Why Do Cats Try To Bury Their Food?

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Burying food is not as unusual as you might think. Does your cat cover their food with bedding or paper? Do they indignantly tip over the food bowl when they’re done eating?

Quick Overview

01

Because food burying is instinctive, your cat might feel the need to bury their food without even knowing why.

02

Food burying can reflect stress between cats in the household, particularly when there is limited space or unclear hierarchies

03

As long as it isn't tied to stress or anxiety, burying food is a mild behavior that is not generally concerning.

 

Have you seen your cat pawing persistently at the water bowl? Or does your cat scratch around like they’re in the litter box? It can look rather strange and seem a little pointless, but this behavior is an important instinct that many cats struggle to suppress. It could also signal that something is not quite right, and your cat is feeling worried or stressed.

If you’ve been wondering, “Why does my cat try to bury his food?” the answer might be more complex than you first expected. Let’s look at some common theories about why cats bury food and try to explain your cat’s strange antics.

1. Food Burying Is An Instinctive Cat Behavior

Your cat might feel the need to bury their food without even knowing why.

Cats have many instinctive behaviors: hunting, offering gifts, fighting, mating, and purring to name but a few. It is thought that food burying is not learned from the queen cat when kittens are young. But rather, it is driven by their ancestral roots and is embedded in their genes. So reprimanding your cat for this natural behavior is absolutely not the answer.

Your cat may feel the need to bury their food without even knowing why. Or, perhaps a motive is driving them to perform this task. If there is competition for resources amongst cats in the home, your cat may feel stressed about leaving food out.

Additionally, if a neighborhood cat is giving your cat grief, hiding their food might (in theory) prevent your cat from drawing attention to their territory.

Also Read: How Do Cats Mark Their Territory?

2. Your Cat Is Still Wild At Heart

In the wild, food storage, or caching, keeps meat fresher and hides it from scavengers.

Big cat species have been observed to find creative ways to store their food in the wild. Ideal locations are amongst rocks, under vegetation, hoisted into trees, and buried in the ground. Your cat might also find many unusual techniques to hide their food! Once the wild cat’s secret stash is covered, the ground keeps the food cool and, therefore, fresher.

Remember, cats are obligate carnivores that only eat meat. They don’t know when their next hunting opportunity will come and can go for long periods without eating. Every bit of meat is precious. But carcasses go bad pretty quickly if they are left out in the midday heat. So, logic dictates that burial might play a part in keeping the meat fresher for longer.

Also Read: 7 Similarities Between Domesticated Cats And Big Cats

Another motivation for food storage, or caching, is to keep it safe from predators. Food caching is common in many species, from grizzly bears to leopards. Kleptoparasites are animals that try to steal their kill; this is a huge threat to hunters. Leopards will even hoist their prey high into a tree so that they can graze undisturbed over hours or days.

Kleptoparasites survive on the remains of another animal’s hunt. Hyenas and vultures are scavengers, and great examples of creatures that don’t like to do the dirty work themselves. The concealed stores keep the food hidden away to be eaten later.

Caching also disguises the scent of the food. Wild carnivores and scavengers have a keen sense of smell. A nutritious stash might indicate a nearby den full of cubs, so it’s a risky business hanging on to the leftovers.

Also Read: 15 Little-Known Facts About Big Cats

3. He’s Tidying Up!

Covering leftover food with a blanket or towel might be a primeval behavior related to removing all traces that the cat has been there.

Domestic cats are renowned for being fastidious in their cleanliness. They love to groom and tidy themselves and will often refuse to lie on an unclean bed or use a soiled litter tray. If your cat has leftover food, some will feel compelled to clear it away.

Perhaps this is also a primeval behavior related to removing all traces that they have been there. Or alternatively, there is an evolutionary benefit to removing rotting meat from their living space.

Flies will be quick to lay eggs and spread disease, so clearing away the mess is most definitely the way forward. Again, leaving any food might attract unwanted feline visitors, so perhaps your cat would prefer to cover their tracks.

If your cat frequently buries wet food, perhaps you are feeding too much. Your cat might be signaling that the leftover food is a surplus and must be stored. It can be tricky to manage this as so many domestic cats rely on grazing to attain their daily calorie intake.

Also Read: Why Do Cats Groom Each Other? Reasons Why Cats Socially Groom

4. Your Cat Is Stressed

Cooked chicken and rice cat food

Food burying can be a sign that your cat is experiencing stress or conflict among other cats in the house.

