Why does my cat take food out of his bowl to eat?
There are actually two seemingly similar but actually very different versions of this behavior: in one, your cat scoops up food with a paw to stuff into his mouth, or lick off his paw. Some cats won’t actually use the paw as a utensil, but will, instead, use the paw to transfer food from the bowl to the floor to eat it there.
Here is an obliging cat to demonstrate the paw being used as a utensil. This one really appreciates his kibble, doesn’t he?
In the other version, a cat will take food out of her bowl, with her mouth or paw, and bring the food away from the bowl to eat somewhere else. This is probably not the same behavior the hungry cat above so kindly demonstrated.
Why does my cat take food out of the bowl at all?
Let’s make one thing clear: you’re the one who bought the cute ceramic dish with the cat whiskers on it, and the pretty silicone placemat to put under it to keep things tidy. And, if your cat suddenly requested a knife and fork to eat his dinner, and a linen napkin to dab his damp little lips after, you’d be thrilled.
But it was never the cat’s idea to eat neatly from a bowl and keep the mess contained to the placemat.
So, before you assume something is “wrong” with your cat, or get annoyed with your cat for making a mess, think about whether your cat asked to be served in a bowl. Had your cat been asked, she might have requested that you release a few dozen mice into the living room for her dining pleasure.
And just in case you think your cat is the messiest cat on the planet, here are some kittens to make you appreciate the cat you have:
These babies make your cat look like a regular Ms. Manners, don’t they?
Why is my cat eating food off of his paw, or putting it on the floor?
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There may be a simple reason why your cat isn’t simply sticking his whole face into his bowl to pick up his food with his mouth like a “normal” cat.
It is possible your cat has whisker fatigue.
Whisker fatigue is still a controversial condition, but there is growing acceptance for the idea that cats’ hypersensitive whiskers just get sensory overload.
(for more information about a cat's whiskers, read, "Why do cats have whiskers?")
A cat’s whiskers, also called “tactile hair” or vibrissae, are not just pretty facial adornments. They have a purpose. They’re so responsive, they can help a cat detect tiny changes in air current, which could indicate the movement of prey, and navigate around furniture in a darkened room. Whiskers can help a cat gauge space, telling her whether or not, for example, she can squeeze into that tiny space behind the bookshelf.
There are highly sensitive organs at the base of each whisker that send messages to a cat’s brain called proprioceptors. We don’t yet know for sure, but it’s possible that continual firing of the proprioceptors is annoying or unpleasant for cats. “Fatigue” might not be the exact right word for it, because the whiskers don’t really get tired, but “whisker stress” might be.
We don’t know for sure why cats spoon their food out of their bowls with their paws to eat – whether right from their paws or off the ground – but it’s possible they just don’t want their super-sensitive whiskers to touch the sides of their food dishes.
If you suspect this might be the case, and your cat’s food bowl is too deep and narrow to clear the whiskers, you can try serving your cat dinner on a wide paper plate with a low rim. Or, you can purchase a specially designed “whisker-safe” cat food bowl, like this one from Dr. Catsby, which is wide, has no lip, and is made from stainless steel.
Note that whisker fatigue doesn’t just apply to the food bowl. Water bowls may be equal offenders, and why I recommend purchasing a water fountain for your cat if they are fussy drinkers, such as this model by Veken, or this one by MOSPRO. Read more about cats and their sometimes-vexing relationships with their water bowls in this post:
Why does my cat take food from his bowl to eat somewhere else?
A cat who takes food from his bowl to move it to another location is probably doing it for a reason that has nothing to do with whisker fatigue. The reason may not be something even he understands.
Some wild cats, and even outdoor or feral domestic cats, move their food to another location after they’ve caught it.
Lions differ from our house cats in this regard. They hunt together as a pride in a well-organized, well-coordinated effort to bring down large prey. When they eat, they eat together, and a whole bunch of lions make for a crack security team around a valuable meal.
