Cats are famous (and sometimes infamous) for displaying all manner of quirky behaviors. While they’ve lived with us for thousands of years, the domestic cat has retained many of his wild instincts. One such instinct is playing with his food before eating it.
If you’ve owned a cat long enough, you must have caught him on multiple occasions torturing his food before consuming it. Like any pet parent in your situation, you may have wondered whether this is natural feline behavior or not.
But just why do cats play with their food before they eat it?
The primary reason cats play with their food before eating it is that it mimics their hunting instincts. Cats generally hunt by stalking, ambushing, and tiring down their prey by batting it around, before finally consuming it. This seemingly playful behavior serves as a crucial hunting lesson.
Besides hunting behavior, a cat playing with his food before eating it could also be an indication of boredom, too much pent-up energy, or unfulfilled desires to play. As a responsible cat owner, it’s your duty to establish whether the behavior is part of your cat’s hereditary instincts or if there are underlying causes to it.
Read on as we unpack all the possible reasons cats play with their food and what you can do to stop or redirect this behavior.
Why Does My Cat Play With Her Food? Understanding Feline Predatory Instincts
As we’ve already pointed out, the main reason cats torture their food before eating it is that it mimics their hunting instincts. And that begs another question…
Why do cats play with their prey?
Most animals in the Felidae family hunt their prey by stalking it. That’s because they’re short-burst sprinters as opposed to endurance runners. Cats can stalk their prey for considerably long distances. The goal is to camouflage themselves until the prey wanders close enough or until the cat’s cover is blown.
Once prey is within reach, a cat will initiate the hunt by trying to pounce on the prey or sprinting towards it in short bursts. However, the real show begins when the cat finally catches the prey.
A cat will not kill and devour his catch immediately. Instead, he will seemingly play with it first. At first glance, this behavior may look cruel to the prey as it seems to prolong its agony. However, the cat is simply acting in self-preservation.
But why do cats toy with their prey and is it safe?
Although a cat’s hunting instincts will have him play with his prey before eating it, this behavior isn’t exactly safe for the cat. Prey have a way of fighting back when they can no longer escape from their captors.
The animal may turn on the cat and inflict vicious bites or stings. Worse yet, it may spread deadly diseases. That’s especially true for rodents and venomous serpents.
Why do cats play with their dead prey?
The tendency for cats to play with their prey doesn’t only apply to live prey. It happens to dead prey too. It’s not unusual for a cat to continue playing with his prey for several minutes after killing it. Sometimes, the cat may not even be the one responsible for killing the prey. He might have just stumbled upon the deceased animal but still decide to play with it.
Now, there are three possible explanations as to why cats play with dead prey.
First, your cat may simply be trying to be cautious. He may not realize that he has already killed the prey. By batting and tossing the deceased animal around and receiving no reactions from it, the cat will now be certain that he has completely subdued his prey.
Another reason cats play with dead prey is that the cat is yet to satiate his hunting instincts. This is common where either the cat killed the prey too quickly or he was not responsible for killing it at all. Which means that much of his hunting energy is still intact.
So, the cat will continue playing with the dead animal until he has indulged all his energy and hunting instincts. Once the cat has satiated his hunting instincts, he will get bored and finalize the hunt by eating the prey.
Lastly, a cat playing with dead prey could indicate that he confused the dead animal with a toy. This confusion is common where the prey happens to resemble your cat’s favorite toy.
However, remember that playing with a deceased animal carries its risks too. If the animal has been lying dead for a reasonably long duration, it could already be infected with potentially deadly bacteria and parasites. Ingesting decaying meat might expose your cat to severe illnesses.
If you catch your cat playing with dead prey, it’s advisable to offer him some distraction so you can dispose of the corpse.
So, why do house cats play with their prey?
Like their wild cousins, housecats play with their prey as a way of honing their predatory skills. But as you shall find, there are a number of other possible reasons behind this behavior.
Other Reasons Cats Play With Their Food
Besides predatory instincts, the following are other reasons cats play with their food;
1. It’s Entertaining
Cats are some of nature’s most formidable hunters.
