A veterinary clinician explains this quirky behavior in cats and dogs.

By Erica Sloan
November 20, 2019

If you've noticed your cat or dog scraping their bowl across the floor, pawing at the areas around it, or attempting to hide food beneath it, a few deep-rooted instincts are likely at play. In the case of cats, it may be inherited from her wild feline ancestors. "Cats are predators that are also prey," says Liz Stelow, DVM, a behavior clinician at the University of California Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. "Feral ones bury leftover food (especially anything strong-smelling) to avoid being tracked down by larger predators or even descended upon by scavengers." Your domesticated kitty is just doing what comes naturally, even in the absence of any threat.

SharafMaksumov / Getty Images

As for dogs, they're innate hunters and scavengers, says Gina Garey, animal behaviorist and Maine State Director for Animal Wellness Action. Canines might cover up some leftover kibble as a safekeeping measure, attempting to shield it from the hungry paws of another nearby animal (that is, even if one doesn't exist in your household). Another common form of resource guarding in dogs is taking some food out of the bowl from the get-go and walking it over to another, more secluded part of the house to eat it, says Annie Harvilicz, veterinarian and founder of the Animal Wellness Foundation. "This is so that they can eat 'in peace' without threat to their food supply," she explains.

Related: All of the Most Confusing Pet Behaviors, Explained

When Is It a Problem?

If the covering, pushing, or scraping results in your pet not eating much of the meal—and especially if this behavior starts out of the blue—illness could be at the root of the problem. "I've found that when a pet refuses to eat because they're nauseous, stressed, or otherwise sick, they may attempt to cover or hide food just to get it away from themselves as soon as possible," says Harvilicz. The smell of the food might be putting them off, or they're just aiming to neutralize it, so as not to make themselves vulnerable to a potential predator (again, even if there's no such animal in your home).

If you notice these actions with a meal that your pet normally devours, it's smart to pay a visit to your veterinarian to determine if a gastrointestinal or other medical condition might have prompted the change. On the other hand, if it's happening with a new food that you've added into the mix, then it might be as simple as preference: Fluffy is just not a fan of whatever it is you're serving him. And you may be the source of his pickiness, adds Garey. "Owners who feed their pets table scraps and share their own food as a 'treat' can often lead to a pet turning up its nose at its own less interesting meal!" If you're overfeeding Sparky—even if just by leaving food out and available in between mealtimes—it's also possible that when his regularly scheduled feeding rolls around, he’s just not that hungry. And the pushing, shoving, or hiding could be his way of communicating that.

How to Break the Habit

To break the habit in your cat, reduce the size of each meal so she's apt to finish it in one sitting—or, if you're serving kibble, disperse small portions in feeders around your home. "That's less likely to trigger the behavior than a single concentration of food," says Stelow, "and it also mimics the mental stimulation of hunting, which many cats enjoy."

For dogs, be sure to stick to regularly scheduled meals; Garey suggests offering two a day that align with breed- and age-specific needs. Adding another stimulus can help, too—for example, using a slow feeder or food puzzle toy. "Larger breeds will also do well with raised feeding stations or sturdier ceramic bowls that are not so easily pushed around," says Garey, "and non-skid carpeted pads placed under food and water bowls are a handy way to catch spills made by enthusiastic or messy eaters."

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