How to Stop Your Cat From Spilling the Water Dish

It's not usually a cause for concern

cat playing with water
Melanie Defazio / Stocksy United

Cats and kittens have a reputation for being water phobic. Most cats avoid getting wet if at all possible, but some love to play with their water bowls or seek out additional sources of water in their environment. The question is whether they do so because they are curious about water or whether they have an underlying health problem making them drink excessive amounts. If you find your kitten or cat splashing in its water bowl rather than drinking it, it may have a health issue that's affecting its innate need to hydrate itself.

Why Do Kittens Splash in Water?

As a general rule, kittens are playful and have a natural impulse to manipulate things with their paws. This could be why they might play with, or in, water. Cats groom themselves by licking their fur so it's unlikely they are using their water bowls for a bathtub. Kittens that play with water are most likely doing so as a way to learn about their environment.

Some cats do like water. Certain breeds tend to be more tolerable of water (Maine Coons) and if a young kitten was exposed to a lot of water play or baths, it might tolerate bathing and getting wet as it ages. Note, there is debate as to whether cats need to be bathed and how frequently this should occur. Finally, some cats just truly prefer freshwater and don't like to drink stagnant water in their bowls. They may be playing with the water to recreate the rippling effect of freshwater.

Health Issues

Before you start to work on behavioral issues, take your cat to the vet to ensure there isn't a medical reason for its interest in water. Diabetes, kidney failure, and thyroid issues can make cats thirsty. They may drink from their water bowls more frequently and create a mess by splashing or pawing at the water if they're not feeling well. They may also seek other sources of water like a faucet or toilet. Most cats with a health problem show other signs of illness, such as lethargy, confusion, or a change in appetite. It's extremely rare for a young kitten to have one of these conditions but not impossible, so if you observe your kitten drinking excessive amounts of water or spending a lot of time focused on its water bowl, make sure you contact your veterinarian.

Anxiety or stress sometimes prompts strange behaviors in cats. A cat may put its paws into its water bowl or try to climb in. Separation anxiety often motivates cats to seek attention from owners by exhibiting abnormal behaviors. Sometimes this manifests as litter box issues, such as urine spraying or defecating in an inappropriate area. For some cats, separation anxiety may lead them to splash in the water dish, push it aside, or try to overturn it to get your attention. Obsessive-compulsive disorders can become worse with stress as well. Kittens are rarely affected by these types of long-term behavioral patterns.

How to Stop Cats From Spilling Water

Sometimes a kitten playing in the water is just a kitten acting its age. Some young felines love patting around in the water, while others simply can't stand the stuff. Kittens are inclined to grow out of behaviors like splashing in the water so patience may be the best solution if your young cat is using its water bowl as a toy.

Kitten object play is most active up through the five-month age and starts to decline thereafter, so if the behavior doesn't begin to wane by the time the kitten starts reaching maturity, it may be helpful to redirect its focus to a better outlet for play by offering another toy to play with.

Resolve Any Health Issues

If a cat is drinking excess water or spilling water because of a health issue, your vet will help determine the underlying cause and offer treatment options. Your cat may need prescription medication for the condition. Treating the health issue should resolve bad water bowl behavior.

Changing Stressful Situations

Managing stressful situations can be tricky. If you cannot pinpoint the exact problem, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist can help identify the problem and work with you to help correct the issue. In the meantime, try some tricks that are focused solely on the water bowl:

  • If you have a shower or bathtub, consider placing a bowl filled with water in it and showing it to your cat. You can reinforce your cat's play with treats and praise to encourage it to only play with water bowls inside the shower, where spillage won't be an issue.
  • Change your cat's water frequently--at least once daily. You can add ice cubes so the water is cold although some cats may see the cubes as toys and will play with their water even more.
  • Try alternative water bottles like non-spill bottles that are used for guinea pigs or other small animals.
  • Try a fountain type water bowl that has a continuous flow cycle, so the water is always fresh.
If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.