It is very common for a cat to go through the motions of burying the remains of his or her food after eating. They may do this whether or not there is any left in the bowl. Some may even go further and scrape up a mat or newspaper placed under the food so it covers the bowl. In the nineteenth century a cat belonging to the Rev J G Wood was reputed to pull a handkerchief from his mistresses pocket to cover leftover food, an act that no doubt would today, if recorded, be a wild internet sensation.
My cat sometimes makes a quick back-and-forth motion with his paw before he starts eating as though he is unburying food too.
Experts give two explanations for this behaviour. The first is that the cat is hiding the remains of the food so nobody else can eat it. This makes sense and it is known that wild relatives of the domestic cat such as the Scottish Wild Cat do bury their food sometimes. Mostly however, small cats eat all their prey in one sitting, since a mouse or bird can normally be consumed as a single meal.
When it comes to larger cats that can kill much bigger prey the need to hide part of the carcass is relevant far more often. Leopards are regularly known to hide food up trees to stop it being eaten by other animals. Bobcats, pumas and cheetahs also hide food, sometimes covering it in leaves to stop it being seen.
There is another theory about this. This is the idea that a cat tries to bury the food because they think it’s poo, or at least no better. This is most obvious when a cat eats a little food, decides they dislike it and starts scratching away. They may often give you a sideways glance when they do this. My neighbour’s cat Samantha always does this when I feed her with dry food. She loves the soft food squeezed out of a foil container, but not the dry from a packet. When I relent and give her her favourite tuna flavoured jelly she immediately eats ravenously until every scrap has disappeared. Then she has a quick paw at the ground, perhaps in case any tiny morsel remains.
So which idea is right — is it tasty leftovers or some ghastly poo they are instinctively trying to bury? I think that most likely both these theories have some truth in them.
What I would like to know is whether your fur baby does this, and what you think the reason is.
To find out, you could try giving them slightly less to eat to see if they stop doing this when there are no leftovers.
Also, does your cat seem to be signalling to you that they would like some different kind of food? Do they have any idiosyncratic way to cover their food, other than simply pawing the ground?
Please let us all know in the comments below.