In this article, we will explain why cats cover their food.
During feeding time, you may be surprised to see your cat scratching around its food the same way it would a litter box, leaving many owners wondering: why do cats cover their food?
While it might seem like your cat is trying to send you a message about your cooking skills, burying food isn’t necessarily a sign of displeasure.
When cats scratch around their food dish, what you’re actually seeing is a deep-rooted, instinctive behavior from its ancestors’ days in the wild.
Cats were domesticated much more recently than dogs and still retain many of their more wild behaviors. While people have lived with dogs for as long as 40,000 years, humans only began domesticating cats as mousers around 12,000 years ago.
Covering food is an instinctual behavior for cats leftover from their days in the wild. It isn’t just house cats that you see covering their food; all species of felines do it, including larger cats such as cougars or lions. Experts call this behavior “caching.”
While wild cats cache their kills, the same can’t be said for canine species. Animals such as coyotes or wolves tend to leave uneaten meat out in the open. On the other hand, felines will often cover a fresh kill with nearby foliage, sticks, grass, and more.
While not all house cats exhibit caching, it’s a surprisingly common behavior. There are a couple of different reasons why your cat might be scratching around its food dish:
1. They’re Saving Sustenance for Later:
Hunting is hard work, and in the wild, cats don’t want to let a big kill go to waste. In the wild, when big cats can’t finish their meal, they hide it for later by covering it in nearby debris such as brush or branches.
With their food hidden, it’s less likely that another hungry predator or scavenger will find it. Cats can come back to their kill later for a second helping, making it last longer and expending less energy on hunting.
Domestic cats often try to do the same thing with their bowl of kibble or wet food. If they can’t finish in one sitting, cats will attempt to “cover” what’s leftover so that they can come back later. Since there are no convenient branches or foliage lying around the house, all most cats end up doing is scratching the floor or carpet.
Some, however, may find material such as loose papers or blankets with which to cover their food.
2. They’re Hiding the Scent from Other Predators:
In addition to hiding food from sight, cats bury their food to cover any scents that may lead other animals to their meal. Predators and scavengers are less likely to seek out the scent of blood, keeping the cat’s kill safe.
Cats also instinctively bury food to hide the scent from other prey animals. Most cats have a defined hunting ground, and if it smells like blood, prey animals will flee to other areas. By caching food, cats ensure that they don’t scare away the food supply from their territory.
3. They Don’t Like the Smell:
While in most cases cats cover their meal for later consumption, in some cases, cats will bury food due to a putrid or rotting smell. Like us, cats can often recognize by scent if meat is likely to make them sick. They bury unsafe or decomposing food to protect themselves and their young from accidental illness.
If your cat doesn’t like the smell of a new brand of kibble or wet food, they may attempt to bury it. Scratching could also indicate that food smells off or putrid. Always check to ensure that the food you give your cat is still before its “Best By” date and safe to serve. If it smells rancid or has a slimy sheen, the meat may be bad and should get thrown out.
Plenty of cat owners find themselves asking: why do cats try to bury their food? Many also wonder if the behavior is problematic and whether they should do anything to stop it.
If your cat isn’t damaging any property when caching, it’s best to leave things be. This behavior isn’t a cause for concern and doesn’t pose a danger to you or your cat. In fact, allowing your cat to express instinctual behaviors such as caching is good for their mental and physical health.
In some cases, however, your cat may cause some damage in its efforts to bury its food. Cats may scratch up food, walls, or other surfaces close to food bowls. In some cases, they may even end up causing damage to their paws or nails.
If you notice your cat scratching up the area around its food bowl, you may want to intervene and stop caching behaviors. Removing the bowl can help to stop the temptation to dig. You can also try putting your cat’s bowls in an area with surfaces that are tough to damage, such as tiling.
Caching behavior may also be problematic for cats living in a multi-pet household. The urge to bury food can turn into a neurotic compulsion for some cats when faced with competition. This compulsion can cause damage not only to your pet’s paws and your property but also cause your cat undue amounts of stress.
If you notice your cat becoming obsessive about caching, you may want to monitor feeding time to curb the behavior. Remove the bowl as soon as your cat finishes eating, and distract it with toys or attention if it tries to cache.
You may also want to try feeding stressed cats separately from other pets to see if the behavior subsides.
Read also: Why do cats move their kittens?