Since hunting comes naturally to cats, predatory behavior has evolved to become highly rewarding for them. That explains why many of a cat’s favorite activities include running, prowling, pouncing, climbing, and surveying their domain.
Now, playing is one of the ways cats hone their hunting skills. And playing with food turns out to be even more rewarding since much of hunting involves actual food.
You might have always wondered, why do cats take their food out of the bowl?
One of the main reasons cats take their food out of the bowl is so they can play with it. The act of playing with food is highly entertaining. That’s because playing is part and parcel of feline hunting behavior.
2. Inadequate Stimulation
Cats spend at least two-thirds of their day sleeping, with the remaining one-third dedicated to grooming, playing, and hunting.
It’s important for cat owners to ensure that their feline friends receive their fair share of grooming and playing during their waking hours.
But with so many activities to do and not enough time to do them, it’s understandable why some cats end up with too much pent-up energy within them.
If this energy isn’t channeled into useful activities, the cat may find quirky ways to expend it. One of which includes playing with his food before eating it.
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Boredom may also cause your cat to play with his food before eating it.
Cats are generally capable of keeping themselves entertained by engaging in a variety of activities. Examples include bird watching and playing with loose feathers or scrap of fabric.
However, there’s a limit to which cats can self-entertain. And once your cat crosses that limit, he may get bored and resort to all manner of mischief, including playing with his food.
Some cats may also lose interest in their toys. That’s especially true for cats that play with the same toy over and over again. For such cats, playing with their food once in a while may seem more rewarding.
4. Something Wrong With the Food or Food Bowl
Sometimes, a cat playing with his food bowl or food could indicate something wrong with the bowl or the food itself.
Maybe the food contains certain ingredients, smell, or taste that cats naturally find repugnant. Or perhaps the food is not in the consistency that the cat usually prefers.
Whatever the reason maybe, if your cat doesn’t like his food, the chances are that he will play with it. After all, playing is the next best way to benefit from the food.
Maybe you’ve always wondered, ‘why do my cats play “soccer” with their dry food on the floor.’
A possible answer to that question is that the cat doesn’t like his food or food bowl.
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How to Prevent or Stop Your Cat From Playing With His Food
So far, we’ve highlighted all the possible reasons why some cats prefer to play with their food before eating it. What has become abundantly clear is that torturing food before consuming it is majorly due to a cat’s predatory instincts. There are no known medical conditions or behavioral disorders that could cause your feline friend to play with his food.
All the same, it’s not very fun watching your kitto swat his kibble across the floor. So, you might be wondering what you can do to stop or redirect this behavior.
Well, let’s start by reiterating that since playing with food is ingrained in a cat’s DNA, it’s almost impossible to make them stop this habit completely. Fortunately, there are various tips you can implement to make the behavior less frequent.
1. Supply the Cat With Enough Toys
Always ensure that your cat has plenty of toys to go around.
While choosing toys for your feline friend, insist on interactive ones, such as ball launchers and predatory toys. Vets especially recommend predatory toys as these toys allow your cat to chase after them, which is an excellent way to release any pent-up energy from the animal before mealtimes.
You might also consider investing in meal-dispensing toys or puzzle feeders. Such toys are perfect for cats that associate mealtime with playtime. They make the whole eating experience more fun.
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2. Offer More Channels for Releasing Pent-up Energy
Besides toys, it’s also important to ensure that your cat gets adequate physical stimulation. Remember, cats are only awake about one-third of their time and there are plenty of activities to complete within this short period.
One way to ensure your kitto receives his fair share of physical stimulation is by allowing him to venture outdoors. The more he runs around the compound chasing birds and flying insects, the easier it will be for him to release his energy.
You might also consider playing with your cat as a way of tiring him down. Just remember that cats require short play sessions, typically 10 – 15 minutes. To spice things up, play by mimicking the behavior of prey. That allows your cat’s predatory instincts to kick in.
Most importantly, let the cat win more often. It’s a perfect way to boost his confidence so he can join you in subsequent play sessions. And if everything works out fine, you can finalize every play session with a treat for positive reinforcement.
