Why do cats follow you into the bathroom?
June 7, 2007 6:18 PM   Subscribe

Why do cats follow you into the bathroom?

This question has basically been asked before here. I found lots of support for it being commonplace cat behavior, but I didn't see any answers that really satisfied me. The closest was the comment suggesting that cat's see you as an alpha animal and how the poop thing is all part of the alpha dominance. But I'm not convinced that cat's really see us humans as alpha animals in any way. I firmly believe most cats see us as their property, not the other way around.

A lot of people suggested that it was just a good opportunity for cats to get the attention they deserve. But even the most anti-social cats who never want attention will do this. This behavior fascinates me as it seems to be common to almost all cats, no matter what their personality. And I've never known two cats who even had close to the same personality. I'd love to find a cat psychologist who actually knows something about this so why not AskMeFi?
posted by bdun01 to Pets & Animals (53 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I've always thought it's very simple to explain. Cats HATE when you try to close off part of the house to them. They seem to feel that you are deliberately concealing some fabulous mystery from them and their lives are devoid of meaning unless they can get to the other side of the door to investigate. So basically, when you saunter into the bathroom and (presumably) close the door, cats are convinced that you're hiding something from them.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 6:25 PM on June 7, 2007 [6 favorites]

I am not a cat psychologist, but I've had cats all my life and every one of them has followed me into the bathroom... I think it's because all animals are interested in other animals' (and people are animals) pooping/pottying behavior... The cats are probably wondering why we're not using the litterbox.
posted by amyms at 6:25 PM on June 7, 2007

i've owned eight cats in my lifetime, some very affectionate, some not. none of them have ever followed me into the bathroom on a regular basis, or tried. i did have one that liked to "fish" under the door for me anytime i went into a room and closed the door, but it didn't have to be a bathroom.

when my aunt's cat was a kitten, he really liked to watch the water swirl down after a flush, though.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:25 PM on June 7, 2007

I had a cat who could have cared less that I was in the bathroom. He was a Maine Coon cat. So, it isn't common to all cats.

Or, maybe I am less interesting than the average human.
posted by jeanmari at 6:27 PM on June 7, 2007

I have five cats right now and 3 of them will follow me into the bathroom. For my cats, 2 seem to do it because they figure it's an easy way to get petted (knowing that I'll be sitting down). Of those two, one of them has developed a cute short hop technique to get petted, jumping just under my outstretched hand.

The other petting cat will lay at my feet and start squirming until I pet them.

The third bathroom cat just seems to like following me around or being near me. This cat also can sense when I want to use the shower and ensures that I'll have to at least lift him out a few times to get clean.
posted by drezdn at 6:48 PM on June 7, 2007

I second the thought about cats not liking to be cut off from the rest of the house. Mine are very persistent about the whole thing.
posted by drleary at 6:51 PM on June 7, 2007

A few cats I've seen go into the bathroom to partake of the delicious water from the toilet or the shower.
posted by Krrrlson at 6:55 PM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

We keep a second water bowl in the bathroom for the cats as backup for the one in the kitchen. They will often follow and while there, check the water bowl. They don't always drink but they usually check, sniffing around the bowl as if to make sure the water's still there. I think it's something to do with water, as well as being cut off from a part of their domain.
posted by scheptech at 7:10 PM on June 7, 2007

I had a cat who could have cared less that I was in the bathroom. He was a Maine Coon cat.

I have a Maine Coon and she doesn't care either. Plus the window AC frightens her.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:11 PM on June 7, 2007

My cat howls at the door of any room I lock her out of but usually won't actually come into the bathroom unless its being used for a shower - which is when she will jump in between the shower curtains and balance on the edge of the tub until I splash her and runs away.

One time when I was on the toilet she came in but I yelled "I don't watch you poop!" which made me think... so the next time she was in the litterbox I snuck into the room and stared her down which freaked her out and made her stop mid-biz.
posted by jeffmik at 7:19 PM on June 7, 2007 [13 favorites]

Our cats will not only follow us into the bathroom, but they will anticipatorily dash ahead of us into the bathroom if they see us start walking in that direction. I always thought it was a fresh-water-in-the-shower (or toilet) thing, but have no scientific basis for that belief.

