Why Cats Use Their Paws to Eat and Drink

This is what I would call a popular topic. It is not a serious subject but, that said, people are interested to find out why their cat uses his paw to eat and drink. It is not usual to see this. You would say it is quite rare, in fact. I have not seen answers to the question in books or on the internet. A reader of this short article may have seen something that makes better sense than me, but I will try and answer the question as I write this.

Cat Prodding Food
Cat Prodding (human) Food. Very reminiscent of a cat prodding a mouse. Photo by Chey Rawhoof.
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All domestic cat behavior stems from wild cat behavior although it can be substantially modified through domestication. There are only two ways that the domestic cat eats commercially manufactured food:

  1. By putting his face into it or rarely as questioned;
  2. putting his paw in the food and scooping a small amount up and licking it off his paw.

[There are other ways to eat food when the domestic cat catches prey such a bird (plucking the feathers if the bird is large) or a mouse; head first.]

The second way is safer than the first. It is a more cautious way to eat because the face is not trust into the food. It is akin to the way a domestic cat prods and pushes about a dying mouse that he has caught rather than kill it immediately with a killing-bite.

When a cat does this it can be as a precautionary measure to avoid being bitten by prey. Domestic cats are out of practice in respect of catching prey and sometimes play safe and use their paws to push and poke small rodents.

It would seem to me that picking up food in the paw is an extension of this instinctive behavior. It may happen more with cats who are less sure of themselves i.e. less confident.

There may also be a female cat element to this. Female farm cats may bring prey back to their den to play with it, but a better description is that she is killing prey in front her offspring to teach them.

Obviously supermarket cat food is not prey but it is a prey substitute. The instinctive behavior in some cats to use there paws and claws to handle “prey” in this way may originate in a cautious approach to dealing with prey and may have also developed into a way to test food in the same that prodding a mouse around is testing the prey for life.


Sometimes cats scoop up water in one of their paws and drink it off their paw. Often it is the left hand because although cats are either left or right-handed I think you will find that by a small margin the majority of domestic cats are left-handed. It appears to be an action that allows the cat to sample the water, to test it and taste it. It is a cautious approach to drinking and much less efficient than placing the tongue directly into the water.

As it is less efficient and slower there must be some other benefit as a trade off. I would suggest that the benefit is to play safe and test the water before indulging in full-blown drinking with the tongue.

Link to original photo.

13 thoughts on “Why Cats Use Their Paws to Eat and Drink”

  1. Cats and humans share a common “problem” if you will, that our other friend the domestic dog (usually) doesn’t. That is the physical size of our muzzles are insufficient to view while eating, making it difficult to gage the distance and location of food in relation to our mouth.
    The cats instinctive solution is a highly developed sense of touch on the whiskers and the tip of their nose so much so that they have friction ridges on them the way humans do on their hands. This allows them to touch their food and get a definitive idea of where the food is.
    Humans bypass the problem by grabbing food with our more easily visualized front “paws” and using our kinesthetic sense to guide it to our mouth.
    It is not inconceivable that, given the cats ability to use mirror neurons to understand the behavior of other animals and the close proximity to humans eating with their front paws that some might try to mimic human eating behavior and, finding utility in it (such as remaining in an upright and ready posture or not having to dip its nose into something wet or moist) would adopt this eating method.
    This is my hypothesis anyway.

      • You’re welcome.
        I also have some hypothesis involving the primary purpose of a cat’s tail, and the cognitive “Dunbar” limit in how cats view and relationship with their human caretakers.
        Interesting animals.
        Also, I just reread my original comment and must apologize for it’s readability.
        I will strive to improve punctuation in the future.

  2. My cat likes to help himself to milk. I didn’t appreciate him lapping from the milk jug so I started to use a tall narrow one to foil him. So he switched to using his paw to scoop up the milk!

  3. I’ve had cats for over 50 yrs and some have been feral others not. most play with their food but only a few with water. I’ve had a couple that liked to swim in running water ( a creek) one of my cats now loves to get in the shower with us. He also watches the toilet flush then slap the water in the bowl. I guess some cats are just ‘crazy’ about water.

    • Hi Nancia. I think all cats have the potential to be crazy about water because where there is water there is prey – animals to eat – and the domestic cat is a wild cat at heart. Thanks for sharing Nancia.

  4. I think Marc is right. Cats sometimes play around with their food as if trying to bring it back to life, after all, their deepest instincts tell them fresh prey has all the nutrients they need and that it was far more intersting and challenging in the days when it was natural to catch and kill their dinner than to have it served up ready dead on a plate.
    We can smugly think we have domesticated cats to our liking but we will never (I HOPE) erase their wild at heart natural behaviour.
    Our two cats never eat with a paw but they are free to follow their natural behaviour, along with the other neighbourhood cats, keeping the rodent population under control. Wet weather we play ‘hunting’ games with them with toys.
    Our Jozef who had a feral father, retains another instinct habit, he always ‘covers up’ any food he leaves, saving it for later, his instincts must tell him he will never starve if he does that.
    What is that saying……
    ‘You can take the cat out of the wild but you can never take the wild out of the cat’

    • My Lilly and Molly both do the cover up thing too. They stand by the plates and scrape the ground as if to bury the food.

      • Interesting that Marc, as of all the cats we’ve had over 38 years only Jozef has ever done that. I put it down to his feral dad but maybe that’s not the reason?

  5. My Lilly always does the paw thing, particularly with raw meat and water or anything she is trying for the first time. With the meat she seems to want to play with it, flick it around a bit and then eat it. I think she is doing exactly what she would be doing with a dead mouse. By flicking it around the floor she is bringing it to life perhaps. With water, as has been mentioned before, I think she is just making the water move because thats healthier and instinctive – moving water that is. One other interesting she will do with water in a glass is put her paw on the far side of the glass and then look at it through the glass of water. Very odd – perhaps she finds the distortion interesting. With new foods its out of caution I believe. She wants to first touch it before putting her face to it. Maybe to see if its alive or perhaps hot, like my food is sometimes, and just to see what it feels like. Then she will bring it to the floor with her paw, push it around a bit, sniff it and then eat it. She will also take it straight to her mouth with her paw too as you have described in the article.

    Well that’s my interpretation of it anyway!

    • Great, I think that together we are getting at the reason and if so it will be a first on the internet. It will certainly be the best answer on the internet 🙂

      Thanks a lot for the input. Good comments make the page whole.


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