Other wild cats, like leopards, are solo hunters and solo eaters. Without a “pride” of fellow leopards to help them protect their kill, leopards have been known to drag an entire carcass up into a tree to protect it from other wild cats and hyenas. Even smaller cats such as ocelots and margays will hide their kills to protect them from larger cats and birds of prey looking for a free lunch.
Our domestic cats are more like leopards. House cats evolved from the African wild cat, which is also a solitary, territorial hunter. When an outdoor domestic cat takes down prey, it’s usually a meal for one, like a tiny mammal, a bird, insect, or spider. A cat may move this catch to a safer place to avoid calling attention to it. She doesn’t want to lose her hard-won dinner to a larger predator.
Cats are social animals but not social eaters
As an aside, just because our domestic cats hunt alone, doesn’t mean they are unsocial. Cats are very social but they are not social eaters. Why is that?
Our cats may choose to live in large, socially structured groups, and behave in cooperative ways with other cats in their group. But they lack the communication skills of more social animals, like dogs. The primary way that cats avoid conflict with other cats is through social distance. Social as they are, cats like to hide, rest, and eat out of sight of other cats.
Cats who drag food away may not like where you put the bowls
A cat who takes food out of his bowl to eat in another spot may be performing an instinctual behavior handed down from his African wild cat ancestors. Or, he may simply not like eating where you want him to eat.
Something, from your cat’s perspective, may be wrong with the placement of his food bowl. Is it in the kitchen, where your noisy toddler plays with her toys? Is it too close to the dog’s bowl, and does the dog come sniffing around every time you feed the cat? It’s possible that she’s taking her food “to go” because she just doesn’t feel safe eating where you put it.
Is the cat’s food bowl right next to the water bowl? Drs. Of Veterinary Medicine Julia Fritz and Stepanie Handl studied the drinking behavior of domestic cats. They found that if cats were given several bowls to choose from, they’d always choose a water bowl that was in a different room than their food bowl.
We don’t know why cats don’t want the food and water bowls to live side-by-side. You can spend time trying to guess, or you can just separate the bowls.
Look at the location of your cat’s food dish from her point of view. Is there something that could be done to improve the placement of the bowl?
Multi-cat households can cause feeding-station stress
If you have more than one cat, you probably have more than one litter box, and more than one cat bed, and certainly more than one cat toy. Your house probably already feels like a kitty amusement park.
Certainly, all the cats can eat dry food out of one, single, big plate, right?
If you have a single feeding station for multiple cats, it may seem like everybody is eating, and everybody is happy with the current arrangement. But if one cat is grabbing a bite of food and running off to finish it in the coat closet, everybody is not happy with the current arrangement.
As mentioned above, cats actually don’t like eating with other cats in close quarters. It’s stressful for them, and stress can lead to serious physical and psychological health problems in cats. If you have any idea that something in your household is causing one of your cats to be stressed, you should do everything you can to alleviate it.
How to eliminate feeding-station stress in a multi-cat household
You might not be completely literate in cat-speak and so you might not notice the subtle bullying that may be occurring at the feeding station in your house. But if you’ve got a “grab and go” kind of cat, it’s probably happening.
First, separate each cat’s food into individual bowls. Second, place the bowls far apart.
If you’ve got a particularly stressed out cat, you may have to feed that cat in a separate location. She might need to eat her meals in another room.
Even if you feed only dry food, set up multiple areas for your cats to find food so no one ever feels intimidated by any other member of the household.
Food-dispensing puzzle toys: another option for reducing feeding stress
Food-dispensing toys can help solve several feeding problems, including feeding-station stress.
First, let’s define a food-dispensing puzzle toy. Puzzle toys were originally developed to provide enrichment for captive zoo and laboratory animals. A food-dispensing puzzle toy is any item that contains food that is designed to release the food when an animal manipulates it.
For example, an empty water bottle with a hole cut in the side and filled with cat treats, is a food-dispensing puzzle toy. A cat will hopefully learn that rolling the water bottle will cause some treats to fall out of the hole for him to eat.