The weird thing is that the cats have their own bathroom where we keep the food and litter box and they often couldn't care less when I go in there to change the water or food.
posted by commander_cool at 7:24 PM on June 7, 2007

My cat patiently waits outside the bathroom until the door opens, then runs inside to stare at the water flushing down the bowl. So I figure there's some fascination/anticipation of the flush.
posted by sweetkid at 7:25 PM on June 7, 2007

My dog follows me into the bathroom - is that unusual?
posted by donknotts at 7:37 PM on June 7, 2007

My dog follows me into the bathroom - is that unusual?

Not if your dog's a Vallhund, it ain't.

At least ours has the decency to come in after you, quickly check to see whether there are monsters or bunnies lurking in the room, and then just lie down on the floor and wait for me to finish my filthy sinful business.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:57 PM on June 7, 2007

Ours follow us into the bathroom to drink our bathwater. We think because they can't eat us, they settle for the next best: human tea (human meat steeped in hot water, mmm).
posted by Melinika at 8:07 PM on June 7, 2007

To watch you pee?

Actually My mother's cat follows you and jumps into the sink hoping you'll run the water. She'll sit under the faucet. She's not right in the head. (the cat)
posted by Gungho at 8:08 PM on June 7, 2007

When my cat follows me into the bathroom, it means she is out of water in her dish. She knows that's where the water comes from. If I don't get the hint, she sits in the bathtub.

I think some cats just want to be where you are. A friend's cat would stick her paws under the door the whole time you were in there. It was fun to throw toilet paper balls at her paws.
posted by The Deej at 8:27 PM on June 7, 2007

one of my cats does this.

but do you people seriously think that they know we're pooping? i really don't think cats are that smart. i second the closed door idea.
posted by timory at 8:31 PM on June 7, 2007

Cat psychology would be the most unfulfilling job I can think of. I have had cats my whole life and the only thing they all have in common is that they are crazy, they will lie on anything you don't want them to, and they will demand to go anywhere that you don't want them to like the bathroom. They revel in their randomness and inexplicable behavior.
posted by Raichle at 8:39 PM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

By the way... I will never let the cat stay in with me while I am doing my bidniss. Ick.
posted by The Deej at 8:55 PM on June 7, 2007

All of ours do it. One tears ass in there every time meowing like crazy. She jumps on the sink and expects a drink of water every time, like she is dying of thirst.
posted by corpse at 9:01 PM on June 7, 2007

I think water may be a big part of it. We always had a cup of water next to the sink, and our cats would go charging in and bother us until we filled the cup - even if already full, if we didn't at least pretend to top it off, they got pissy. The second it's full of fresh water they drink out of it.

Bathroom in our new place has a sink only, no countertop. They still run into the bathroom and look at the sink, but they're confused and don't know what to do. We also realized that we need to fill their water bowl more often than we thought we did - they drank a larger percentage of their water from the bathroom cup than we realized.
posted by caution live frogs at 9:03 PM on June 7, 2007

Also, cats prefer fresh water, cold if possible. Running water is fresher (aerated) and so tastes better to them. Plus, no garbage disposal in the bathroom to growl at them, so it's less frightening than the kitchen.
posted by caution live frogs at 9:04 PM on June 7, 2007

I'm pretty sure that with our Moggy, it's the whole "closed-door" thing. She hates that. She's not overtly affectionate most of the time, but she likes to be wherever we are.
posted by web-goddess at 9:13 PM on June 7, 2007

I really think it's the 'closed door' thing. My old cat, a Tonkinese, would just lose her shit if a closed door was between her and me. The bathroom was of particular concern, as there's also (dun-dun-dun) WATER in there, and it might EAT me.

