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Why does my cat dig and scratch around his food dish?

Dear Sinéad, Siouxsie and Thomas:
I read about your website in the Argus in Fremont, California. I was so excited to see it. I've owned several cats and I have never noticed this behavior before. Ollie (my kitty) has just turned 6 months and from the time I have had him (it's been 4 months) he scratches by his food dish for 30 seconds to a minute or more before and after he eats like he is trying to bury or dig up his food. He does it more when he is finished eating. Can you enlighten me?

Thank you!
Pam

Sinéad: This is an interesting behavior, Pam. It's not as rare as you might think, though.

Siouxsie: The act of burying food or litter is an instinct that has been with cats since the dawn of the species. If you watch TV specials about big cats like leopards or tigers, you will see similar behavior among our giant cousins.

Thomas: In a cat's mind, the purpose of burying anything, whether it be waste or food, is to eliminate the scent that would give away the cat's presence. This keeps predators from eating small, helpless kittens and keeps other cats from stealing food.

Sinéad: So basically, Ollie is using an instinctive behavior to keep himself and his food supply safe. We think this behavior is more common in cats that come from stray or feral backgrounds, because these cats would be more likely to learn how to protect themselves from predators or food thieves than kittens born in safe homes.

Siouxsie: If you adopted Ollie from an animal shelter, for example, he may have learned that food-burying behavior at a very young age. You may find that the behavior decreases as Ollie gets more comfortable in your home.

Thomas: Digging and scratching around food dishes is also a way for Ollie to "mark" the food as his, because the scratching and digging puts his scent (deposited from small sweat glands on his paw pads) around his dishes.

Sinéad: On a side note, we cats only have sweat glands on our paws. We have oil glands all over our skin, which of course helps to keep our skin soft and our fur looking nice, but we only ever sweat from our paws.

Siouxsie: When we get hot, we cool ourselves down by licking ourselves to make our fur damp, lying in dark places or on cool surfaces, and sometimes sleeping with our tummies up to get rid of the most body heat. And if we're dangerously overheated, you might see us panting.

Thomas: But back to the subject at hand: The digging and scratching behavior itself isn't anything you need to be worried about, Pam. As Siouxsie said, Ollie may stop the scratching and digging on his own accord as he gets older and bigger and begins to feel more secure in his life.

Sinéad: However, if there's some reason Ollie may feel like his food supply is threatened -- for example, if you have a dog that likes to come sniffing around Ollie's bowl and maybe eat his food -- then maybe you can relocate Ollie's dishes to a safer place.

Siouxsie: A lot of people who have dogs and cats living in the same house will allow their cats to eat in a location off the floor, so that they won't be bothered by the dog as they eat.

Thomas: Another thing you can do is allow the cat to eat in his own room, either with the door closed or with a baby gate in the doorway to keep the dogs out and allow the cat to come and go as he pleases.

Sinéad: And of course, we cats hate to have our food bowls and litterbox close together. That's another instinctive thing. We cats don't poop where we eat because again, the smell of our waste could lead predators to our den, and that would be a bad, bad thing.

Siouxsie: So if you have to place the litterbox and the food bowls in the same room because of space limitations, please make sure the litterbox is as far away from the food dishes as possible.

Thomas: Some cats can get quite compulsive about scratching and digging, whether they're doing this around their litterbox or their food dishes.

Sinéad: Usually when a cat digs and scratches and buries for a long time, it's because an odor hasn't been eliminated to his satisfaction. Sometimes this may be caused by dirty dishes or a litterbox that hasn't been cleaned sufficiently.

Siouxsie: That's right. Don't forget to wash your cat's food dishes daily. After all, if you don't like eating off dishes that are crusty with the remains of last night's dinner and covered with day-old saliva, what makes you think we would? We cats do prefer cleanliness in all things.

Thomas: If you notice that Ollie digs and scratches more with certain flavors of cat food than others, and the behavior really bothers you, you may want to stop feeding him the flavors of food that he scratches the most.

Sinéad: Sometimes Siouxsie goes crazy with digging and scratching in her catbox. Usually it's because she just made a really smelly poop! Hee hee hee!

Siouxsie: You're really dying for a claw sandwich, aren't you, Miss Thing! It's not as if your poo never stinks. Humph! You don't even bury yours!

Sinéad: I just don't want to get litter on my delicate paws! And I don't want anyone else to step in it by mistake. I hate stepping in other cats' poo.

Thomas: Well, Sinéad, I have to say it would be a courtesy if you'd bury your waste. Sometimes Mama's not here to scoop it out right away, and then it stinks up the whole house.

Sinéad: Whatever.

Siouxsie: Grrrrrr!

Thomas: Anyway, Pam, we hope this answers your question about why Ollie scratches and digs around his dish. It's basically an instinctive behavior, and it should abate after a while. If it bothers you, you can do something like clap your hands together and say "Ollie, that's enough!" in a firm (but not overly loud) voice. This should distract him and thereby stop the behavior. If consistently done, it could even break the cycle of obsessive digging and scratching.

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail us at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the material in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.