10 Reasons Why Cats Put Toys In Food Or Water Bowls

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If you’ve found yourself reading this article, it’s likely your feline friend has been bringing toys to the food or water bowl and perhaps even placing them in the bowl itself!

If this puzzling behavior is something your cat is doing, then you are certainly not alone! We will consider some reasons why your cat might be doing this below.

Why Do Cats Like Toys?

The list of reasons cats like to play with toys is long! Play is hugely important, both for young kittens as they learn how to be a cat but also for adults. Play provides a vital outlet for your cat’s natural hunting instincts, relieves boredom, and can help keep some behavioral issues at bay. It also provides a fantastic source of exercise, especially for indoor-only cats, which can help prevent health issues such as feline obesity.

What Sort Of Toys Do Cats Like?

The type of toy your cat prefers will depend a lot on their “prey” preferences, so to get the most out of playtime, it helps to figure out your cat’s personal preferences.

What works for one cat may well be of no interest to another. Some cats will be more drawn to toys that mimic bird-like movements—those that flutter or that you, the owner, move through the air to engage in play.

Others, however, will be more inclined to play with toys that mimic small rodents or even bug catching! Try your cat with a variety of different toys in different shapes, sizes, and textures to find what gets your cat into a playful mood!

10 Reasons Cats Put Toys In Their Food Or Water Bowl

No one knows for sure why cats put toys in their bowls, but many theories try to explain the phenomenon.

Feline behavior is still an incompletely understood field of science. Although many veterinarians and behaviorists have recognized this void and are undertaking tremendous research to advance our knowledge, we still don’t have all the answers.

Cats bringing toys to their resource bowls (so their food and water bowls) is one of those questions that hasn’t been studied.

This means the definitive reasons for the behavior are unknown, but there are some theories as to why they do it. Some of these theories have a grounding in our domesticated cats’ wild counterparts’ behavior. We will consider some of these theories below:

#1 Your Cat Sees Her Food Or Water Bowl As A “Safe” Place

A natural behavior in some wild feline species is to take their uneaten prey back to a safe place, such as their nest, to eat it. Some have proposed that your cat bringing their toys to their safe place, in this example, their resource bowls, reflects this instinctual behavior.

#2 Hiding “Prey”

Wild feline species will sometime hide or store leftovers from their hunt. This behavior is termed “caching.” It is more typical of larger cat species but has more recently been described in smaller wild feline species. They will only do this in a place they consider safe, and their resource bowls are generally areas of the house that a cat will consider very safe.

#3 Washing Or Drowning “Prey”

It has also been proposed that by bringing their toys to water and essentially drowning them in the elevated cat food bowl, your cat is attempting to kill their “prey” or even wash off any scent that may attract other predators to their kill! This is potentially a less likely theory.

Also Read: 8 Purrfect Games You Can Play With Your Cat

Although some big cats have been documented using water to drown their prey, this is usually the by-product of a chase ending in the water rather than a conscious decision. The act of washing prey has not been widely documented in wild feline species either.

#4 Collecting And Gathering Instincts

If you’re a cat person, you’ve likely come across the kleptomaniac cat! Not every domestic cat shows this urge to collect and gather inanimate objects, but some cats are notorious for it (in our household, it’s hairbands in particular that get squirreled away in bizarre hiding places). Some behaviorists have proposed that bringing toys to a resource bowl is an extension of this behavior.

Also Read: The 6 Best Anti-Vomit Cat Bowls

#5 Your Cat Is Extending Her Play Session

Some cats like to play in water, including the water bowl.

Sometimes your cat may still be feeling playful when they also need to eat or drink. Bringing a toy to their resource bowl may simply represent your cat’s desire to extend the fun further! Contrary to the stereotype, some cats also enjoy playing with water and fishing for things. Your cat may have developed a game they enjoy with their water bowl and toys.

#6 Rewarding You And Showing They Care

How to safely give your cat pumpkin

Any cat owner has likely been proudly presented with a “thank you” gesture of some description. Often this takes the very undesirable form of a small rodent or bird in various states of well-being in an outdoor kitty.

