FOOD BURYING AND TOY DUNKING
Copyright 2008, S Hartwell
Some cats try to cover up their food, sometimes scratching “invisible dirt” over it or raking their newspaper table mat over the bowl. There are two probably explanations, but it’s up to the observant owner to work out which one their cat is doing.
Food burying is often considered a neurotic behaviour in pet cats, but observation of other cat species including the closely related European Wildcat shows “food hiding” it to be a normal behaviour.
Another unusual activity seen around the food and water bowls is dunking toys in the water bowl or dropping them on top of food.
The usual explanation offered in behaviour books and websites is that the cat is treating the food – in fact the whole food bowl - like faeces and burying it. Perhaps the offered food isn’t to the cat’s taste and it is disposing of it. A cat may also try to bury the food bowl if the feeding location isn’t to its liking.
In the wild, cats hide their faeces so it doesn’t attract predators (the owners of the territory may leave theirs uncovered to advertise their presence). They may do the same to unwanted food. Not only does it hide their presence from stronger cats that might own the territory, it may hide it from scavengers that might also pose a threat to the cat. This is particularly true of nursing females who can’t risk attracting possible predators near the nest.
If the cat sniffs the food, buries it and then begs for something different, the meaning is quite clear. It has treated the food like faeces. If it eats part of the food and and then buries it, returning to it later on, there is a quite different meaning to its behaviour.
Food caching has been reported in European Wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris), a close relative of domestic cats.
Food caching is best known in one of the big cats, the leopard. Leopards cache food high up in trees out of reach of lions and hyenas and will return to the cache again and again. It is also seen in the North American bobcat. When a bobcat kills more than it can eat in one meal, it covers the remains of its kill with leaves or other debris and returns to finish it later. It will also help itself to another bobcat’s cache if it finds one. Pumas and cheetahs also cache food. In general, these are cats that kill prey their own size or larger than themselves where they can’t eat it in one sitting.
Although small cats generally target prey no larger than themselves, they still have the thrifty “cache for later” instinct. In indoor-outdoor cats that hunt, this can be as basic as bringing the kill home where they consider it safe to leave it unguarded and uncovered. I’ve watched my cats bring down a pigeon, eat part of it and leave the rest close to the house for later. Perhaps the cat feels the proximity to the owner is sufficient to keep intruders away from its leftovers!
A pet cat may eat part of its meal and making digging motions as though bury the leftovers. Sometimes newspaper underneath the food bowl is raked over the food. Owners of caching cats have also reported the cat making digging motions to uncover the food bowl when it returns to it. The covering and uncovering actions are instinctive and it can be comical to watch a cat “uncover” its cache where the “dirt” exists only in the cat’s mind.
In multicat households, food caching can become neurotic as the cat vainly attempts to hide its food from competitors.
Caching of uneaten food was noted as early as 1853 by Rev JG Wood in his "Illustrated Natural History". Wood described the behaviour of a pet cat called "Pret" who sometimes took extreme measures to cover up the remants of meals: Clever as Pret was, she sometimes displayed a most unexpected simplicity of character. After the fashion of the Cat tribe, she delighted in covering up the remnants of her food with any substances that seemed most convenient. She was accustomed, after taking her meals, to fetch a piece of paper and lay it over the saucer, or to put her paw into her mistress’ pocket, and extract her handkerchief for the same purpose. These little performances showed some depth of reasoning in the creature, but she would sometimes act in a manner totally opposed to rational action. Paper and handkerchiefs failing, she has been often seen, after partly finishing her meal, to fetch one of her kittens, and to lay it over the plate, for the purpose of covering up the remaining food. When kitten, paper, and handkerchief were all wanting, she did her best to. scratch up the carpet and to lay the torn fragments upon the plate. She has been known, in her anxiety to find a covering for the superabundant food, to drag a table-cloth from its proper locality, and to cause a sad demolition of the superincumbent fragile ware.
Some cats drop their favourite toys in their water bowl or on top of their food. The most likely explanation seems to be the cat seeing the feeding area as the safest or most central place in its indoor territory and “storing” its toy there after playtime! Often the dunked toy is the one it has just finished playing with. Sometimes it is the cat’s favourite toy that it’s found lying around elsewhere. If tidying up sounds far-fetched, I know a cat that stored its toy in a small basket after playtime which at least kept the toy dry!
Other explanations may apply to individual cats. Some like the texture of the toy when it is wet. Some enjoy playing with water and dipping a paw or dunking a toy makes ripples that are fun to watch. A floating toy may be fun to play with. Some breeds are more attracted to water than others; Turkish Vans and Bengals particularly seem to enjoy water play.
Sugar, a domestic longhair is remarkable for being a able to hunt and retrieve despite having been born blind. She also dunks her toys in her water dish, perhaps enjoying the tactile stimulus.
Some cats view the water bowl as a plaything in its own right. Owners have watched cats dip a front paw in the water then dip it in catnip then dip it back in the water. This transferred catnip into the water and the cats seemed to enjoy playing with the floating pieces. They seemed fascinated by the floating leaves, patting the water to keep them moving. A few cats have been seen patting puddles to make bubbles then popping the bubbles with their paws or noses. In more alarming cases, owners have seen their cats trying to “drown” a smaller pet (kitten or cavy) in the water. In these cases, the play sessions need to be supervised to prevent any harm occurring and the cat encouraged to restrict its dunking behaviour to toys, not other pets.. Pica, the urge to eat normally inedible things such as socks, may also lead to things ending up in the food or water bowl. Some pica-prone cats (Siamese being notorious) take their target item to the feeding area where they alternate between bites of food and bites of the fabric. The fabric ends up being dropped in the food bowl or nearby water bowl. In one or two cases a cat actually preferred to chew wet fabric and was seen to consistent dropped a sock (its pica target) in the water bowl before chewing it.