The Science Behind Why Cats Test Water With Their Paws Before Drinking


Cats are known for their unique and sometimes peculiar behaviors. One such behavior that often perplexes cat owners is when cats test water with their paw before drinking it. Many cat owners have witnessed their feline friend gingerly dipping a paw into the water bowl, swishing it around, and then either drinking from the bowl or walking away. This unusual cat ritual often leaves cat owners wondering – why do cats test water with their paw before drinking it?

Whisker Sensitivity

Cats have extremely sensitive whiskers called vibrissae that act as touch receptors and detect minute changes in air current and water movement (PetMD). The whiskers are full of nerves that send sensory information to the brain, allowing cats to build a detailed 3D map of their surroundings even in the dark. When cats dip their paws into water, the ripples and movements stimulate the whiskers, providing feedback on the water’s temperature, purity, and depth.

Testing Temperature

Cats have a strong preference for cooler water temperatures when drinking. Their ideal water temperature is between 50-68°F (10-20°C) (source). By dipping a paw in the water bowl first, cats are able to gauge the temperature and determine if the water is cool enough to drink comfortably (source). Cats have very sensitive paw pads which allow them to test if the water temperature meets their preferences before lowering their head to drink. If the water is too warm, the cat may reject it entirely and wait for it to cool down or seek out an alternative source of drinking water.

Cats evolved as desert animals, so they developed a cooling mechanism to conserve water and stay hydrated even in hot environments. Seeking cooler water sources aids their natural self-cooling capabilities. Additionally, fresh cold water tends to taste better to cats since it lacks impurities that can give water a stale taste when left sitting at room temperature. By testing the water first, cats can satisfy their evolutionary instinct to find cooler, fresher sources of hydration.

Testing Purity

Cats have an incredibly strong sense of smell, with about 200 million odor-sensitive cells in their noses compared to only 5 million in humans (1). This gives them the ability to detect very faint odors in their environment, including in their water. Studies have found domestic cats evolved to use their sensitive whiskers and sniffing ability to check if water is safe to drink (2).

In the wild, water sources can easily become contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or chemicals that are dangerous for a cat to ingest. Cats likely learned that dipping a paw in and sniffing the water first could help them determine if it was potable or contained impurities. This instinct remains strong in domestic cats, who may detect odors or chemicals in tap water that are imperceptible to humans. By testing with their paw first, cats can ensure any water they drink will not make them sick.

Some cat owners use filtered or bottled water if their cat refuses to drink tap water after testing it. Providing fresh, clean water sources and washing and refilling water bowls frequently can also help encourage proper hydration. But most cats retain their ancestral instinct to carefully test any new water they encounter before taking a drink.

Testing Depth

Cats have an instinctive urge to test the depth of water before drinking, in order to avoid submerging their faces. Using their sensitive forepaw, they can determine how deep the water is and whether it is safe to drink without dunking their nose and whiskers in. According to My Lovely Feline, “With this simple touch, the nerves in a cat’s paw will be able to determine the depth of the water.” Cats have an innate dislike of getting their faces wet, so testing depth first with a paw allows them to satisfy their thirst without an unpleasant experience.

Natural Instinct

Cats test water with their paw due to natural instinct from their ancestral feline relatives. In the wild, felines like lions and tigers would use their paw to test water before drinking to check for potential contaminants or predators.

One Reddit user explained that ancestral cats had to be cautious when approaching bodies of water: “Cats can sense micro impurities, including other cats saliva and can get particular about their water. My mother had more cat bowls than cats and they all had their preferences” (Source).

Domestic cats retain this instinctual behavior to tap or scratch the surface of the water before drinking. It’s an inbred survival mechanism to check the purity and safety of the water source.

Individual Preferences

Just like humans, each cat has unique preferences and habits. Some cats are much more cautious and curious, carefully inspecting their water before drinking. According to studies from Cornell University, there is wide variation between individual cats in terms of how they approach water. Certain cats will test and play with the water extensively before drinking, while others will eagerly lap up water without hesitation.

Cats that frequently test the water before drinking may be more observant of changes in their environment. They rely heavily on their sensitive whiskers to check water temperature and purity. Other cats seem to be less discerning and just drink whenever thirsty. Understanding your cat’s unique quirks and preferences can help you keep them optimally hydrated.

Bowl Material

The material that a cat’s water bowl is made from can impact their drinking behavior. Plastic bowls are inexpensive and lightweight but can harbor bacteria due to scratches in the surface. Stainless steel bowls are the best choice as they are dishwasher safe for easy cleaning and do not hold onto odors or bacteria (Plastic, ceramic, or stainless steel cat bowls? – Americanat). Some cats may reject plastic bowls because they impart a slight plastic taste to the water.

Ceramic bowls can be aesthetically pleasing but may contain lead and other chemicals that can leach into the water over time. The porous surface of ceramic also allows bacteria to accumulate. Stainless steel bowls do not have these drawbacks so are a safer choice for cat guardians.

Bowl Location

Where the water bowl is located in the home can impact a cat’s drinking behavior. Cats prefer their water bowls to be in quiet, low traffic areas away from their food bowls. Placing the water bowl in high traffic areas near things like litter boxes or appliances can deter cats from approaching and drinking from them.

Cats feel most secure drinking when the area is peaceful and free of commotion. The location should be easily accessible but also provide a sense of privacy when drinking. Having separate water stations in multiple low traffic areas around the home can give cats options to drink comfortably. Pay attention to your cat’s preferences and place bowls away from loud rooms or equipment.



In summary, there are several key reasons why cats test water with their paws before drinking:

  • To check the temperature and ensure the water is not too hot or cold
  • To test the purity and make sure the water is clean and safe to drink
  • To determine the depth of the water in the bowl
  • Due to natural instinct and curiosity
  • Based on individual preferences and habits

Understanding this common feline behavior provides cat owners insight into the needs and perspective of their pet. Most importantly, it shows how a cat’s unique senses compel them to carefully inspect water before drinking. By catering to a cat’s preferences for fresh, cool water at an accessible depth, owners can provide a more suitable drinking experience.

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