You can lead a cat to water, but you can’t make him drink

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my responsibility to keep our three indoor cats fed. Today, I’m writing about how we keep them watered.

Obviously, I’m running out of topics.     

While watering cats might sound like a fun gardening game, it’s actually quite the real-life challenge to many pet owners. With no lips to speak of and a chronic inability to use a straw, cats rely instead on little nodules built into their tongues to capture drinking water. It’s an inefficient method that requires a prolonged lapping motion to access the same amount of liquid we humans can get in a single gulp.     

You try drinking with just your tongue nodules. It’s not easy.     

So, many cat owners face the unsettling site of their kitty standing front paws in the kitchen sink, back sides high in the air, tonguing desperately at the few drips falling out of the faucet. Conveniently forgetting that they’ve been domesticated for about 5,000 years, they’ve reverted to past primitive lives lived outdoors, where fresh-running streams provided a better-tasting source of refreshment than did stagnant pools of rainwater. They might have a dish full of liquid in the laundry room, crammed between their litter box and the noisy washing machine, but they recognize the superior ambience of the sink and do their drinking there.     

I know cats are supposed to be immaculately clean creatures, famous for spending days at a time doing nothing more than bathing themselves. Still, I’m not comfortable with their mouths slobbering all over the same spigot I use to get my water. And I know the company we’re having over for dinner is similarly uncomfortable.     

I’ve heard from friends about so-called drinking fountains for cats, so we decided to check them out. We went to the local PetSmart store to see about buying one.     

PetSmart is a wonderful pet supply franchise with locations throughout the country. It’s a big warehouse-style establishment whose most distinctive feature is that it allows customers to bring animals shopping with them. You’d have to be blind to get away with this in Sears — just as you probably have to be blind to even set foot inside a Sears — but at PetSmart all of God’s creatures are welcome, as long as they’re accompanied by a human with a credit card.     

My wife, son and I entered the store on a recent Saturday to be greeted by a live pig. (“What is this, Walmart?” my son joked). It was one of those fancy domesticated pigs owned by people so enlightened and so unique that not just any pet is good enough for them, it has to be both smarter than a dog and offer more bacon than a parakeet. Other customers gathered excitedly around the bow-bedecked swine to pet and admire him. Their dogs stood close by, drooling expectantly and wondering when the pig-pickin’ would start.     

Large signs hanging from the ceiling directed customers to individual pet categories — dogs, cats, birds, fish, etc. We headed toward the cat department, stepping around all kinds of canines at virtually every turn. Though PetSmart claims all pets are welcome, there was not a visiting cat to be seen anywhere. I’d be tempted to organize a sit-in to protest this discrimination if the store had a lunch counter and you could get cats to sit still at it. We swallowed hard to look past the blatant pro-dog, anti-cat bias, and found our way to the aisle containing what you’d normally call “tableware” (dishes, bowls, placemats, etc.) except that these would be placed on a floor in the utility room.     

There were several models of drinking fountain in three different price ranges. We read about the features of each, not really sure what was a plus and what was a minus. We’d hoped to find one that was battery-powered but all of them used electric cords. Some had reusable filters, some had visible water reservoirs, some allowed you to grow grass on the lid. We settled on the mid-range model because it promised “no assembly required” and took it home to what we anticipated would be an eager reception from Harriet, Taylor and Tom.

Well, it’s now almost three weeks later, and the Drinkwell Platinum fountain has received mixed reviews at best from its end-users. None of them had the slightest idea what the contraption was when we first set it up, so we proceeded with a makeshift training program designed to explain how fresh, flowing water would both taste good and improve their urinary tract function. Taylor, generally regarded as the brightest of the three, eventually caught on when we held his snoot near the stream and made a splashing sound with our fingers. He drinks from the fountain now about half the time. Harriet, far older and more set in her ways, never did much sink-drinking to begin with and continues to get her liquids however she’s managed all along (probably from the toilet). 

Tom is our feisty tabby, the cat most recently brought into domestication from the wild outdoors and, as by far the largest of the trio, the most intrusive in the sink. We gave him a demo similar to what Taylor received, but he didn’t seem to catch on. We gently pressed his face toward the small pond, trying to wet his lips without wetting his nose, which is no easy feat if you’ve ever studied the anatomy of the typical cat face. It could’ve been a small nuclear reactor as far as Tom was concerned — all he knew was that it made a slight hum and it was something we actually wanted him to use, so he wanted no part of it. 

I tried some more basic, remedial training. Maybe he’d get the idea by looking at the picture on the box. 

“See, Tom, here’s a cat, and here’s his tongue dipping into the water,” I pointed out. 

