cat beside her food bowl but why do cats scratch around their food?

Why do cats scratch around their food?

It is one of those things common cat behaviors that leave us scratching our heads in confusion, isn’t it? 

As a cat parent, I was perplexed when I saw one of my cats scratching around their bowl.

I had to know why cats do it, and today I want to share the answers I found with you.

Also Check: Why is My Cat Obsessed With Food?

5 Reasons Why Cats Scratch Around Their Food

Most of the time, it can be pretty tricky to figure out exactly what cats are thinking. Even more so when said behavior can come across as a bit cheeky. 

Just what is your cat saying by scratching around their food? Is the food not up to Sir Fluffalot’s standards?

Have you made a faux pas by putting their bowl down the “wrong” way? Why are they less inclined to scratch around their water bowl?

Even a seasoned cat owner can be left scratching their head.

There are several reasons your furry friend might paw around their food bowl, and almost all come down to instinctive and natural behaviors.

Reason 1. Resource Guarding

cat reaching for the fish on the table

Cats are mostly solitary animals, and the instinctual behavior to guard their food is deeply embedded in their behavior. 

Pack animals benefit from sharing resources, and they tend to follow complex social hierarchies when feeding. Sharing resources forms a part of their very survival. 

Solitary animals don’t need to put up with that sort of courtesy. 

A cat has no reason to share its uneaten food [1] with another animal. 

Therefore they put on displays, such as gathering and lording over their food dish. By doing this, they are essentially saying, ‘this is mine and you can find your own, thank you very much!’

Reason 2. Food For Later

Wild cats store food for later [2]. Scientists have observed the behavior in several large cat species. 

It has also been seen in smaller wild cats that are more closely related to our kitties. 

The formal term for this behavior is food caching.

Feline behaviorists believe that the instinct to store leftover food to eat later has stayed with modern house cats, despite not being necessary for survival. [3]

In our furry pals, the instinct can manifest as scratching in a digging motion around their food bowl. 

Reason 3. To Keep Prying Eyes (And Noses) At Bay

Another reason wild cats bury their food is that they suspect scavengers might try to get to it.

So the idea ties in with food caching, although it is not necessarily a sign that the cat stores it for very long. 

A cat might just want to hide their food for long enough to let a potential opportunist pass out of range before continuing the meal. 

This instinct manifests in house cats in very much the same way that the instinct for food caching does.

They will vigorously scratch around their food bowl as they might have done if trying to bury it.

Related: Why Do Cats Bury Their Food?

Reason 4. Maternal Instinct

There is another instinctive reason cats may scratch around their food.

In the wild, a mommy cat with defenseless kittens still needs to go out to hunt for food. 

Leaving her kittens alone already puts them at risk.

cat about to eat the wet food

The mommy cat is not about to put them in further danger by leaving any leftovers around that might draw predators [4]. 

Sometimes the cat will move the leftovers away from where the kittens are hiding, but she will usually bury the scraps instead, 

Suppose your cat has had kittens recently and has only now started scratching around her food bowl.

In that case, it could be that her protective maternal instincts are kicking in. It’s even more likely to happen if you feed her wet food.

Reason 5. To Hide Themselves

Did you know that your cat spends up to half of their time awake grooming themself? [5]

Their obsessive cleanliness is more than just a quirky sense of cleanliness.

In the wild, small cats go out of their way to hide any trace of their presence. 

By continuously grooming themselves, they avoid building up odors that could give them away.

While large cats leave their feces, house cats bury the contents of their litter box. 

It should come as no surprise that small cats instinctively clean up in and around their personal space, especially when it comes to leftovers.

When your cat scratches around their bowl, it might just be thanks to their instinct to keep things nice and clean.

READ MORE: Why Does My Cat Try to Dig Under Me?

Should I Stop My Cat Scratching Around Their Food?

You should not try to stop your cat from scratching around their food unless it’s disruptive.

A healthy expression of instinctive behavior should not be chastised.

The main reasons cats scratch around their food are natural, instinctive behaviors. It is very rarely a sign that something is wrong. 

Suppose your cat is older and looks disoriented while scratching around their bowl.

In that case, it can be a sign of dementia, also known as feline cognitive dysfunction [6]. 

The behavior can also hint at severe anxiety, but only if your cat shows new and odd behaviors that also suggest that there could be cause for concern.

Otherwise, there are virtually no health concerns that should lead to this behavior. 

Naturally, you may want to put a stop to the behavior if your kitty is damaging your carpet or wood flooring. 

cat eating smaller portion of dry food

You could try feeding smaller portion sizes more frequently to reduce excess food. In addition, it may help to change from a bowl to a dispensing feeder. The easiest solution is to place a loose tile under their bowl.

FAQs

WHY DO CATS ACT LIKE THEY ARE COVERING THEIR FOOD?

There are a couple of reasons cats ‘cover’ their food. It is usually to indicate ownership. In other words, ‘this food is mine, you get your own!’

WHY DO CATS SCRATCH AFTER SMELLING SOMETHING?

cat scratching a post

Cats scratch after smelling a scent to communicate with each other. Scratches usually communicate territorial boundaries.

SHOULD I WORRY IF MY CAT SCRATCHES AROUND THEIR FOOD BOWL?

For the most part, you need not worry if your cat scratches around their food bowl. It is almost always just natural, instinctive behavior. However, you know your cat best, and if you are concerned, always seek your vet’s advice.

Conclusion 

Cats have a few natural instincts that can explain why they scratch around their food bowl.

Unless your cat displays other behaviors that might suggest that something is wrong, there is nothing to worry about. If possible, don’t interfere or try to stop the behavior.

If they are damaging surfaces, try to accommodate your cat by moving their food bowl or placing it on a loose tile. 

References

  • 1. Crowell-Davis S. Available from: https://vetfolio-vetstreet.s3.amazonaws.com/mmah/c0/5aa87c41f7453c95daa1da3936aa3e/filePV_29_04_241.pdf
  • 2. Feeding behavior in cats – Vet Focus [Internet]. Royalcanin.com. 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 14]. Available from: https://vetfocus.royalcanin.com/en/scientific/feeding-behavior-in-cats
  • 3. Biró Zs, Lanszki J, Szemethy L, Heltai M, Randi E. Feeding habits of feral domestic cats ( Felis catus ), wild cats ( Felis silvestris ) and their hybrids: trophic niche overlap among cat groups in Hungary. Journal of Zoology [Internet]. 2005 [cited 2021 Dec 14];266:187–96. Available from: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-zoology/article/abs/feeding-habits-of-feral-domestic-cats-felis-catus-wild-cats-felis-silvestris-and-their-hybrids-trophic-niche-overlap-among-cat-groups-in-hungary/61958F357F012B2D41BB7796D2CEEB5B
  • 4. Nursing Mothers and Their Kittens [Internet]. Available from: https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Animal_Services/Foster_Care_Manual/NURSING_MOTHER_CATS_AND_KITTENS.pdf
  • 5. Cat M. Why Does My Cat… Groom Excessively? [Internet]. Vetstreet. 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 14]. Available from: http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/why-does-my-cat-groom-excessively
  • 6. Cognitive Dysfunction [Internet]. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. 2017 [cited 2021 Dec 14]. Available from: https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/cognitive-dysfunction

 

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Tamsin
Tamsin

Hi, I’m Tamsin. I’m a serious animal lover and dog behaviorist and trainer. In fact, I live on a farm with nine rescues! So, I love writing about and creating awareness around the health and wellness of all animals.

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