However, their indoor counterparts must substitute this reward behavior with whatever they have available. Often, a high reward item such as a toy can make the perfect thank you gesture. Some suggest bringing this “prey” to the food bowl may be a gift for you.

#7 Teaching You Hunting Behavior

Do Cats Have a Sense of Taste

Mother cats will often bring their kittens prey items to practice and hone their hunting skills. Some propose that when our domesticated house cats do this, they mimic this maternal behavior. Leaving her toy at the resource bowl (a place your cat knows you go regularly) may be her way of encouraging you to practice hunting, too!

#8 A Learned Behavior

How did you react the first time your cat exhibited this behavior? If you praised or fussed your cat, making it a positive and rewarding experience, it might simply be your cat is repeating the behavior for a positive response from you!

#9 Medical Problems

Did you know that monitoring your cat’s water intake can offer you key insights into their health and general wellness?

This is an unlikely theory. As a vet, it hasn’t ever been a presenting complaint for disease in my clinic. However, cats having an altered behavior toward water, in particular, can be a sign of a medical problem.

Alterations can include your cat drinking more than usual, making more mess at the water bowl, or seeking out other sources of water, such as the bath or running taps when they hadn’t before. (Cats choosing to drink from taps can also be a perfectly normal behavior!)

Also Read: How Much Water Should A Cat Drink?

If you are unsure if you should be worried about your feline person, chat to your local veterinarian. They will be able to reassure you or recommend some tests if appropriate.

#10 Your Cat Simply Forgot!

Sometimes your cat may simply have forgotten they have their toy in their mouth when they arrive at the water or food bowl and deposit it to eat or drink.

Conclusion

It is most likely a combination of reasons that your cat chooses to bring their toy to their resource bowl, but the reality is we don’t fully understand why this behavior happens.

Unless your cat is exhibiting abnormal behaviors or has altered eating or drinking patterns, bringing toys with them to eat or drink or leaving toys in their bowls isn’t harmful and is likely just one of those cute cat quirks. If you are uncertain or worried about your cat’s behavior, speak to your local veterinary clinic for advice..

Frequently Asked Questions

My cat brings toys to her food or water bowl. Should I be worried?

Unless your cat is showing signs of abnormal behaviors, or has a change to their eating or drinking patterns associated with putting toys in their bowls, you do not need to be worried. If you’re unsure, speak to your local veterinarian for advice.

What do cats think toys are?

Much like the above question, how your cat perceives her toy will depend on the way that toy “behaves.” The natural hunting instincts of wild cats are still hardwired into our domestic kitties, even if they have only ever lived in an apartment and never set eyes on a mouse!
A toy that flies through the air will likely engage your cat's bird hunting behaviors, whereas one that moves across the floor will make your cat think mouse!

What type of toys should I buy my cat?

There is no one-size-fits-all when choosing a toy your cat will like. The type of toy they are most likely to enjoy will be impacted by their favorite type of “prey” to hunt. If your cat spends hours "chattering" at the birds out the window, start with toys that mimic flight. If your cat seems to enjoy chasing things on the ground or pouncing on bugs, then try more mouse-like toys to start. You might need to try several different styles of toys before you find one your cat goes crazy for.

Should I give my cat toys?

Play has been shown to help reduce boredom and some behavioral issues, as well as provide a fantastic way for your kitty to exercise. Therefore, providing toys that your cat likes to engage and play with is a great idea!

View Sources

Ellis. S et al. (2013) AAFP and ISFM Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 15 219-230. Available at  https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1098612X13477537 Retrieved 20th June 2022

Ruiz-Villar. H. et al. (2020) A small cat saving food for later: caching behaviour in the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris). European Journal of Wildlife Research 66: 7. Available at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10344-020-01413-x Retrieved 20th June 2022

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About Dr. Joanna Woodnutt, MRCVS

Dr. Joanna Woodnutt (MRCVS) is a small animal veterinarian and writer who is passionate about helping owners to learn more about their pets in order to improve animal welfare. She loves to write and wants to empower owners to make the best decisions for their pets by giving them all the information they need. In her spare time, she takes consultations on the small island of Guernsey.

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