Cats aren’t the most skilled communicators. But when Fluffy follows you throughout the house, meows relentlessly to capture your attention, and bolts into the kitchen when the pantry door swings open, there’s no mincing words: your cat is hungry! Yet, instead of scarfing down her kibble to satisfy her cravings, she plays soccer with it, so why do cats play with their food before eating it?
Cats play with their food because it mimics their hardwired hunting instinct — stalking, ambushing, tiring out their prey by batting it around (as they would a mouse), and finally eating it. This bizarre kibble wrestling and swatting can also stem from boredom and unfulfilled desires to play.
It’s frustrating to give into those merciless feline food demands, only to vacuum stray kibble morsels from beneath the refrigerator every night. Is Fluffy conning you, or is this food playing habit merely a strange quirk? To learn about why cats play with their food, read on!
Reasons Cats Play With Their Food
When this food swatting knack kicks into overdrive, your full-grown adult cat acts more kitten-like than ever. It’s intriguing to watch her fling kibble straight across the kitchen, ambush that poor morsel, and repeat! But cute factor aside, this ‘rude’ behavior is more instinctual than anything.
Here are the most logical explanations, all rooted in survival instincts:
The Predator/Prey Relationship
Cats aren’t outwardly vicious or evil critters toward humans or fellow four-legged housemates (unless antagonized, of course). In fact, cats are about dead-center in the stereotypical food chain, wedged somewhere between warm-blooded prey like squirrels and predators like coyotes.
Although domestic (and feral) cats kill some 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion small mammals annually, the species’ hunting drive far overpowers its hunger-related urges. During their 3-12 hours dedicated to stalking and ambushing daily, cats often hunt for the thrill of it, eventually abandoning their dead prey when it bores them.
Now, you’re probably wondering, ‘What does a cat’s hunting instinct have to do with flinging kibble around the kitchen?’
That one’s easy.
When a cat spots prey scurrying through the leaves, they assume a crouched position, with pupils dilated and eyes laser-focused on their next hunt. A skilled hunter will then creep toward the squirming mouse or salamander, pin it down, and clench the prey between its teeth.
Cats don’t kill their prey immediately for safety purposes. After all, an adrenaline-pumped animal looking death in the eyes will enter defense mode. Birds will peck at a cat’s face, and small mammals will bite or claw in their final moments. Cats play with live prey — playing a sadistic game of ‘catch and release’ and swatting these critters around — to exhaust them.
When the suffering prey is weak and no longer willing to fight back, a cat will deliver one fatal blow to the critter’s neck. This hunting instinct is still alive and well in strictly indoor domestic cats. That’s why Fluffy plucks kibble from her food bowl, plops it on the floor, and bats it around before munching on it. It’s all a one-sided predatory hunt where the prey doesn’t fight back.
They Get Bored
Felines are indeed sleepy and otherwise lazy critters, committing some 15 hours a day to long shut-eye sessions. Just like nearly every household pet (Fido included), Fluffy craves a little light-hearted entertainment now and then.
There’s no doubt that a cat’s underlying hunting instinct motivates her to swat her food around and ambush stray kernels before finally swallowing them. However, this odd behavior is often a playtime alternative for an under-stimulated kitty.
This play excuse is most common in strictly indoor cats, particularly those who don’t have attentive owners willing to lead play sessions throughout the day. It’s the same reason a playful kitty randomly ‘sneaks up’ on an abandoned mouse toy, swats at your toes as they wiggle beneath the covers, and converts your shoelaces into makeshift toys.
An Unusual Safety Measure
There’s no debating why cats eat in the first place. Cats require some 20 calories per pound to maintain a healthy weight, well-groomed coat and avoid diet-related health concerns. However, out in Mother Nature, a cat who’s presently eating is also vulnerable to an unpredicted predator attack, with no ‘pack’ to protect them as they chow down on prey.
Look at your entire household picture. Are your kitty’s food and water bowls tucked below the cabinet, making Fluffy a sitting duck to her rambunctious littermates? Is your cat’s bowl so deep that it shields her eyes as she refuels? If so, your cat may be dumping (or pawing) her kibble onto the floor to keep a closer eye on the entire room — an unusual safety measure!
Batting kibble around the kitchen and dipping paws in that juicy pate dinner are odd eating behaviors unique to cats. The video below details how cats eat and other strange food habits:
How To Stop Cats From Playing With Their Food
Fluffy’s food habit is adorable until she smears canned food gravy into the grout (requiring tough scrubbing once it crusts over) or swats kibble under the stove or refrigerator (attracting insects).
If you want to put a damper on this messy and bothersome behavior:
- Invest in a meal-dispensing toy. If your cat connects mealtime to playtime, the best option is to lower yourself to her level — make dinner more entertaining! Puzzle feeders, kibble-dispensing balls, and treat-stuffed Kong toys can encourage your cat to satisfy this prey-playing instinct without leaving a mess around the house.
- Allow your cat more one-on-one playtime. If your cat flings her kibble around, pounces on your feet, or torments your other kitty, she could feel unfulfilled or downright bored. Give your cat 30 or so minutes of playtime per day, and prioritize toys that satisfy these hunting instincts (mouse toys she can pounce on or laser toys she can stalk).
- Mix warm water into your cat’s food. If that kibble jets across the hardwood floor and directly under your kitchen appliances, the next best option is to add some resistance — to the food! Mixing some warm water into your cat’s food will make the food more tender and less likely to propel across the floor as quickly or as far.
- Begin a more rigid feeding schedule. If your cat begs for food throughout the day, only to swat it around the moment you pour it into her bowl, congratulations! Your cat trained you to do as she requests. Feed your cat 2-3 times per day at consistent times to avoid these play and hunting sessions disguised as food time.
Above all else, understand that this messy and bothersome habit stems from feline instinct. Don’t punish your cat for playing with her food as if it were a live, wriggling mouse. Instead, redirect these drives elsewhere.
Like any other quirky feline behavior, cats don’t play with their food ‘just because’ or to torment you for not giving them your undivided attention. It’s an aggravating instinct that comes with the cat territory (like nudging trinkets off the table, only to watch them crash to the floor).
However, if your cat bats her kibble or treats around but refuses to eat, there’s a deeper-rooted problem. Cats reluctant to eat could be suffering from anxiety, an undiagnosed infection, or a dental condition that makes eating painful.
If something seems amiss, take your cat to the vet!