Most cats will pester owners for food and treats throughout the day. This suggests that food is a significant part of the feline day. This makes it a little odd to find a cat trying to cover food like poop. This behavior is surprisingly common, though.
Cats bury food to mask their presence. Cats are always alert to the threat of predators. By burying uneaten food, the cat removes any sign that it was present in a territory. Cats also bury food to save it for later. This is known as caching. Be mindful of this. Cats will rarely eat the buried food, instead opting to hoard it. This can lead to obsessive compulsive behaviors.
A cat not eating and trying to bury food is a strange, and sometimes frustrating, action. Try to be patient as your cat is just following its natural instincts. All the same, identify the trigger for this habit and ensure your cat stays safe.
Table of Contents:
- 1 What Does it Mean When Cats Cover Their Food?
- 2 Why Do Cats Cover Their Food Bowl?
- 3 My Cat is Pawing Around the Food Dish Before Eating
- 4 Should I Let My Cat Bury Food?
- 5 Stopping a Cat from Burying Food
What Does it Mean When Cats Cover Their Food?
Cats bury their food for one of two reasons. Both explanations stem from feline instinct. Your cat is either attempting to hide its presence from threats, or hoarding food for later.
As cats are skilled hunters, they are acutely aware of the dynamic between predators and prey. Cats understand that scent is arguably the most pivotal sense when tracking a potential kill. This means that cats will remove any trace of their own scent from an area.
This includes uneaten food. Once your cat has eaten its fill, it will not feel comfortable leaving leftovers. To do so is to announce where the cat can be found in future. Instead, the cat will bury this food. Often, it will be buried in a different location to confuse predators.
This relates to instinct once again. A cat that stalks a mouse of bird will not eat the entire corpse. Some cats leave the body where they found it. Others bury the evidence, ensuring a similar same fate does not befall them.
You may even find that your cat attempts to bury an empty bowl. This is because felines have an acute sense of smell. Your cat can scent the food through the empty bowl. Remove, and thoroughly wash, empty bowls as soon as your cat finishes eating.
Saving for Later (Caching)
Many animals bury food to save it for later, in case of a shortage. This is rare in cats, as felines trust their hunting instincts to always locate prey. This habit, referred to as caching, can arise in housecats though.
If your cat has taken to caching and hiding food, ask yourself why. The likeliest explanations are:
- Food insecurity
- Hoarding and OCD
A cat that worries where its next meal is coming from may start caching. No cat should ever feel this way. If your cat has food insecurity, it must be investigated. Your bond will be damaged by this lack of trust.
If your cat is an unspayed female, investigate if she could be pregnant. Toward the end of the gestation period, a pregnant cat starts to prepare for birth. This involves making a nest for her young and potentially storing food.
Ensure that your cat is not developing a compulsion to hide food. Many cats hoard objects as an act of territoriality. Perishables are not of appeal, though. Cats prefer to hoard items that belong to owners, such as small garments. Food will have a different explanation.
Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice confirms that cats develop obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your cat may be hoarding to soothe anxiety and satisfy a compulsion.
Why Do Cats Cover Their Food Bowl?
We have looked at why cats try to bury their food. Some felines will take this behavior to another level, though. The cat will cover the entire bowl. This may be done using the cat’s own body, or with external foreign objects.
If your cat is covering its food bowl, it may be marking the food. This can take many forms. Sometimes, the cat will simply lie on the bowl. This behavior is similar to when a cat lies upon your computer or phone. The cat is claiming the important item as its own.
Alternatively, the cat may cover its bowl with external foreign objects. These will carry the cat’s own, unmistakable scent. As a result, this deters other animals from eating the food. Examples could include clumps of the cat’s own fur, or even soiled litter.
This is obviously unsanitary. Do not allow this behavior to continue, as the cat risks eventually making itself sick. Remove the bowl once the cat shows no inclination to eat. You can replace it later with a fresh serving if the cat is hungry.
This process must be managed carefully. If the cat sees you take away the bowl, it will be treated as an aggressive invasion of territory. You will likely be clawed or bitten. Distract the cat, removing the bowl while attention is focused elsewhere.
Protesting Food Changes
Some cats cover their food bowl as a form of protest. The cat is demonstrating that it considers the contents unacceptable. Examples of why this may occur include:
- Food is chilled, i.e. served straight from the refrigerator
- The brand of food is different
- Unfamiliar scents are tainting the food
- Fussiness – the cat wants a different flavor
The cat will cover the bowl until it sees results. Take a similar approach to when the cat is behaving territorially. Remove the food and see if your cat requests a meal later.
If this is the case, ensure the cat eats rapidly. Do not allow the cat to get into the habit of covering food in protest. This can become a power play that leads to unwelcome dominant behaviors.
Your cat may be covering its food bowl as it has no desire to eat. Equally though, the cat remains territorial. Just because it does not wish to eat this food, it doesn’t mean anybody else can. It will cover the bowl to ensure the food is not taken away or offered elsewhere.
If your cat engages in this practice, learn why it has lost its appetite. Every now and again, cats are just not in the mood to eat. They will change their mind when hungry enough. There will be an explanation for regular indifference to nourishment though.
Cats can be pernickety about where they eat. While dinner is the highlight of the day for many felines, a particular ambiance is required. For a cat to comfortably eat, the meal will need to meet the following criteria:
- Room temperature food of appealing scent and taste
- A bowl of appropriate size, material and dimensions
- Quiet location, away from footfall or external noises
- No additional scents, including litter trays or air fresheners
In some cases, a cat will also refuse to eat when another pet is in the vicinity. Even if the other animal is not interested in your cat’s meal, it will feel threatened. When a cat eats, its attention is entirely on food. A cat cannot eat and protect itself at the same time.
