Is my cat just being a jerk or is he trying to tell me something?
February 16, 2009 4:15 AM   Subscribe

What is my cat trying to tell me by wiping his feet near his food bowl? It's a very clear, exaggerated gesture, as though he was trying to wipe something nasty off his (perfectly clean) foot.

My attempts to shift my brain into cat-logic mode have yielded two, equally ridiculous, possibilities:

1) This food is gross. So gross I feel as though I've stepped in something putrid. It's about as appetising as my own crap. I'm wiping my feet to tell you that this shitty food should be buried in the garden and never fed to me again.

2) This food is tasty. My cat-instincts tell me that if I don't eat it all now, other, meaner cats might steal it from me. I would like to bury some and eat it later, in secret, but your stupid floor is made of tile. Still, I think the whole foot-wiping thing makes me look tough enough to defend this awesome food.

The food is pretty much the same old stuff - good quality but not super-fancy. I buy a variety of flavours within the brand. His bowl and eating area are clean. I'm confident that the cat is healthy and getting adequate nutrition, but if I knew what he was trying to express I'd be quite happy to accommodate his preferences.

I know that the third, most obvious possibility is that my cat is just being a jerk. With any other feline behavioural quirk, I'd vote for that answer above all others. But this just seems so obvious, so pointed, done-for-my-benefit that I can't help feel dumb for not understanding.

Any suggestions, hive mind? What the hell is my cat trying to say?
posted by embrangled to Pets & Animals (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A cat is has scent glands on its front paws which are used to mark territory. Claiming the area near his food bowl sounds perfectly rational (for a cat).
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:22 AM on February 16, 2009

A cat does not is has. It just has. Sorry.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:23 AM on February 16, 2009 [12 favorites]

Our cat used to do that when he didn't like the food - he didn't wipe his feet, he tried to bury it (which didn't really work that well since the food was in a metal bowl on a hardwood floor). Although, being a cat, he often would come back later and eat the food anyway after making clear that he did so only under protest...
posted by PontifexPrimus at 4:35 AM on February 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's a burying movement, and its probably less to do with their opinion of the food than the desire to bury the food (prey) so it will be there for them later rather than eaten by another cat.
posted by fire&wings at 4:40 AM on February 16, 2009

Typical cat behavior. I think they are trying to bury the food to deter larger, possibly predatory, animals from being drawn by the smell. The cats I've had typically "bury" their food by scratching at the linoleum around the bowl once they're finished eating, so it is clearly an instinctive behavior that doesn't have much practical application in a domestic environment.
posted by bchaplin at 4:49 AM on February 16, 2009

Our cat sticks his paws in his water bowl, washes them, licks them and then goes over to any window or sliding door, the fridge or one place on a specific wall and just... frigging wipes his paws and leaves dirty cat paw streak marks and makes loud squeaky noises on the glass.

First, he only did it with the sliding door. Then it was the slider and windows. So my expert feline analysis was "As an indoor cat, he either wants to go out or he's marking his territory so the outdoor feral cats know." So I Windexed the windows and kind of marveled at how his feline cat instincts were adorable and fluffy and cute.

Then he started doing it to the fridge, but in addition to wiping his paws, he also found he could stretch and also pull magnets and stuff off the fridge, throwing papers on the ground in the process. This perplexed me as I was cleaning up the paper and magnets strewn about the kitchen floor and poked all sorts of holes in my feline expert theory.

Then he started doing the cat paw wiping on a wall. Nothing particularly notable about this wall at all. Just a wall.

