- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
When it comes to mealtime, you may notice a peculiar behavior from your kitty. Some cats will scratch the floor or wall around their food, or even their food directly. But why do cats scratch around their food and is it a normal behavior?
For many cats, this scratching hearkens back to instinct, when cats played with their prey, and is a normal part of their eating routine. Other common causes can also include kneading to relax and keeping their area clean. However, Charleston-based house-call veterinarian and owner of Downward Paws, Dr. Shannon Barrett, warns that if scratching around food is a new behavior it could indicate digestive issues ranging from IBD to cancer. Always consult your veterinarian if you’re cat’s behavior suddenly changes or causes concern.
With the help of Dr. Barrett, we’ll look into some common reasons why cats scratch around their food, if you should stop the behavior, and when to see a vet.
6 Reasons Why Cats Scratch Around Their Food
Let’s take a look at the most common reasons why cats scratch around their food, ranging from normal behaviors to reasons that may require diet changes and consulting your veterinarian.
To Protect Their Kittens
It’s possible that female mother cats may be scratching out of instinct by food caching, where they save or store food securely for their young.
But, it may also have to do with marking territory for the purpose of protecting their kittens. “Cats have scent glands between their paws and by extending their paws they can activate these glands,” says Dr. Barrett. “If they are worried about their kittens, they may be scratching the floor to mark the territory and scare off any potential predators.”
This is a normal, instinctual behavior which shouldn’t indicate any health issues in your cat.
To Mask The Scent of Their Food
Though scratching may be mimicking burying for food caching—in order to mask the scent of food to keep it stored safely—this “burying” behavior may also have more serious implications.
“If cats are trying to mask the food scent, we do worry about an underlying medical issue,” says Dr. Barrett. “Anything that is causing GI distress, such as a food allergy, kidney disease, or cancer would be on the list.”
If your cat suddenly mimics burying, and does not fall into the mother cat category, it’s best to consult your vet to rule out any medical issues.
To Clean Up Their Space
“Many cats are fastidious groomers and like to keep the area around their food and litter boxes clean,” says Dr. Barrett.
For cats, grooming helps to keep them feeling clean, cool, and their coats in good condition. It is very common for cats to groom themselves, but this also applies to cleaning up their spaces, such as picking up dry food that may have spilled around their bowl.
So, if your cat is scratching around to clean up their area, this behavior is not only normal, but extra helpful to the household, too!
To Knead The Floor
Perhaps you’ve seen cats knead soft objects or even the laps of their human parents. However, some cats can also exhibit kneading on floors—including the floor area around their food bowl.
Kneading mimics the act of nursing as a kitten, and can be very comforting for cats, who may also display this behavior around mealtime. “Many cats do it to soothe themselves and, in return, become more relaxed,” says Dr. Barrett. “It is normal behavior.”
If kneading is accompanied by hiding, tail flicking, stiffening or aggression, be sure to contact your veterinarian.
Too Much Food
If your cat is pawing at their food, they may be attempting to “bury” it—but in this case, burying it because they are done and wanting to get it out of the way.
This behavior can happen with dry food, but may be more common with cats who eat wet food, because it doesn’t stay fresh as long.
The simplest solution is to make sure you feed your cat carefully portioned meals to avoid waste and issues.
They Don’t Like Their Food
Another reason cats may be scratching or “burying” their food? They just don’t like it!
Cats can be picky about their food, which is why they may leave it uneaten or attempt to get rid of it by scratching/burying.
Dr. Barrett suggests returning to your cat’s previous diet if they’re scratching at something new. But, if that’s not an option, “look into diets for sensitive stomachs.”
How Do I Stop My Cat From Scratching Around Their Food?
“There is no need to stop this behavior if it is part of your cat’s routine,” says Dr. Barrett, “but if it starts suddenly, consider if you have changed anything recently.” Have you changed their food, bowls, or bowl location? Cats are particular and it doesn’t take much to trigger a change in their behavior.
However, you may want to stop your cat if the scratching is destructive or is related to a medical issue. “If the scratching behavior is accompanied by a decrease in appetite, weight loss, vomiting, or diarrhea, it is time to contact your veterinarian,” says Dr. Barrett.
If a medical cause has been ruled out, Dr. Barrett advises the following:
- If they are eating dry food, consider a slow feeder bowl. These cause your kitty to eat at a slower pace and therefore extend their eating time. Ancestrally, cats had to hunt for their prey so using a slow feeder bowl makes them work harder to get to their dry food.
- Another option is to use treat dispensers for their dry food. These toys have small openings in them and as they roll them around the house, their dry food will fall out. Again, the goal is to make them work a little harder for their food.
- Some kitties also tend to be more “paw oriented” and like to use their paws to explore their environment. For these cats, treat/food puzzles that require them to use their paws to get their food out may be a good option. These are all ways to enrich your cat’s environment. An entertained cat is a happy cat.
You might also consider reducing your cat’s food portion size, using cat toys to redirect behavior, staying on top of leftovers, trying a new location for your kitty’s bowl or seeing if elevated food bowls do the trick. The most effective method will depend on your cat and the source of their scratching behavior.
Let’s face it, cats are strange! And sometimes it’s hard to know if their behaviors are because they’re quirky little creatures, or because something is wrong. When in doubt, you should always check with your veterinarian.
That said, in most instances, cats scratching in and around their food is a normal behavior based on instincts and preferences. Should your cat’s scratching come on suddenly, or be accompanied by other behavioral and digestive issues, then it’s time to make an appointment to address any medical problems.
From knocking things off our desks, to laying on our heads, there’s so many silly reasons to love our cats. We love and adore them for the little oddballs that they are, even, sometimes at the expense of our nice wood floors.