Why does my cat play with its food bowl?

CatChannel expert Jeanne Adlon, professional cat sitter, explains why cats sometimes display odd behaviors with their food and water bowls.

By Jeanne Adlon | Posted: September 19, 2008 3 a.m. EDT

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Q: Why does my cat put toys in his food bowls?

A: I think some cats feel their food area is a safe and secure place and therefore the right spot to store their toys. One of my long-term cat sitting charges, Pete, piles his toys in his water bowl and makes a complete mess when trying to get them out. His parents have learned to live with this behavior and now keep his water bowls in the bathtub! However, Pete’s storage system doesn’t always guarantee he will retrieve his toy. Sometimes when I arrive to care for him, all the water is out of the bowl and a soggy toy is still lodged in the dish.

Another question I get asked is why cats sometimes scratch around their food bowls. I have found that this is not unusual and think there might be two possible answers. One is that the cat is stating a clear opinion about the selection of its food, as in “no thanks.” The other is that, though it is a domesticated feline, there are times when the cat’s wild ancestry asserts itself. By eating some food and then scratching around the bowl afterward, the cat symbolically might be “burying” some food for later.

No one knows for sure why cats do this, but I do not think it signals a serious problem, unless your cat is not eating its food at all. If your cat shows any signs of distress or refuses to eat after a short time, make sure you take it to the vet. Meanwhile, when trying a new flavor or brand of food, I suggest slowly introducing the new food by mixing old and new in the bowl over the course of a few days until eventually only the new food is in the bowl.

As with many things relating to our feline friends, what might seem like strange behavior to us seems to make perfect sense to them, and they’re not telling us any differently — not yet anyway.

Jeanne’s Tip of the Week:

Try not to leave out a large amount of wet food when you are going out for the day. Cats do not want to eat old and crusty food any more than we do. Consider giving smaller portions several times a day. More tips

Return to Jeanne Adlon's homepage.

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Reader Comments

Laiken    Seattle, WA

10/6/2008 6:17:47 AM

I have three male cats, two are brothers that are only 1.5 years old, and the other is 6-7 years old. One of the younger refuses to eat food from a bowl. He scoops dry food with his paw, and attempts to eat from his paw,but most falls to the floor and he eats it from the floor. He now uses his paw to scoop and eat the wet food from his paw. Wet food was only recently added to their diets.All three cats shared a dry feeder, but they each have their own bowls for the wet food. Can you please tell me why my cat could be doing this? Thank You

Arnie    Newtown, CT

9/23/2008 8:44:14 AM

No one puts toys in either bowl - yet. Our Maine Coon does scratch around the food bowl. Our Bengal loves to play in the water bowl. He sticks his foot in and then licks it off. But, then, he does that to his mom's green tea too.

Thanks for the article.

Jeanna    Rocky Face, GA

9/23/2008 7:14:03 AM

One of my cat's would alwas try to bury his food bowl to let me know that it was time for a fresh bag of food. When I got a new bag, this stoped.

donna    Austin, TX

9/21/2008 6:12:57 PM

We see the "burying food" behavior a lot at the animal shelter.

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