Since then, I've seen him do it to other vertical surfaces too. Never with claws. Never with any cause or reason. Therefore, using my expert feline analysis, he's not the instinctual feline creature I thought he was, just an adorable cute fluffy asshole who does inexplicable things that cause me to Windex after him.
posted by jerseygirl at 4:51 AM on February 16, 2009 [7 favorites]

My partner's cat does this and she also tries to kill cats that she sees on reflected surfaces, so insert your conclusion about feline intelligence here.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:21 AM on February 16, 2009

Another option is that they could be thinking "Oh my God, I think I hear another cat under the bowl! I'll rescue you!" But then they get bored and stop.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:24 AM on February 16, 2009 [11 favorites]

The idea of a cat helping something else of it's own free will is patently absurd.
posted by Dagobert at 5:38 AM on February 16, 2009 [8 favorites]

Normally I'd join all the 'cats are crazy' replies, but here - well.
Consider the nicest food a cat can get: freshly cut liver. No cat would bury this. They rather eat until they burst.
Consider now the junk that goes into cat food (even into the 'same old stuff'). I wouldn't go near it unless absolutely starving (and even then...). Even if you cover it, it makes your fridge stink. It keeps for fewer days than sat-upon bananas. And So On. Even if cats have no dog's noses, they are surely not that stupid.
This cat signals: this food is not nice, no Precious, not nice at all. Look, look. Wipe wipe. I want to cover it with something, even linoleum is better than this, have you seen me? Wipe wipe (etc, because all cat's auto-replay buttons are stuck. Design flaw).
posted by Namlit at 6:16 AM on February 16, 2009

One of my cats does this, too. I've always assumed she's trying to bury it for later, driven by some deep-seated evolutionary urge that doesn't care that the floor is linoleum.
posted by EarBucket at 6:32 AM on February 16, 2009

One of my cats is a barfer. When he yaks something up, the other cat comes around and pretends to bury it. My guess is that to the other cat, this barf is stinky and intolerable (and would probably draw preying animals). I wish he'd just grab paper towels and the 409 and get rid of it already but he hasn't gotten the memo.

Occasionally, one of them eats it. So, I have no idea.
posted by amanda at 6:48 AM on February 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

My cats do this too, but I always assumed it was the same gesture they made after shitting in their box, "I am burying this foul stuff that came out of my ass only because of the foul stuff that went into my mouth." This gesture near the bowl is saying, "I am putting foul shit into my mouth that will surely come out as foul shit in that box you need to clean later on." It is so obvious as to defy question. This gesture is what lead some computer geek to later lame the user when he said, "Garbage in; garbage out."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:52 AM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Maybe she's just cleaning her hands before eating. I don't think it's anything more supernatural than that.
posted by watercarrier at 7:19 AM on February 16, 2009

One of my two cats used to "bury" their food. I serve them on a small throw rug (one of the doormat-sized $2 ones from IKEA) and she would scratch around the food dishes until she got a corner of the rug folded over the food dishes. She only did this in the first month or two after I brought the cats home from the shelter. I'm not sure whether she stopped the behavior because she got comfortable here and no longer thinks she needs to protect the food, or because I have switched from one big feeding per day to three little ones. Now that the cats can easily finish each feeding in one sitting, maybe she doesn't feel the need to save the leftovers. (Burying food = feline Tupperware?)
posted by Orinda at 7:20 AM on February 16, 2009

Sorry, *his* hands. ~<>~
posted by watercarrier at 7:21 AM on February 16, 2009

I have this problem as well. I just took in a pregnant foster cat, but I didn't notice this behavior until after she had her kittens. I assumed she was trying to "save it for later", especially since she's nursing for 6, has huge caloric needs, and is eating like a pig right now. My laminate floor so far is holding up, but I'm a little bit worried she might eventually do some damage...
posted by cgg at 7:42 AM on February 16, 2009

I like the theory that your cat is just being a jerk. The burying thing sounds probable, but I wouldn't be surprised if he has just realized that it's bothering you and thus continues to do it while you watch. Hide a video camera in the kitchen when you feed him and see what he does when you're not around.
posted by big open mouth at 7:46 AM on February 16, 2009

I think it's a matter of kitty hygiene.

In order to eat its food your cat sticks its face down into a bowl with the food, which is often wet, gross and sticky, and gets on its face and whiskers. Some of that it can lick off, but the rest has to be wiped off with its paws. Then it licks off its paws.

