Why does my cat scratch the floor around her food?
Your cat is weaving around your ankles, meowing and begging for food. You oblige by opening a can of his favorite: ocean whitefish pate, or filet mignon au jus, or whichever flavor he seems to prefer this week, and he does the strangest thing! He acts like the meal you just placed in his bowl (and maybe broke apart with a fork – one of yours from the silverware drawer), the one you took a special trip to the overpriced boutique pet shop for, because it’s his “favorite,” was something you fished out of the litter pan.
A cat may treat his food dish like it’s the litter box
You place the food before him, like a servant would, and he immediately begins pawing vigorously around the bowl, like he’s trying to scratch up invisible dirt in an effort to cover the horrible thing up. You’re reminded of his toileting behavior: it appears to the non-so-casual observer that you are, that he’s telling you what he thinks of the fancy food you just placed before him. It reminds him, he seems to be saying, of other things that need covering up.
Burying food is an instinctive behavior for cats
Cats “fake cover” their food by scratching around the bowl, sometimes spending more time than seems reasonable doing it. Later, they may “uncover” the food by “removing” the imaginary dirt, which is particularly strange to witness.
Some cats will literally cover their food: commonly with newspaper, carpeting, and towels. They’ll drag an object from some other location in the home and place it right on top of their food bowl.
The food-covering behavior is instinctive – in other words, it’s not something that mama cat taught your kitty when she was a baby, but something ancient and automatic that your cat does without thinking.
The weirdest cat food coverer ever
Reverend John George Wood recorded one of the strangest and most persistent food-covering cat stories in 1853 in his book, Illustrated Natural History. The reverend’s cat was a die-hard food coverer. Ordinarily, she would go in search of a piece of paper to place upon her saucer. But, if no paper was handy, she had Plan B: she’d poke around in the reverend’s wife’s pocket for a handkerchief that she’d use to cover her meal instead.
It gets weirder: if this dogged little cat couldn’t find a piece of paper or handkerchief, she was known to fetch one of her kittens and deposit the poor babe on top of her food dish. If there were no kittens, she’d shred the carpet and put the ragged bits on top of her food. And finally, in the absence of paper, handkerchief, kittens, and carpet she would – magicians are cringing everywhere – drag the tablecloth from the table, causing, as the reverend recorded in his book, “a sad demolition of the superincumbent fragile ware.”
Food covering is called “caching” and wild cats do it
Scientists call this covering behavior “caching” and it’s something wild cats also do. Caching is a way of saving leftovers for later. Hiding the food protects it from scavengers, and might help keep the meat cool and fresh. Wild cats can then leave the uneaten food behind and go about their business, but return later for a snack or another meal.
Felines cover their food, but canines don’t
The Santa Cruz Puma Project collars mountain lions and relies on calls from helpful locals about freshly killed deer to help them track the activity of lions in the area. Sometimes a caller will spot a dead deer that was actually killed by coyotes instead of lions. But researchers can tell immediately if the deer was killed by coyotes or by lions by the condition of the carcass, specifically whether it has been cached or not.
Coyotes leave their leftover food out in the open. But researchers can be fairly certain the kill was made by a mountain lion if it is found under brush and scrubs, or if it is covered with leaves, sticks, and grass. “Lions tend not to leave their food out under the open sky…There will be an area around the deer where the raking of the lion’s paws left bare dirt.”
Sometimes caching isn’t really covering
Sometimes caching behavior is more instinctual than practical. One researcher from a different mountain-lion project was tracking a radio-collared cougar. This female had placed a single twig on the carcass of the deer before walking away.
Leopards don’t cover their food but they do cache in trees – high up and out of the reach of neighboring lions and hyenas, which are less adept climbers.
Should you stop your cat from pawing the floor after eating?
Is this a behavior that house-cat owners need to be concerned about? The short answer is “no.” the longer answer is “maybe.”
If your cat is merely expressing an instinctual behavior, let him. If he’s damaging your flooring or ruining objects around your home, however, it’s a good reason to think about intervening.
Is your cat’s food covering behavior neurotic?
Another good reason to step in is when your cat’s natural behavior turns into a neurotic compulsion. If you have a multi-cat household, for example, and you notice your cat is becoming obsessive in an attempt to hide her food from other felines in the house, it may be time to take action.
The simplest thing in both cases is to give your cat a chance to eat his meal, but then remove the bowl, and with it, the desire to cache.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 Paulh. “How to tell if a lion or coyote killed a deer.” Santa Cruz Puma Project. 22 Mar 2014. Santacruzpumas.org/2014/03/lion-kills-vs-coyote-kills/
 Hansen, Kevin. “Cougar: The American Lion.” Mountain Lion Foundation. Accessed 12 Sept 2019.