Cats And Water, Secrets And Mysteries

What's The Thing With Cats and Water?

David Stone
Paris Boat Ride / Cats on the Seine
Paris Boat Ride / Cats on the Seine
© Deborah Julian

What impresses you most about cats? For me, it's how deftly they adjust to the peculiar circumstances of living with us, a completely different species, and, often, taking over. Then, there’s the thing they have about water.

Have you noticed that most cats, probably every one of them you’ve gotten to know, live in this world dominated by another species, that is, us? Not only do they make it work, they do it on their own unique terms. 

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

In nature, cats get most of their water from foods they eat, not from sipping at ponds or streams.

Yet when it comes to water dishes, a completely unnatural innovation, cats drink with enthusiasm and pure pleasure, not just out of healthful necessity.

For contented cats, especially those in homes where they eat mostly dry food, the water dish may be just as important and more frequently visited than the food dish.

And there's reason to suspect that, for cats, water is more important than it is 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.

Some of it can be pretty amusing, as are so many things cats do. But the issues range from simply humorous to deadly serious.

Cats evolved to become highly effective and selective water consumers, getting most of their fluids from food. That sort of evolution doesn't happen without a strong purpose or benefit.

Illustration above, Cats On The Seine, is from the book, Travels with George: Paris 

Funny Things About Cats and Water

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

The oddest thing that ever happened with our cats involving water happened when my wife left spinach leaves soaking in a bowl in our kitchen. A little later, she looked up and saw George removing each leaf individually and carrying it to a spot on our floor.

There, he flattened them by licking  all the water from the surfaces. He spread a half-dozen of so in a hallway and stopped only when he realized he was being observed. He never did it again. Figure that one out!

Mark Twain Noticed

Here's what Mark Twain, a passionate cat lover, had to say:

"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?"

So infatuated was Twain with cats, he borrowed kittens from neighbors while summering in Elmira, New York, and missing his four-legged friends back in Hartford.

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. This, I think, is because they don't see themselves as inferior or members of the pack. They will bend only so far.

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

An Original Approach to Water

With our first 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 lets us know which by staring at the two bowls needed 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.

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 muscles 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 has 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.

  • 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 

In one of the most interesting animal studies about cat behavior, researchers at MIT took on the puzzling question of 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 these guys got admitted to MIT and we didn’t.)

Note: our cat Sam doesn't get his chin or whiskers wet either, but he get his chest wet because for some reason he prefers to get his water from the far side of the bowl.

Unlike a dog, which curls it's tongue like a spoon and bales it in (and around) his mouth, cats turn their tongues down, catch water with the tip and, flicking rapidly enough 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" was natural to all cats. 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 always helped them survive in the wild.

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 scientist 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.

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 experiment. Somehow, through that, they learned to get their water in a way no other species has figured how to do.

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.)

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 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.

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 treat it like 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.

Comments powered by Disqus

From Roosevelt Island for Cat Lovers