Cats experiencing stress show a myriad of undesirable behaviors. Persistently burying food, particularly before they have even eaten, might be a sign of neurosis and anxiety. Other stress behaviors include overgrooming, inappropriate urination in the home, and hiding themselves away.

Food burying can reflect stress between cats in the household, particularly when there is limited space or unclear hierarchies. This might occur more frequently in house cats that do not have access to the outdoors. Competition over resources, particularly food, can be fierce and cause extreme anxiety.

Other changes inside and outside the home may cause your cat to feel on edge. Read more about stress in cats here.

Also Read: Why Do Cats Bury Their Poop?

In Summary

Generally speaking, burying food is a mild behavior that is not necessarily concerning.

Generally speaking, burying food is a mild behavior that is not concerning. Watching your cat embody the actions of their wild counterparts can be fascinating. And let’s admit it, it can also be quite cute. Just be sure there is no evidence that the behavior harms your cat and that they are not hiding food in places you’re unaware of. Otherwise, you might get a nasty surprise a few weeks down the line.

Also Read: The 10 Best Cat Slow Feeders & Puzzle Feeders

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it a problem that my cat covers his food?

The short answer is no. If your cat occasionally buries their food and you have to clean up after them, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Your cat is just expressing their ancestral survival instincts. But, if your cat is becoming neurotic and showing repetitive behaviors for prolonged periods, this becomes a problem.

Some cats will rub their noses on the food bowl until they are red-raw and ulcerated, or they will scratch at furnishings in an attempt to bury food. When the behavior becomes detrimental or destructive, it is time to consider what is underpinning it.

How do I stop my cat from trying to cover his food?

There are several steps you can take to reduce your cat’s caching behaviors:

  • Feed smaller meals more often throughout the day
  • Remove food as soon as your cat has finished eating
  • Clear away any bowls that are not in use
  • If your cat must graze, try using timed feeders and puzzle feeders
  • Allow cats to eat in their own space away from other household pets
  • Try to reduce the amount of stress your cat is exposed to
  • Ensure that neighborhood cats cannot enter your home (microchip pet doors can be helpful)
  • Keep the food dish on hard, wipeable surfaces and away from materials that can be used to cover them
  • Distract your cat with a toy as soon as they start to scratch around the bowl
  • Move your cat to another room or let them outside as soon as they have finished eating

If your cat is frequently leaving food, consider whether you are just giving too much at mealtimes. It is not ideal to leave uneaten food out all day, particularly in the summer. If food must be left out, dry food is preferable as it is less likely to spoil and easier to clean up.

But, rather than true grazing, feeding smaller amounts of kibble or wet cat food frequently throughout the day can be effective. This should reduce the amount of uneaten food left over at each meal. It might also prevent obesity and all the health issues associated with it. Obesity is common in adult cats and is a growing issue. You can find out more about feeding your cat and obesity here.

View Sources

Balme GA, Miller JR, Pitman RT, Hunter LT. (2017). Caching reduces kleptoparasitism in a solitary, large felid. Journal of Animal Ecology. 86(3), 634-644. Retrieved September 26, 2022.

Farhadinia MS, Michelot T, Johnson PJ, Hunter LTB, Macdonald DW. Understanding decision in a food-caching predator using hidden Markov models. (2020). Movement Ecology. 8(9). Retrieved September 26, 2022.

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About Dr. Joanna Woodnutt, MRCVS

Dr. Joanna Woodnutt (MRCVS) is a small animal veterinarian and writer who is passionate about helping owners to learn more about their pets in order to improve animal welfare. She loves to write and wants to empower owners to make the best decisions for their pets by giving them all the information they need. In her spare time, she takes consultations on the small island of Guernsey.

2 thoughts on “Why Do Cats Try To Bury Their Food?

  1. Leyla

    Burying is a habit I noticed in my cats a while back. The habit has never corelated with other poor behaviors and is not super consistent, so I would categorize as the post does, a mild and unconcerning behavior. I notice it more when the cats recieve wet food, so I was glad to see that it was mentioned. I will take note to the portions of wet food they enjoy. What puzzles me is: why bury their water? They just make digging motions around it, and never out anything in the water, but that one confuses me.

    Reply
    1. small mallory photoMallory Crusta

      Very interesting. I’ve heard that some cats will try to cover their water if it smells or tastes unusual—I would consider cleaning more frequently and/or switching to a water fountain and seeing if anything changes as a result. Wishing you and your cat all the best!

      Reply

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