead of tap water. Cats may find tap water unappealing. Providing spring or purified water could make it more enticing.

– Move water bowls away from food bowls. Cats don’t like water sources near their food, so keep the bowls separated.

– Wash bowls frequently and refresh water daily. Cats dislike stagnant standing water, so regular cleaning and refreshment encourages drinking.

– Consider adding ice cubes to water bowls. The melting ice releases fresh cold water, which some cats find more palatable.

– Try flavored waters. A little tuna or chicken broth added to water can provide flavor and aroma to stimulate drinking. Consult your vet on safe additions.

With some patience and experimentation, cat owners can find solutions to encourage proper hydration for even the pickiest drinker. Monitoring your cat’s water intake is key to ensuring they stay happy and healthy.

Signs of Dehydration

Some common physical and behavioral signs that a cat may be dehydrated include:

  • Dry or sticky gums – A dehydrated cat’s gums may appear dry, sticky, or tacky when touched. Healthy gums should feel moist.
  • Sunken eyes – Dehydration causes the eyes to appear sunken into the sockets.
  • “Tenting” skin – Gently pinch the skin on the back of the neck. The skin should snap back immediately. If it “tents” or stays peaked, it indicates dehydration.
  • Lethargy – An overly lethargic or weak cat may be dehydrated.
  • Reduced skin elasticity – A dehydrated cat’s skin loses elasticity and appears doughy.
  • Dry nose – The nose may be dry to the touch instead of moist.
  • Fever – Elevated body temperature can accompany dehydration.
  • Fast breathing and heartbeat – Dehydration strains the cardiovascular system.
  • Loss of appetite – Dehydrated cats often lose interest in food.
  • Infrequent urination – Urine output decreases significantly.
  • Dark yellow urine – Concentrated urine appears darker.
  • Constipation – Dehydration can cause constipation.

If a cat displays multiple symptoms of dehydration, contact a veterinarian immediately to assess and treat the condition.

Diseases Linked to Dehydration

Dehydration can exacerbate or even cause certain diseases in cats. Some of the most common diseases linked to poor hydration include:

Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs): Dehydration leads to more concentrated urine which irritates the urinary tract, increasing the risk of painful UTIs (Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine). Keeping cats well hydrated dilutes the urine and flushes bacteria from the urinary tract.

Kidney Disease: Chronic kidney disease is a leading cause of dehydration as the kidneys have difficulty concentrating urine and retaining fluid. But dehydration also exacerbates kidney problems by overworking the kidneys. Cats with kidney disease require extra hydration (PetMD).

Constipation: Dehydration causes the colon to draw out more water from the feces, leading to harder and drier stools. This results in painful constipation. Ensuring adequate fluid intake keeps the colon lubricated and feces soft.

Providing ample clean water, wet food, and other hydration strategies can prevent these diseases or reduce their severity. If a cat already has a disease that causes dehydration, extra effort is needed to keep the cat hydrated. In severe cases, subcutaneous fluids may be prescribed by a veterinarian.

When to Seek Help

If your cat is showing any signs of dehydration, it’s important to contact your veterinarian right away. Dehydration can quickly become life-threatening if left untreated. According to PetMD, you should call your vet immediately if you suspect your cat is dehydrated. Even mild dehydration requires veterinary attention.

Some specific signs that warrant an urgent vet visit include:

  • Dry, sticky gums
  • Lethargy, weakness, or collapse
  • Sunken eyes
  • Loss of skin elasticity or tenting skin
  • Increased heart rate
  • Not urinating at least once a day
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea

The earlier dehydration is addressed, the better the outcome for your cat. According to Small Door Veterinary, severely dehydrated cats require prompt IV fluid therapy and supportive care. Trying to rehydrate a cat at home without veterinary assistance can be dangerous.

While mild dehydration may be treatable at home with increased water intake, it’s safest to have your vet examine your cat. They can recommend the appropriate treatment based on your cat’s specific condition. Don’t hesitate to call your vet if you notice any troubling signs of dehydration in your cat.


Cats have evolved as desert-dwelling animals and tend to have a low thirst drive compared to other pets. They prefer moving water sources and instinctively avoid stagnant water bowls. As cat owners, it’s important that we understand their hydration needs and natural drinking behaviors. Providing fresh, circulating water sources can encourage adequate water intake. Monitoring for signs of dehydration like lethargy and dry gums allows us to intervene if needed. Ensuring cats consume enough water is vital for maintaining health and preventing diseases. While cats can be puzzling drinkers, a little insight into their preferences helps us keep them properly hydrated.

Scroll to Top