My cat Elvis is very particular about the water he drinks, almost never drinking from the water dish my two other cats use. Instead, whenever I brush my teeth, he sits on the counter waiting for his cup of bathroom tap water. Recently, he's started begging to drink water straight from the tap. He'll jump into the bath tub to lap up the water after someone showers. My dad has even gone so far to figure out that Elvis preferred drink is a blue bowl of water from our fridge, microwaved for one minute to warm it up, and set down for him on the floor right next to his scratching post.
I still don't know what exactly it is that makes Elvis choose if he wants to drink the water we offer to him or not, so I spoke with two veterinarians to see why he might be so particular. "Each individual cat can have a strong preference, but there's not one strong preference that all cats have," said Liz Bales, VMD, who specialises in feline feeding behaviour. Turns out there's a lot of possible reasons why your cat might prefer one water option over another.
How much water does my cat need to drink?
"In the wild, cats evolved to get most of their water from their food because they primarily ate fresh prey," explained Deborah S. Greco, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, and a senior research scientist at Nestle Purina Pet Care. Because of this, cats didn't have to physically drink water as much as they might have to in your home.
If you feed your cat wet food, it won't need to drink as much water, said Dr. Greco, since wet food is very high in moisture and provides cats with a majority of the water they need, just like fresh prey in the wild. Dry food, on the other hand, has very low water content, so cats will need to drink a lot more of their daily water, Dr. Bales added.
Additionally, cats are very inefficient in the way they lap up water with their tongue, Dr. Greco said, explaining "They only get about three one hundredths of a teaspoon of water with each lap alone." Because of this, it might be a little harder for a cat with a dry food diet to drink enough water to supplement their diet.
Why is my cat picky about water?
Cats' evolutionary adaptations, needs, and behaviours as well as simple preferences can help explain why your cat may be picky about their water. For instance, Dr. Bales said that cats might not like their water to be next to their food because in the wild, smelling food next to a water source could be a sign that the water was or could become contaminated. Because of this, Dr. Greco said, cats "have a preference for fresh water, and generally water that doesn't have a lot of odours to it," because that usually means the water is safer to drink. For this reason, some cats may prefer to drink from running water fountains — but other cats might get scared of the noise from the motor in these fountains.
Dr. Greco added that cats also can't see as well up close — because their eyes are designed for focusing far away for hunting — so some cats might prefer different dishes based on the colour or depth and how easy it is for them to see where the water level is. It's also easier for some cats, she said, to lick water off of hard surfaces for this reason and their inefficiency lapping up water. Even their whiskers might play a role. "Cats don't like their whiskers to be bent. We call that whisker stress," Dr. Greco said, so cats might not like if a dish of water bends or touches their whiskers.
How can I tell if my cat is drinking enough?
Because cats have different water needs based on their diets and weights, it can be hard to tell if your cat is staying hydrated, Dr. Bales said, though it's not something she recommends cat owners obsess over. One way she recommends checking if your cat is drinking enough is by monitoring your litter box for changes. Although some cats might pee bigger or smaller amounts more or less frequently, "it's really knowing what your cat's baseline is and then observing the change," Dr. Bales explained. "The change from the norm would be the most informative about a health condition."
Knowing and observing your cats eating and drinking habits can also help. "If you don't ever see your cat drinking water, and it's on a dry food diet, you could probably guess that it's not getting enough water," Dr. Greco said, adding that a hydrated cat is more active, has shinier hair, brighter eyes, and more elastic skin than a dehydrated cat.
How can I make sure my cat drinks enough?
"The way to do it is choice," Dr. Bales said. Because of all the different preferences cats may or may not have in terms of water source, placement, temperature, dish type, or any other factor, she says the best way to ensure your cat drinks enough is to offer them plenty of options for them to choose from. "Cats really use their whole environment to eat and their whole environment to drink," she added. "Putting those food and water sources away from each other and all around the house is the most in line with their innate behaviour," since in the wild, it's entirely up to them where they eat and drink.
While having different water options helps with preferences, it can also help make your cat feel safer when drinking. "Cats feel vulnerable when they're drinking", said Dr. Greco, explaining that competition for water with a dog might dissuade your cat from drinking in a certain spot. Access to and competition for resources can also be a problem in multi-cat households, Dr. Bales said. "Your cat may be drinking less because you only have one water source and the access to that water source is being blocked," by your other cat, she explained. If you have multiple cats, this is another good reason why you might want to try having multiple water sources around the house. Another way to try make sure your cat is drinking enough is to feed your cat multiple small meals throughout the day. "If you feed four or more small meals a day, cats are likely to drink more and be more active," Dr. Bales said, as it better mimics their instincts in the wild.
The easiest way to make sure your cat is drinking enough, both veterinarians agree, is to let your cats have a choice by providing different options to drink from. And, if you have any serious worries that your cat is not getting enough water, contact your vet.