In all these, remember that timing matters a lot. If your cat has a penchant for playing with his food, ensure you exercise the animal or offer him toys just before mealtimes. That way, the cat will have less energy to expend playing with his food.
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3. Distract the Cat
Another practical way to stop cats from playing with their food is by redirecting their energy through positive distractions.
As soon as you realize that your cat is about to play with his food, use a toy to distract him. Preferably go for the cat’s favorite toys.
While the cat’s attention is absorbed in something else, slowly take his food bowl away. Once the animal is done playing with the toy, return the food and observe his reactions. If he still finds it fun to play with the food, repeat the process. You can use a different distraction this time and see how it goes.
4. Serve Watery As Opposed To Solid Food
You can also add more water into your cat’s food as a way of preventing him from playing with his food.
Solid food is easier to take out of the bowl and roll across the floor. But if the food is more watery, it becomes less appealing to play with.
In addition to preventing your cat from playing with his food, watery food is also an ingenious way to keep your feline friend hydrated. Such foods are particularly recommended for cats that have problems drinking enough water.
5. Feed the Cat at the Right Time and In the Right Portions
It’s important to follow fixed meal schedules with your cat. Avoid feeding the cat before he’s hungry enough. If you do, he’ll find it more fun to play with the food than eat it.
Also, be sure to feed your cat the right serving sizes. You probably already know that giving your cat too much food might lead to weight gain and other chronic health problems. What you might not have known is that it also allows the cat to eat the entire meal serving without sparing some to play with.
In case the cat leaves some food on the bowl, discard it immediately and clean the bowl.
6. Check the Cat’s Food and Food Bowl
Last but not least, you can check your cat’s food to ensure there isn’t anything wrong with it. That’s especially if you prepared the food yourself.
Many homemade cat foods tend to contain ingredients, tastes, and aromas that cats don’t agree with. Examples of such ingredients include salt and spices like onions and garlic.
In the same breath, check your cat’s food bowl for any defects, dirt, or foul smell.
A cat’s sense of smell is superior to ours. And if they pick an unpleasant odor in their bowl, they’ll unlikely eat from it. The housecat is also one of the cleanest animals, and will gladly turn down food served in a dirty bowl. In terms of defects, pay particular attention to chipped bowls.
If your cat’s food bowl is broken, the pointed ends may prick the cat’s face while he attempts to eat from the bowl. As such, the only logical thing to do would be to play with the bowl instead of eating from it.
If the behavior persists despite fixing the cat’s bowl, then maybe it’s time to swap his ordinary bowl with a spill-proof one. Spill-proof bowls make it difficult to push the food out. Such bowls help to separate mealtimes from playtimes.
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Why Does My Cat Throw His Food on the Floor?
Many cats will take their food out of the bowl and play with it before consuming it. But you’ll also come across cats that just prefer eating their food from the floor. This may get you asking some tough questions like, ‘why do cats flip their food bowls’ or ‘why do cats drop their food on the floor?’
Now, there are several reasons why some cats throw their food on the floor before eating it. The most obvious reason is that he wants to play with it.
Secondly, your cat may have developed the habit of pulling food out of the food bowl and throwing it on the floor during his younger years. Kittens generally do this while competing for food with the rest of their littermates.
Also, putting food on the floor makes it easier to defend. In households with more than one cat or other pets like dogs, hamsters, and birds, there’s always stiff competition for food. A cat must, therefore, protect his food from getting snatched by fellow cats or other pets. And a perfect way to do that is by removing the food from the food bowl and eating from the floor.
Lastly, some cats pull out food from their bowls because eating from the bowls irritates their whiskers. Note that a cat’s whiskers are highly sensitive to touch and constant irritation can make them uneasy. The best solution here would be to offer the cat a wider bowl.
Cats playing with their food before eating it is mainly a matter of predatory instincts. Other reasons like boredom, inadequate stimulation, and problems with the food or the food bowl may also make your cat torture his food before chowing it down.
However, it’s reassuring to note that there are no medical conditions or behavioral disorders behind this habit. Even better, there are several effective techniques you can apply to stop your feline friend from playing with his food before eating it.
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