If your cat’s food location does not meet these demands, it may not eat. Instead, the cat will guard the bowl until the environment becomes more to its liking. You can either move the food bowl or remove external distractions to achieve this.
If your cat has been out wandering for the day, it may have visited another family. In such instances, cats frequently eat in a second home. As a result, it is not hungry at a traditional mealtime.
This additional feeding could be by accident or design. Some humans will assume a cat that begs for food is stray. They will provide a meal as a misguided act of kindness. Equally, some people offer a cat food to bond and encourage future visits.
Alternatively, your cat may have learned that the home is unattended. It gained access through windows or cat flaps. The cat may help itself to another feline’s food, unbeknownst to the owners of the home.
Either way, the upshot will be the same. The cat wants to ensure nobody takes its food away but cannot face eating. This will result in covering the bowl until it is ready to eat. As always, remove the food away. Your cat must be trained to learn this conduct is unacceptable.
A loss of appetite is often a symptom for a feline health concern. Instinct forces the cat to cover its bowl. Alas, the finds itself unable or unwilling to eat due to a physical or emotional issue. Common examples of this include:
- Depression, stress, or anxiety
- Dental pain
- Allergic reactions
- Respiratory infections
- Issues with internal organs
- Chronic pain in the joints or spine
You’ll need to watch your cat carefully, looking for other warning signs of sickness. Cats often hide illness, but loss of appetite is a common – albeit universal – symptom. One thing is certain though. A cat refusing to eat will only become weaker.
With this in mind, encourage the cat to seek nourishment. The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends the use of synthetic facial pheromones for this. These can be purchased from any reputable pet store.
My Cat is Pawing Around the Food Dish Before Eating
A cat pawing around their food dish is an instinctive behavior. If the cat’s claws remain sheathed, this is a positive action. It’s a sign of pleasure. Cats knead to relax. The action reminds them of extracting milk from the teat of their mother.
Another explanation is the cat marking the area using scent glands in its paw pads. This ensures that the food has been claimed. This is important to cats, who wish to eat uninterrupted. This behavior is most common in multi-cat households.
If the cat’s claws are unsheathed, it may still be marking. Many cats use claws to create unmistakable signs of claimed territory. This is also an instinctive behavior. It can be problematic, though. Your cat may damage the floor or hurt itself.
If your cat is prone to this action, do not punish it. The cat is acting on instinct, not willful destructiveness. Focus instead on protecting the floor. Lay a rubber mat, or something that feline claws will not damage, under the food bowl.
Should I Let My Cat Bury Food?
In theory, there is no harm in allowing a cat to bury food. The cat is just doing what comes naturally. All the same, the practice does come with drawbacks. If your cat buries more food than it eats, consider the risks.
An obvious risk of a cat burying food is the perishable nature of edible materials. Food will not remain fresh for long. If it does, the food is processed and unsafe for cats anyway.
If your cat is burying food, it will start to rot. This can lead to foul smells in the home, and potential staining to fabrics. What’s more, the cat may rediscover the food later and try to eat it.
This is unlikely. Cats have a strong sense of smell which influences eating habits. If food has an unappealing aroma, the cat is unlikely to consume it. Cats are also curious, though. The risk remains of the cat making itself unwell remains present, no matter how slim.
Attracting Other Animals
If your cat buries food, it will obviously remain uneaten. That could attract other animals to your property, especially if you live in a rural area. This can quickly become problematic. The first consideration will be rodents.
Rats and mice are natural scavengers. They will be drawn to food scents and reproduce rapidly. Before you know it, you could have a major rodent infestation. Even the most active feline hunter can only control a rodent population so much.
Insects will also be drawn to hidden caches of food. You’ll find that your home is a haven for houseflies, ants and wasps. These visitors will be unwelcome, and can inflict health issues upon a cat.
Wild animals may also access your home, especially if you have a cat flap. Feral and stray cats are a concern. As explained by Wildlife Research, feral felines rummage through garbage for meat scraps. If they access a home with food, these cats will hit the jackpot.
This quickly becomes a problem. Feral cats live in colonies, so you’ll be beset with intruders begging to be fed. What’s more, feral cats often carry parasites and diseases. Your home could become a breeding ground for bacteria, fungi or fleas.
Lack of Nourishment
Consider how much food a cat is burying against how much it actually eats. Cats burn a lot of energy and calories every day. This energy needs to be replaced through meals. If your cat is not eating enough, it will lose weight at a dangerous pace.
You also need to check how your cat is seeking nourishment. Some cats develop a taste for bad habits. Your cat may be burying its meals and instead sustaining itself on treats. This will lead to an unbalanced diet devoid of appropriate vitamins and minerals.
What’s more, your cat may forget where it buried food. This especially likely in older cats that experience cognitive decline, including fading memory. If the cat buries food and gets hungry in the night, expect to be woken up.
Stopping a Cat from Burying Food
If your cat has taken to burying food to excess, train it out of the habit. There are numerous techniques for this. The most effective solution depends on why your cat buries the food in the first place. Try making some lifestyle adjustments, including:
- Breaking your cat’s food allowance into multiple smaller meals
- Immediately remove any leftover food when your cat leaves its bowl
- Distracting the cat with a toy or petting when it starts digging at leftover food
- Making the cat work for its food, such as solving puzzles to release kibble
- Keeping the calm cat and secure so it has no reason to fear predators
If none of these tricks work, consider switching your cat to a wholly dry diet. This will, at least, reduce the risk of food rotting. All the same, you should look deeper into why the cat insists on burying food. Feline instinct is powerful, but another issue may be at play.
A cat burying its food on occasion is natural and no cause for concern. All felines will engage in this behavior from time to time. Just keep an eye on things if it becomes a regular habit. This suggests that your cat is developing some unwelcome and unhelpful compulsions.