She was weird; every night she'd also go on 'rounds', opening all the bottom cabinets and walking in, just to make sure that no evil snuck in while she was on guard.
posted by spinifex23 at 9:47 PM on June 7, 2007

Well, I've always had a theory.

Places where cats poop are 'safe.' Animals only poop in safe places. You're the Alpha animal. The cat knows that where you poop is really, really safe.
posted by filmgeek at 9:56 PM on June 7, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think they're looking out for you. I had a cat who would sit in the bathroom and watch with grave concern whenever I took a bath or a shower. He also liked to come in and preen when I was on the toilet; the sink was in a different area and I never shut the bathroom door (I lived alone and didn't much care if the cat saw me poop) so I doubt it had anything to do with being closed off or anything.

I suspect it was all just an uh oh.. she's gone into the room with the scary water box! kind of thing, and he just wanted to make sure I came out alive.
posted by stefanie at 10:11 PM on June 7, 2007

When I take a shower, two of our cats like to sit on the edge of the bathtub between the outer (fabric) shower curtain and the inner (clear plastic) shower curtain. Sometimes they'll both get in there and stare at me. They don't mind if I splash water at them, as they seem to know they're safe behind the plastic. These two also come sit on the edge of the tub and fish their paws in the water while I'm taking a bath. I always thought they were just being sociable.
posted by Joleta at 10:14 PM on June 7, 2007

I never realized this was a common thing. My cat goes crazy for attention when I'm doing my bidness and makes some weird growly purrs that never happen any other time. I second the "captive audience" theory.
posted by aliasless at 10:21 PM on June 7, 2007

i think filmgeek's theory is pretty sound...but i second the water being a huge draw, whether it be sink or bath.

i'm not sure it is a closed door issue because i never use the bathroom at home with the door closed...
posted by schyler523 at 10:32 PM on June 7, 2007

While cats are not particularly bright, I think they have a built in Theory of Mind - if they see some animal interested in something, they think there may be some advantage to be interested in that too. I once knew an unaffectionate cat, that when ever you would work on papers on a table, she would jump up and sit on them (give them the 'cats ass seal of approval'). She didn't want affection because sometimes she would hiss at you if you tried to pet her or move her aside.

Anyway I think that cats have a strongly developed theory of mind both in the sense that they pay attention to what people are interested in AND they are very good at not signaling what they are interested in (so others cannot take advantage of their displayed interest). So who can tell what cats are thinking.

This goes double for cats confined indoors who are probably bored out of their minds and develop fascinations for running water, funny smells, or other things that normally their reserve prevents them from displaying direct interest in.

Who knows. They may think that you are flushing the toilet in order to make a sound that might drive mice out of hiding. I once knew a cat that would always follow people about 5 yards behind when they went on walks outdoors. In this case it may have made sense because the people might cause a small creature to flee and the cat could catch it - though I never heard of any success he had.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 11:00 PM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

but do you people seriously think that they know we're pooping?

Absolutely. Humans are so visual-centric that it's tempting to think that because cats can't see us pooping, they don't know we are. But cats, while more visual than dogs, are nevertheless far more olfactory-oriented than we humans. To a cat, pooping in the toilet is not much less obvious than if you were doing it right in front of them. That's my theoretical answer, but my observational answer is that I can watch my cat sniffing and becoming aware of it.

Also, bdun01 is sure that cats see us as property and not as the alpha cat. Well, the "cats owning humans" is a cute and humorous affectation, but it's certainly not true. As far as seeing us as alpha, I'd agree that this is true to some extent, excepting that cats are semi-social but not pack animals. A better characterization of how they see we humans, and based upon the observed effect of our domestication of them, is that they see us as their mother in relationship to their perpetual state of semi-infantilization. That might lead credence to the theory of being concerned where "mama" goes to poop.

Another part of it is the thing about cats usually wanting to be in any room they are locked out of. That doesn't explain it for those cats who aren't locked out of the bathroom, of course, which is the case with my cat.

