Why Does My Cat Scratch and Dig Around His Food?

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Have you ever noticed your cat scratching around their food bowl? It almost looks like they’re trying to bury their food with imaginary soil and it can be quite cute to see.

This is a common feline behavior noticed by many owners. It’s perfectly normal and nothing to be alarmed about. There are a few reasons why your cat may be doing this and we’ll go through them in detail below.

What Does This Behavior Look Like?

Scratching around their food is an instinctive behavior for cats. This means that your cat does this without being taught to do this by another cat or owner. It’s an innate (from birth) behavior.

If you haven’t noticed your cat doing this behavior before, or you’re not sure if you have, there are a few things to watch out for. Usually, you’ll notice your cat scratching the floor around their food (or water) bowl, before or after a meal.

They might scratch once or twice or they might continuously scratch around the bowl. It can look like they’re trying to dig over the bowl in order to bury it and sometimes if there’s newspaper or a blanket nearby they’ll actually cover the food bowl with this.

If they’re scratching quite a lot, you’ll hear their claws against the floor while they’re performing this behavior.

It’s important not to confuse this behavior with kneading, affectionately known as “making biscuits” or “kneading bread.” Kneading is when cats stretch out their front paws and then pull them back, alternatively and rhythmically. Kneading is a behavior that cats learn as a kitten.

They knead against their mother’s tummy to increase the flow of milk and hence are rewarded with more milk. This behavior is often a sign of a contented, happy cat.

The difference between kneading and scratching around the food bowl, is that a kneading cat should seem relaxed and rhythmically moving their front paws in and out, without scratching the floor. They may even be purring quite loudly.

A cat that is scratching isn’t likely to purr and the scratching will sometimes come in contact. It usually involves one paw for a period of time, sometimes switching to the other paw.

Why Do Cats Scratch Around Their Food Bowl?

Scratching around their food is an innate behavior (present from birth) that many cats do.

There are many reasons why cats may display this behavior. It isn’t a harmful behavior and it’s often nothing to be worried about, but it’s still useful to know why they do it. We’ll go through some of the reasons now.

  • One of the reasons your cat may be doing this is that they’re hiding their scent. This is a common reason and it’s something that cats would have done in the wild. Cats in the wild are solitary hunters, avoiding other cats apart from the mating season, so it makes sense that they would prefer that their presence goes unknown. By burying their food, they’re disguising the scent and making it harder for other cats to detect the smell of the food. In this way, they might go undetected in the area.
  • Maternal cats with a litter of kittens with them would often bury their food to mask their scent and prevent other cats from detecting them. This would have been very important in the wild as other cats wouldn’t necessarily have been friendly to young kittens and the litter would have been at risk.
  • Food caching is something often seen in wild felines. This is where they bury and hide their food in order to come back to it later and eat it. This would be beneficial in areas with large amounts of competition for food (e.g., other cats hunting and looking for food supply).
  • Another reason and one that I’ve seen with my own cats, is that they don’t like the food. This is more likely after you’ve introduced a new food or different flavor, and they’ve left most of the food uneaten and are then trying to cover it. This can be easily remedied by returning to their old food and seeing if the behavior continues or resolves.
  • They may like and enjoy their food, but there might be too much food in the bowl and they can’t finish it. Cats are quite clean and sometimes prefer to cover or bury their food if they’ve had enough instead of leaving it in the bowl all day. This is particularly common if their food bowl is in close proximity to their water bowl and bed. Ideally the food bowl should be separate from these.
  • As I discussed above, this behavior can be confused with kneading which is a perfectly normal, happy behavior.

Should We Try To Stop Them Scratching?

Scratching around the food bowl is nothing to be concerned about, though it might mean that your cat doesn’t like the new food you’ve just introduced.

It’s understandable that when you see this behavior that you might be alarmed or worried about your cat. As you can see from the reasons above, there’s nothing alarming about this behavior and it’s a normal behavior that some cats display.

If you’re concerned that it might be related to the food, there are a few things that you can do. If you’ve recently introduced a new food and your cat has started displaying this behavior since then, it might mean that they don’t like the new food.

You can try going back to the old food or if you need to change the diet (e.g., switching to sensitive food for a tummy issue), you could try a different brand or flavor and see if the behavior continues with that food.

If your cat seems to like the food but they’re not eating all of it, it might be that they’re getting too much food at one time. Cats like to eat several, fresh, small meals throughout the day instead of one to two big meals.

In the wild, they would have eaten several small prey animals throughout the day so it makes sense that they don’t like eating large meals. Some cats do well with ad lib feeding and grazing, but if your cat is displaying this behavior it might be worth offering them smaller meals throughout the day and see if they seem happier with this.

Puzzle feeders and other interactive feeding methods are also useful as they make feeding time fun (mimicking prey behavior) and allow the cat to eat in their own time. Automated feeders similarly allow cats to eat in their own time and could be useful in this situation.

A Few Exceptions…

Even though this behavior isn’t harmful and usually nothing to be concerned about, there’s a few exceptions to this. If the behavior is new and not related to food changes, it’s a good idea to get your cat checked by your veterinarian and monitor for signs of stress.

Also Read: 5 Visual Signs of a Stressed Cat and How to Help

Anything stressful, for instance, a new cat in the house, cats outside that your cat fights with, etc., might make your cat feel stressed and they may perform this behavior more in this case. This is less likely, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

Take Home Message

If you notice that your cat is scratching around the food bowl, don’t be overly concerned. It’s good to know why they do this, but it’s not a harmful behavior and it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong. If it’s related to food, that’s easily solved and in most cases, it’s an instinctive behavior that cats display with no underlying negative reason.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is my cat pawing the floor?

Cats may paw or scratch the floor if they’re trying to bury or hide their food. This is a normal behavior that is instinctive in cats.

How to stop my cat from trying to bury his food?

Burying their food is a normal behavior and it’s nothing to worry about. If they’re burying a lot and making a mess with their food, you can try to put less food out at a time, use interactive feeders, or use a heavy ceramic non-slip bowl.

Why does my cat scratch the floor around her food bowl?

Cats often do this if they’re trying to hide the sight or smell of their food. This is an instinctive behavior that cats have and it’s nothing to be concerned about.

Why do cats scratch around their water bowl?

Cats sometimes do this to hide their food and water stations; this is something they would have done in the wild to prevent other cats from detecting them.

Why do cats scratch around their litter box?

Cats often do this when they’re burying their feces. This is a normal behavior to cover the scent of their feces from other cats. If they’re in the litter box a lot and scratching, this might be a sign of cystitis so a veterinary visit is warranted.

About Aisling O'Keeffe, DVM

Aisling qualified from University College Dublin as a veterinarian in 2015 and went on to work in a mixture of small animal hospitals here and in the UK, including a cat-only veterinary clinic for 3 years. She has completed a postgraduate certificate in Small Animal Medicine and the International Society of Feline Medicine's postgraduate certificate in Advanced Feline Behaviour. Last year, she wrote a children's book called 'Minding Mittens', which aims to educate children on cat behaviour and care and featured on the RTE tv series 'Cat Hospital'. She has recently become a Fear Free certified vet, which aims to make vet visits as stress-free and enjoyable as possible. In her spare time, she enjoys looking after her pets, which includes 6 recently rescued guinea pigs and 13 ex-battery hens and renovating her cottage with her husband and baby

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