3 Big Cat Instincts Your Cat Shares

Cat pawing at water dish1) Testing the Water

Have you noticed your cat  lowering their paw into their water bowl or swiping through the stream of water in their fountain?  Sometimes your cat might even dip  and then lick the water off of their paw before lowering their head in what we think of the standard way a cat  drinks.

It could be, depending on the size and shape of the water bowl provided that your cat’s whiskers touch the side of the bowl causing them discomfort. If this is the case, you might want to switch out bowls opting for one that is wider and shallow versus narrow and deep.

Another advantage of the wider and shallow bowl is that your cat can easily determine the water level and it encourages you to clean and add fresh water more often.  If you have a water bowl that is deeper, the water level could vary causing your cat uncertainty about the water line.  So they test the water with their paw before drinking.

Lions drinking water photo by Greg du Toit

photo courtesy of Greg du Toit, Wildlife Photographer

In the wild, big cats know  lowering their heads to drink water puts them in a vulnerable position. The big cats prefer an unobstructed view to keep an eye on their surroundings. In the photo above you  see a pride of lions at a water hole. Notice that while some of the lions drink the others are keeping watch.

If  you have a single cat home,  I am assuming there is not much reason for your cat to fear being ambushed while drinking but this behavior is hard-wired.  When you have visitors, have  rearranged the furniture, or any other changes take place, your cat might feel vulnerable and this protective instinct could kick in.

If you have a multiple cat home, you may see this behavior more often than a single cat home and especially if you have two cats sharing a living space that do not get along.  If this is the case,  you should provide two water sources in separate locations where the cats can see their surroundings while drinking.

In our home, I often see Annie and Eddie drinking from the water fountain together or taking turns while the other watches.  I have also caught Annie lying in wait for Mercy to  approach the fountain.  Annie thinks this is great fun, but I am not so sure Mercy is amused.  We have a two different water source locations, for those times when Annie is being ornery, so Mercy can drink in peace.

Annie, Eddie and Mercy all get along, but Mercy was used to being the only cat most of the time and he is seven so his tolerance for kitten shenanigans is more limited.  We made sure to provide corridors, separate food and water sources, as well as multiple  litter pan locations for all the cats to get their alone time.

2) Hiding Their Food For Later

Have you ever noticed your cat pawing at the floor beside their food bowl and wondered what they are doing?   No, this doesn’t mean they think the food stinks and they are trying to bury it like they are in the litter pan. When your cat doesn’t finish their food, this pawing at the floor is an attempt to hide the food, and this could be for a few reasons.  Your cat’s instinct is guiding her to hide the food from a potential predator or to hide the food so as not to alert potential prey that she is in the area.  It could also be that she is trying to hide her food from other cats in the household so that she can come back and finish the food later.

Bobcats in the wild will cover the remains of a large kill with debris such as snow, leaves, twigs or grass.  Then the bobcat will revisit the carcass and eat again.  Panthers will rake leaves and twigs over a carcass to hide the carcass from scavengers.  This is what scientists refer to as a cache.

The instinct to cover prey is strong and that is most likely what your cat is attempting to do when pawing at the floor beside their food bowls. You might see this more often in a multiple cat household due to perceived competition for food.

3) Keeping Guard

Lions keeping watch

Cats get a lot of undeserved negative press.  One of the many things the media echo chamber loves to repeat  is the message that cats are aloof.   Perhaps because  a cat curls up with their back against you on the sofa. Or cats often  sit in front of you but  facing away.   This is not your cat being detached, this is your cat showing  they trust you.  Cats are both predators and prey for larger species, so they are hard-wired to be vigilant. While your cat has their back to you, they are keeping watch of the surroundings to make sure you both are safe.  This act of keeping watch is actually a sign of loyalty, trust and love.

As you can see in the photo of the lions above, they are sitting in a pattern so that they can survey their surroundings. The front line obviously trusts the lions behind them, they are not being aloof but keeping guard.

Does your cat exhibit any of these behaviors?





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  1. Anna likes to drag anything nearby into her water bowl. Is she doing that to save the water for herself for later?

  2. I don’t have any food buriers but; I have a couple cats that do the paw in the water. One will lick his paw. I did not know that about the water. My cats like to watch a lot. Have a great weekend.
    Sue B

  3. Michael Urciolo says

    I’ve had cats in my household for most of the last 40 years – I adopted a three year old female orange tabby 3 months ago and she is the first cat that dips her paw in the bowl and licks it! I am going to try a bowl that is a little more shallow and see how that goes.