With my cat, who did not display this behavior when I answered the AskMe you linked to from a year ago, it's an opportunity for affection thing. She's just recently discovered that I'm low enough to the ground to pet her, but I don't pick her up, and she can circle under and between my legs and look at what's in the wastebasket, bat at anything she finds on the floor, all while insisting that I continue to pet her while she purrs more loudly than she ever does otherwise (and she purrs a lot). It makes her happy. That's the biggest reason for her.

But this has also been coincident with an increase curiosity about the toilet and what I'm doing in general. For that matter, an increased interest in the sink, too.

She's been getting most of her water these days from the dripping bathtub faucet (to my chagrin, because I worry she's not getting enough because she's completely abandoned her water dish). So this is also an opportunity to get a drink while I'm in there, too. She just generally likes to be where I'm at.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:25 PM on June 7, 2007

While cats are not particularly bright, I think they have a built in Theory of Mind - if they see some animal interested in something, they think there may be some advantage to be interested in that too.

That may be overstating it, but I think your basic theory is correct. Cats being opportunistic carnivores, are just as curious as they are stereotyped to be. And they're especially curious about what their trusted animal companions are doing—very likely for the reasons you suggest.

I don't know if this means they have an especially strong awareness of other animals as self-aware creatures, though. I disagree with the anthropocentric folk who think that no animal (or maybe just the "higher" apes) have this sort of awareness (or that any other animals have a self-awareness at all!). I think many animals are both self-aware and to some degree model the behavior of other animals, even to the point that they may be constructing a rudimentary theory of mind, as you say. Though that's pushing it. But is this especially true of cats? I don't think so. I strongly believe that social animals are much more likely to project their own behavior and self-awareness onto other animals than are semi-social or solitary animals. I'm certain that this is the case with regard to dogs and cats.

I do think that cats see us as their mothers and that this has an influence on their behavior in terms of them being interested in what we're interested it. But only to a limited degree. I think cats are more selfish and utilitarian in terms of that sort of interest and don't, in the long run, expend that much energy trying to figure us out. They watch us carefully, of course. Trying to actually understand what's going on in heads? Not so much.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:34 PM on June 7, 2007 [2 favorites]

I always figured mine followed me, or more often my girlfriend, in because there we were a captive audience, the better to hear his complaints about the poor quality of the food/petting/litterbox/whatever-was-wrong-today-in-kittyland.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:59 PM on June 7, 2007

They watch us carefully, of course. Trying to actually understand what's going on in heads? Not so much.

I tend to think of it as a first order Theory of Mind - just be interested in something because somebody else is - I doubt that cats work hard on ascribing motives to others and can only wonder at what sort of motives they might come up with.

One of the big differences between dogs and wolves kept as pets is that dogs are very good at noticing what people are looking at or noticing and understand pointing at things while wolves are not. I wonder if house cats have been domesticated long enough to have a similar genetic change. Maybe somebody should experiment with some of the jungle-cat / house-cat hybrids that have gained recent popularity as exotic but legal pets.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 12:17 AM on June 8, 2007

I wonder if house cats have been domesticated long enough to have a similar genetic change.

No, they haven't been. It's been linked here, actually, but there was a study that showed that dogs are extraordinarily good at reading human facial expressions and body language. Dogs have been domesticated for a very, very long time—much longer than any other animal. Cats have only been domesticated since the beginning of documented human history and not at all in the prior archaeological record. Comparatively to other domesticated animals, that makes them newcomers.

As you say, a dog will understand pointing and will look to what you point at sometimes. But they will almost always look at your face if they're not understanding the pointing gesture. Cats, on the other hand, rarely look at your face to determine what you're trying to say, and when you point, will follow your finger, neither looking to your face nor understanding it as a pointing gesture and looking to where you point. There may be some cats somewhere that have learned what pointing means, but I've neither seen nor heard of a case.