Tom said nothing. 

“Look, Tom, it’s a picture of the fountain just like we have in the other room, and this cat is drinking fresh, delicious water from it,” I continued. 

Still no response. 

“And if you’ll look closely at the price sticker on top of the box, you’ll see that we spent $79.99 on this device, and that’s not counting sales tax,” I persevered. 

Tom seemed temporarily intrigued, but all he really wanted to do was bite my pointing finger. Which he did. 

A thirsty and confused kitty

So we’re not sure we’re going to keep the drinking fountain after all. PetSmart promised a money-back guarantee on the purchase, and if there’s no improved participation from our cats by the weekend, we’ll probably be taking it back. Tom still prefers to get his water from the dripping faucet in the kitchen sink, and as long as he and the others are well-hydrated, I guess we’re going to have to accept that. 

But I’ll bet you anything that pig would know what to do.

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4 Responses to “You can lead a cat to water, but you can’t make him drink”

  1. deyank Says:

    Hmmmm. I’ll have to see if I can convince my little cat to at least lap at the bowl of water. Her preference is to dip a paw into it and then lick the water from her paw. Several other habits of hers leads us to believe she was either a raccoon before, or was raised by them before we got her. She also likes to make a circle around the food dish scraping the imaginary dirt into a pile around it. This, I am told, is also raccoon behavior.

  2. Paul Dixon Says:

    Our long-haired ragamuffin cat, Pepper, who spends a lot of the day being Velcroed to our ankles, and who will undoubtedly be responsible someday for putting my wife or I in a nursing home with a broken hip, was an inveterate reprobate when it came to drinking from the faucet. Not content to use the faucet only for liquid sustenance, he branched out into peripheral cat tactics such as psychological manipulation even when not thirsty, as in “Pepper! Get down!”. (This happened at least 35 times a day.) He enjoyed immensely his ability to make Daddy stand up and pay attention, even if the attention was only negative in nature.

    That all ceased the day we brought home the Drinkwell Platinum fountain (and yes, I’m glad to see that PetsMart is consistent with its pricing nationwide). Pepper, who is far from being the sharpest knife in the drawer, immediately took to the idea, although he steadfastly refuses to drink from the “front pool” portion of the device, choosing instead to always lap directly from the downpouring stream (just like a faucet!)

    I think the reason for Pepper’s success in adjusting so quickly was that we didn’t lift a finger to get him to try it. We simply showed him where it was, and let him work out the logistics entirely on his own. Cats have to think things are exclusively their idea, or they’ll ignore it, even when it’s in their best interest.

    it might be too late for Harriet, Taylor and Tom, but perhaps not. My best advice is simply to back off and hope that Taylor, being the “alpha dog” and most entrepreneurial in spirit, leads the rest of the pride into greater glory.

    The only downside to the Drinkwell is that you HAVE to thoroughly clean it once a week, including the pump. It’s a pain, but otherwise, the cats will return to the faucet, tub, and toilet.

    None of us wants what happened to the late George Carlin’s cat to happen to our little furry loved ones! Good luck.

  3. jedwardswright Says:

    Mother Hen is pleased to see that Mr. W, like most persons of good taste and common sense, prefers felines over canines. Dogs, being close relatives of wolves and foxes, make her nervous. Besides, dogs can’t purr. Enough said!
    The coop’s resident cats (they live in the house, but let’s not fuss over technicalities) Cosmo and Zinnia, report that they have grown quite attached to their drinking fountain, once they got used to it’s unnerving humming sounds, and would be very distressed were their humans to make it disappear.
    In an exclusive interview with Mother Hen, both cats recalled that the humans they own initially left the humming dooflicky unplugged until they (the cats, not the humans) were confident that the fountain would neither blow up or run them over. They highly recommend this method of acclimatization to Harriet, Taylor, and Tom.
    As for pigs, Mother Hen would like to confirm that the sows of her accquaintance have been very smart ladies, capable of managing large, unruly families. She must add though that they are obviously of inferior intelligence to chickens, since they can’t type.
    Representing the Animal Kingdom,
    Mother Hen

  4. Ministry Fox Says:

    Ministry Fox doesn’t have a cat, but he did bring the teddy bear cat (Dr K Katt)with him from his desk in Paris, who had retired after too many years as my side-kick in primary classes.
    The big advantage of this form of cat over the more traditional feline is that he doesn’t require complicated water fountains to drink from, and indeed, has never been seen to drink, or produce the by-products of imbibing liquids, so litter boxes are also not required.
    Non-living pets are the way of the future.

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