You try your best to give your cat all the best luxuries in life – new toys and shiny water and food bowls and so much enrichment. And then your cat decides to dunk all those expensive cat toys in their water bowl!
What the heck?
Even worse, your cat then decides to start dunking your stuff – hair ties, keys, socks – in their water as well.
While this behavior can be understandably frustrating to watch and deal with, you can be sure it makes a lot more sense to your cat than it does to you.
In this article, we talk about some of the most popular reasons why cats put toys in water and what you need to know about this strange feline behavior.
Why Do Cats Put Toys in Water?
Feline behavior researchers feel that the main reason cats put toys in water is that they are responding to a deep instinct to hide and protect their prized possessions.
However, as North Toronto Cat Rescue points out, we don’t fully know why so many cats do this.
After all, we can’t talk directly to our cats to ask this question. If there is one wonderful thing about sharing our lives with cats, it is this: there is always something new to learn!
Watch a Cat Drop a Toy in Water Bowl
In this short YouTube video, a cat owner talks you through what her cat seems to be doing with their toy mouse, dropping it into the water bowl and then pawing at it.
Several viewers post comments that their kitties do the same type of thing with their favorite toys, plunking them into their food or water bowls.
Common Theories About Why Cats Put Toys in Water
As Katie’s Kitty Pet Services explains, feline researchers, behaviorists, breeders, and owners can come up with all kinds of theories about why cats put toys in water, but ultimately they are all still just theories.
However, these particular theories have garnered more widespread agreement and discussion between cat experts and are thus particularly worth mentioning.
Protecting their prizes
To understand why your pet cat might think their water bowl is the perfect place to stash prized possessions, it is necessary to return to your cat’s wild roots.
Wild cats use selected spots called “caches” to store food that they want to save for later.
Your cat gets fed regularly and doesn’t technically need to save food for later. But the instinct still remains.
As well, your pet cat may have other prized possessions such as toys or items that smell like you that they want to cache. Here again, researchers believe that the same instinct is operating even if the item is a toy mouse or your hairband.
Gifts for you
Similarly, it is quite possible that your cat is leaving their treasures for you in their water bowl because they know you visit every day to refill it.
Just like some pet cats that live an indoor-outdoor lifestyle may find and kill small prey and leave it for you on the front porch as a “gift,” your cat may “drown” their toy mouse in the water dish and leave it for you as a token of affection.
While you may not be as thrilled to receive this gift as your cat is to give it to you, it is still important to understand that your cat’s love language may be underneath this strange sort of offering.
Hunting live prey
Depending on the time of year and location, a wild cat might need to get creative to hunt for food.
As Smithsonian’s National Zoo explains, there is a species of wild cat known as fishing cats that have been seen fishing or using water to drown their prey before eating it.
Another possible explanation that is even more intriguing is that your cat is trying to teach you how to properly fish by leaving drowned “food” in the water bowl.
Many cats do seem to have a fascination with water, although this seems to be less about drinking the water and more about playing with it.
It could be that dropping things in the water and then fishing them back out again is simply fun for your cat.
This may especially be the case if you have provided a drinking fountain that keeps the water moving.
Water can provide a useful means of disguising strong scents, such as the scent of prey or the scent of a cat’s own pheromones.
Getting your attention
As this interesting New York Times article highlights, there is another less instinctual reason why your cat may be putting toys or other objects in the water.
This behavior reliably gets your attention.
After a few days where your cat drags favorite items to the water bowl and drops them in only to see you go and fish them out and fuss around the water bowl, your cat figures out this gets attention.
So your cat does it again and again and again. In this sense, you have literally trained your cat to keep drowning things in the water bowl.
Cats can get very creative about keeping your attention on them and if the toy-in-the-water-bowl trick works, they will keep doing it!
As VCA Animal Hospital points out, cats are smart and active and can easily get bored.
If a cat gets bored, they are likely to make up their own entertainment which can sometimes have unwanted and even destructive consequences.
While putting toys in water is far from the most problematic behavior your bored kitty might dream up, it is still important to look deeper at what might be a plea for more enrichment and activity.
Your cat may need new toys more frequently and more interactive playtime with you so they don’t have to self-entertain by dropping everything you give them into the water.
Don’t Rule Out a Veterinary Health Issue
While most theories about why cats put toys in water do not point back to an underlying health issue, it is important not to rule this out either.
In particular, cats that have emerging health problems such as thyroid imbalance, kidney problems, or feline diabetes may develop a peculiar relationship with water.
Excessive drinking, messy drinking, splashing water around, lethargy, change in appetite, and confusion can all be warning signs that your cat may have a health issue brewing.
It is important to schedule regular “well cat” checkups with your feline veterinarian, both so you can have a baseline of health to compare to later and to discuss any changes in habits that might be concerning.
Your veterinarian may not find anything wrong, but if your cat is routinely making a mess in or near the water bowl, you also want to be sure your kitty isn’t having a problem drinking enough.
Watching your cat drink can help you figure out if the bowl itself might be the problem. If so, you can change to a new bowl and see if the water behavior resolves on its own.
How to Keep Your Cat From Putting Toys in Water – Is This Even Possible?
While some cat owners may not have any problem with their cat putting toys or other objects in the water, other cat owners might find this frustrating or problematic.
Add more toys and enrichment to distract your cat
Perhaps the best way to discourage your cat from putting objects and toys in the water is to start introducing more enrichment in the form of additional toys and increased interactive playtime.
Restrict access to the food and water bowls
You can also try leaving the food and water dishes available for a certain set period of time each day and picking them up between feedings. If you do this, however, be sure your cat does not get dehydrated and is drinking enough.
Ignore your cat when they play with water
Another strategy that can work is to stop giving your cat the reinforcement of your attention after they have put more toys or other objects in the water bowl yet again.
You can wait until your cat is in another room or distracted or asleep before cleaning up the mess, sending the message to your cat that this behavior no longer captures your attention or interest.
Increase the water changes you do
Water hygiene can be an issue when a cat refuses to actually drink the water and just plays with it or drops toys in it.
This can soil the water and make your cat even less willing to drink.
You can try more frequent water changes, adding some ice cubes for cooler water, or changing to a moving cat water fountain to see if this resolves the problem.