I think our continued domestication of cats will eventually change their personalities a great deal and they'll probably understand us better and be more social. There'll be a corresponding loss to that gain, I think, as part of the appeal of cats for many of us is how alien they are to our sensibilities and such, especially compared to dogs (which I also love, but partly for very different reasons). My theory about why cat owners have so many cat stories relative to dog owners is that of course it's not that cat owners love their cats more than dog owners love their dogs, nor is it that cats are more intelligent than dogs or anything similar—it's that cats are essentially alien. As semi-solitary carnivores, their minds are quite different than ours—a lot "farther away" from us than are dogs, a very social animal like us. A lot of us enjoy our cats because they are often so inexplicable. We'll gain something as they become more comprehensible to us, but we'll lose something, too.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:19 AM on June 8, 2007 [7 favorites]

My deepest thanks to EB for rescuing this thread from total inanity. The question starts off with false premises—it's simply not true that "almost all cats" follow you into the bathroom—and is immediately torpedoed by the poster's refusal to consider sensible answers because of his inane theory that "most cats see us as their property" and insistence that "even the most anti-social cats who never want attention will do this" (which, as I said, is not true).

To the extent that cats do wander into bathrooms, they do so for different reasons: for company, for excitement, for water, for who-knows-what. Cats are frequently inscrutable. To look for a one-size-fits-all answer to a false question is to waste the resources of AskMe. I just hope this thread at least preempts future ones of the same nature.
posted by languagehat at 6:19 AM on June 8, 2007

Our cat only follows my wife into the bathroom, not me. Maybe my wife's toilet habits are infinitely more interesting than mine (or possibly less of a strain on his olfactory senses).
posted by worker_bee at 6:26 AM on June 8, 2007

My dogs do this too. Dogs may be a bit different, though, because they pretty much always want to be with you and not let you out of their sight. Also, as others have pointed out, it's a convenient petting time.
posted by walla at 6:50 AM on June 8, 2007

I think it's more along the lines of "It's time for the pride to visit the water hole, let's go! We might find a wounded zebra!"
posted by Soliloquy at 7:01 AM on June 8, 2007

We have two cats. One doesn't care if you go into the bathroom, but the other one anticipates it if you walk in the general direction. He loves running water and paces back and forth around the sink while you wash your hands, brush your teeth, etc. He also likes to curl up in the sink and sleep or just hang out. We got them one of the pet fountains a few years ago and both cats love it.
posted by Elaisa at 7:03 AM on June 8, 2007

More anecdotes! I grew up w/cats that never cared, but my current cat does follow me. What I've noticed:
- He consistently follows me, and only rarely follows my husband. I suspect he doesn't follow my husband as often because a) mr. tigerbelly is not as much of a sucker for petting the cat and b) mr. tigerbelly's toilet routine is not a default sitting position (which = petting, in the cat's tiny head).
- He does scratch at or fish under the door if I shut him out.
- If the toilet is involved, he seems to view it as petting opportunity.
- If facewashing etc. is involved, he will sometimes just lie behind my feet, and sometimes perch on the toilet lid to watch me.
- If a shower is involved, his presence is less guaranteed and less consistent. When he wanders in, he'll come in and watch the shower door quietly, like he's waiting for me to come out. He's not that interested in me when I come out, but more the last bits of water that drops from the faucet when I shut off the water. He's also totally fascinated by the toilet flush.
-He does the bathroom-stalk much more often in the AM and PM, not so much if I am home during the day. We feed him in the morning before we leave and at night before bed, and I am the primary feeder, so I think he is trying to get my attention to make me feed him. This is born out by the fact that he'll meow (and he's generally a very quiet cat) or try to pat my arm w/his paw when I'm washing my face, etc.

Best I can tell, his bathroom interest is a combo of three different things, at different times: interest in water, following the feeder, and mild clinginess.

And now, I'll stop telling stories about my cat, for god's sake.
posted by tigerbelly at 7:34 AM on June 8, 2007

To look for a one-size-fits-all answer to a false question is to waste the resources of AskMe.