Your cat anticipates this, and wipes its paws so they will be nice and dirt free when it goes to lick the food off of them in a few minutes.
posted by jamjam at 8:22 AM on February 16, 2009

Another possibility, it may be a carry-over from the instinctive kneading they do when nursing as kittens, but on a hard floor it doesn't work so well, but hey it's feeding time and ingrained into their brains. But I haven't seen the behavior you mention in person, so it's just a thought. Cats do stupid things.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 8:37 AM on February 16, 2009

My cat does this with her water bowl. In fact, I hear her out in the other room doing it right now. My cat who died last year also did this with the water bowl. I find it hard to believe that they would try to bury their (fresh, regularly changed) water because it's somehow foul. I tend to agree it's probably a throwback to nursing/kneading behavior.

Or just garden-variety housecat craziness.
posted by trunk muffins at 9:04 AM on February 16, 2009

My cat tries to bury salsa drips on the table, fallen chips on the floor, just about anything I spill. I like to think he's returning the favor to me for cleaning up his litter box.
posted by orme at 9:08 AM on February 16, 2009

Cats try to bury anything that smells bad. If one of our dogs has an accident, even after cleaning it up, the cats can still smell it and will try to bury it.

I've never had a cat do this with food, so he must really not like it.
posted by desjardins at 9:10 AM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Googling "cats bury food" reveals that lots of other people have this question too. There doesn't seem to be a definitive answer. I'm most persuaded by the suggestions that cats are trying to save food for later, or hide their presence from other animals.

cgg, can you give your mama cat a place mat so she'll scratch that and not the floor?
posted by Orinda at 9:34 AM on February 16, 2009

I'd second what le morte de bea arthur says. My cat does something similar before he eats: there's a small throw rug near his food dish and he stretches expansively and claws, repeatedly, at the rug with his front paws. Since he hasn't eaten yet, and since his food is overpriced organic stuff fit for humans, I doubt it's because the food is gross. Also, while his head is in his water dish, he'll make burying motions around the dish (sometimes he paws at the water directly), but I think that's unrelated instinctive water splashing behavior--he does the same thing to the toilet!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:58 AM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't buy the "smells like shit so must bury" theory. My cat does this with magazines and down-filled items like comforters and jackets, so i think it can also be triggered by textures. He also does it around his water bowl and sometimes his food--and then eats it. He is a VERY picky eater and if he doesn't want to eat something, he doesn't touch it. He doesn't pretend to bury it and then come eat it later.
posted by chelseagirl at 10:20 AM on February 16, 2009

Maybe your cat is performing some tactile act prior to eating as a form of mimicry, seeing as how people use our hands to eat. I only suggest this because I've seen my cat pick up nuggets out of his bowl with his paw, and eat them that way.

Never mind that, we're talking about cats.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:31 AM on February 16, 2009

i have one cat who does this and another who doesn't. i think it is definitely an instinctive burying act (saving it for later). why? because when she manages to throw a corner of the rug over the bowl, she is satisfied.
posted by RedEmma at 12:47 PM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Our vet told us it was a texture thing. He's checking out the different floors, and he simply likes the way it feels to run his paws over the tiles. Over course, our little monster is still a kitten, so textures are still interesting in ways they may not be to older cats. (He goes into total bliss on the fleece blanket. So far it seems to be the only thing he kneads.) He also paws his water, and scoops his dry food onto the floor so he can play with it there, and then eat it. If your cat doesn't play with his food, maybe he just likes the way the floor feels underfoot.
posted by digifox at 12:48 PM on February 16, 2009

I don't buy the "smells like shit so must bury" theory
You mean, your cat doesn't buy that theory. Totally plausible - really.
Ours did, however, and her behavior varied with the food (not with the floor surface...).
So. I guess they're all crazy, but in different ways.
As said, fresh liver, fish, scraps from meat etc.: no digging. On the contrary, I only needed to sharpen the knife and she was there, waiting, and would totally stuff herself with whatever I dropped into her dish.
Swedish upscale canned food (appropriately called "Mjau"). Bored face but no digging.
Generic Supermarket bulk food, the stuff that says glorp and smells like glorp when you open the can: instantly digging cat. Pained "do I really have to do this" expression. More digging.

(I loved that cat)
posted by Namlit at 3:05 PM on February 16, 2009

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