This is a safe space
Cats need a safe space, one where they keep their food and water. It’s a natural instinct that’s present in all cats, from great, big lions out in the wild to your domesticated housecat. Other natural instincts, like the need to hunt and drag prey back to that safe space, have changed a bit over time.
You've likely noticed that toys bring out some excitement and hunting-like behavior in your cat, like carrying favorite toys in their mouth. In seeking a place to secure their prize, your cat might feel compelled to bring it to their safe space, whether to hide it or to collect it among other special items. As their safe space is often small, your cat’s toy can end up in the water bowl by accident.
Play not prey
Imagine your cat believes the toy is prey and intends to drop it into their food bowl, but misses causing it to land in the water bowl. Or, your cat drops the toy successfully, but finds it gets in the way of actual food. Chances are, that toy will be getting knocked around and could end up in the water bowl, again, by accident.
It’s only a matter of time before your cat realizes they have found a fun new way of playing with toys and water, together! Maybe they’re batting around a toy with excellent buoyancy? Or fishing out a sinker with plenty of hearty splashes? Your cat is having a good time, not sending out menacing threats of death by drowning to other toys (and pets). Of course, once you’ve cleaned up the water bowl splash zone, your cat will likely remember all the fun they had. But there are other reasons they’ll repeat this new behavior.
It's an attention-getter
Your cat enjoyed their water-bowl antics because they had a good time watching your reaction, positive or otherwise. They might come to see placing their toys in the water bowl as an opportunity for more interaction with or attention from you. You can compare it to a common favorite among cats: knocking things off tables, shelves, and counters, watching you pick them up, only to do it again right away, while looking right at you.
It's a love letter
Your indoor cat doesn’t have access to birds, chipmunks, and other outdoor critters to hunt and drop off at your front door, as a token of gratitude. Instead, your cat has toys. The next time you find a “kill” in the water bowl, consider it a gift, a secret thank-you left in a place where only you will find it and know its meaning.
Now that you know why your cat is dropping toys in the water bowl, you can lower your guard, but you may need to put some safeguards in place to keep your cat’s safe space from becoming a flood zone.