Because those resources are limited, dammit, and those who have responded here now cannot proffer answers to any other critical issues of the day. I blame cats.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 7:46 AM on June 8, 2007

He does the bathroom-stalk much more often in the AM and PM

Meaning that he does the bathroom stalk less often at exactly noon and exactly midnight than in the AM and PM?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:53 AM on June 8, 2007

"Meaning that he does the bathroom stalk less often at exactly noon and exactly midnight than in the AM and PM?"

Far be it from me to speak for someone else, but I will anyway - I think the implication is that the the cat tends to engage in this behavior more frequently in the morning and in the evening, as opposed to, say, during the middle of the day.

Which I think you probably knew, as you seem like a sharp character.
posted by kbanas at 8:10 AM on June 8, 2007

Oh. Thanks for the clarification.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:22 AM on June 8, 2007

You're welcome! I'm always happy to help.
posted by kbanas at 8:23 AM on June 8, 2007

We have three cats. One of them is not the least bit interested in following anyone into the bathroom. In fact, I don't think I have ever seen him in the bathroom. That is the only male and our oldest cat. The middle-aged cat, which is female, follows us into the bathroom, but only after we sit on the toilet. If we go in to shower or was our hands or just pee, she doesn't want anything to do with it. If we do sit down on the toilet, she is instantly at the door scratching and meowing. When she gets in she comes for a quick petting, and then hops on the sink to wait for you to turn the sink on so she can get a drink. If you don't turn the sink on, she hops over to the bath tub and laps up the slowly dripping water. The youngest cat, also female, demands to be in the bathroom no matter what's going on. In fact she often beats us in there, and she enjoys playing in there so much that we have had to forcibly remove her sometimes, and often it's such a struggle that she can make it back in 3 or 4 more times before we either give up or get the door closed without hurting her. Her absolute favorite time is baby bath time when she will just sit on the edge of the tub while our 2 year old splashes the entire bathroom. She doesn't seem to mind at all. The behavior with this last cat has gotten to be quite frustrating as she is EXTREMELY interested in anything that happens in the bathroom to the point she gets in the way or under foot. She is fascinated by the water in the toilet, but she won't drink it. Unfortunately she has decided to check it out at the worst possible time, by running full blown into the bathroom, slamming open the door, hoping up on the toilet edge, almost falling in face first, getting peed on, before finally doing a flip into the bath tub, and then shaking it all off. She doesn't seem to mind though. She also likes to sneak into the bathroom and pull all the paper off the roll and then destroy it.

Three cats, three totally different behaviors. I guess it just goes to show that every cat is different, and you shouldn't spend too much time trying to figure them out cuz it's impossible.
posted by drgonzo2k2 at 9:30 AM on June 8, 2007

My cat follows me everywhere when I'm home, and like most cats that I've known he HATES closed doors (they seem to offend him). My cat loves the bathroom, though with him, it's definitely his obsession with water, which he is completely fascinated by (he doesn't even mind getting wet most of the time). And the thing about bathrooms is that pretty much everything that goes on in a bathroom includes water.

Water drives my cat so wild that he's even figured out how to flush the toilet on his own to watch it swirl down the drain (he does this when I'm at the sink and not paying attention to him or when I have company over and I am again not paying attention to him or when he's bored which is pretty often I gather).

With my cat, it doesn't have anything to do with, uh, waste disposal, at all. He doesn't seem to care at all about that.
posted by eunoia at 11:43 AM on June 8, 2007

My current kitteh sits and meows expectently at me when I'm doing mah bidness. I had another that would either jump into my lap (kinda hard to um, concentrate) or take a nap in the little nest of pants and underwear around my ankles.

I haven't seen it mentioned, per se, but maybe they *like* the smell??

Last one...

posted by LordSludge at 12:02 PM on June 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

"Standing water breeds pestilence."

Cats know this.
posted by jamjam at 1:38 PM on June 8, 2007

Why do cats follow you into the bathroom?

Just like me, they long to be close to you.

Your cats love you and they love sniffing bums.
posted by pracowity at 4:53 PM on June 8, 2007

I don't understand you people that don't close the door when you're taking care of bizness.
posted by apostrophe at 7:08 PM on June 8, 2007

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