Food-dispensing puzzle toys are great for easing feeding-station stress in a multi-cat household, so long as you provide enough toys for everybody (and then some). Puzzle toys are also great for cats who eat too quickly and for cats who really need a between-meal snack.
(This Trixie Activity Board is kind of the Rolls Royce of puzzle toys but it has a number of challenges to keep things interesting for your cat, including a set of "fish bowls" for scooping, an licking slits for liquid treats, a pegged section that requires planning and forethought, and a "mouse tunnel" for hidden treats.)
But most importantly, food-dispensing puzzle toys provide physical activity and mental stimulation for cats. Cat behavior expert Mikel Delgado, a PhD student at the University of California Berkeley, told Scientific American, “As obligate hunters, cats need to work for their food. No one would hand them a bowl full of mice."
Using a puzzle toy is not a substitute for hunting, but when used with other kinds of enrichment activities, like play, puzzles can provide cats with the exercise and challenges they need to be happier living indoors with us.
If you’re going to try a puzzle toy with your cat, start out with something easy so that it is rewarding, not frustrating, for your cat. And try a few different types, to see what your cat likes best.
(This Catit Treat Ball is a more-basic toy for cats who are just starting out with puzzle toys. The round shape makes it easy for a cat to roll around, and thus be more successful right out of the gate.)
Simple puzzle toys are easy to make. We show you how to make a few in a video in this post:
Use what you have around the house: cut holes in yogurt containers, egg cartons, and water bottles. Start with larger holes so that the food releases easily until your cat gets the hang of it. Then try smaller holes for more of a challenge.
If your cat is a beginner, start with a clear puzzle with many openings so he can see, smell, and hear the food inside. Stuff the toy up to three-quarters of the way full so the food easily spills out.
(The LickiMat Casper is a great choice for puzzle-feeding wet food, and also for cats who may have already figured out the easier puzzle balls. It takes a long time for a cat to extricate all the little food bits from this unique puzzle toy.)
If this still proves to be too much of a challenge for a cat that is new to puzzles, you can make the “puzzle” even easier: place small handfuls of dry food in places the cat visits, like his cat tree or the windowsill.
As your cat masters the easy puzzles, you can gradually increase the challenge. Use an opaque puzzle, one that has smaller or fewer holes, or ones that are unusual shapes.
This is a great video that explains how to use puzzle toys with your cats:
If you’re not the DIY type, and you just want to purchase a few toys for your cat, you can start with something simple, like the SlimCat toy by PetSafe, or the Catit Treat Ball. The LickiMat is a good choice if you prefer to feed wet food.
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 “Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?” PetMD, PetMD, 12 May 2016, www.petmd.com/cat/behavior/evr_ct_why_do_cats_have_whiskers.
 “Whisker Fatigue in Cats: What It Is and How to Help.” PetMD, PetMD, 5 Aug. 2020, www.petmd.com/care/whisker-fatigue-cats-what-it-and-how-help.
 Becker, Marty. “Why Does My Cat... Eat Food Away From His Bowl?” Vetstreet, 25 July 2016, www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/why-does-my-cat-eat-away-from-his-bowl.
 Johnson-Bennett, Pam. “Why Does My Cat Carry Food Away From the Bowl?” Pam Johnson-Bennett Answers the Why, When & How of Cat Behavior Issues, 9 Sept. 2020, catbehaviorassociates.com/why-does-my-cat-carry-food-away-from-the-bowl/.
 Dantas, Leticia, et al. “Food Puzzles for Cats. Feeding for Physical and Emotional Wellbeing .” Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 2016, journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1098612x16643753.
 Muth, Felicity. “How to Enrich Cats' Lives: Food Puzzles for Cats.” Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, 12 Dec. 2016, blogs.scientificamerican.com/not-bad-science/how-to-enrich-cats-lives-food-puzzles-for-cats/.