Why Do Cats Paw the Ground Before They Eat?

He cleaned up the floor, now he wants food.
He cleaned up the floor, now he wants food. (Image: Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Before your furry companion sticks his nose in the food dish, he peculiarly paws around at the ground around the bowl. While you probably find his behavior odd, he’s just doing what’s already imbedded in his DNA. He is, after all, related to bigger wild cats, who often do the same thing.

Spreading Scent

If you’ve ever seen Gus lift his tail and shake it against the wall, he’s marking it with his signature scent. He’s letting other felines in the neighborhood know he was there and this is his turf. But this isn’t the only way cats mark their boundaries. When your fuzzy friend starts pawing the ground, he’s leaving his aroma behind, Dr. Daniel Q. Estep and Dr. Suzanne Hetts, certified applied animal behaviorists from Colorado, explain. Not only is he protecting his dish by marking the area, he’s also making the area smell like him, rather than his food. This is your kitty's way of trying to protect his meal from other predators.

Burying the Prey

Wild cats bury their prey and tracks after every meal, lessening the chance of another animal tracking them down or stealing their food. While your beloved Gus surely didn’t bury anything in your rug after breakfast this morning, his instincts give him the urge dig around his next mealtime. It’s like his brain is telling him to uncover the treasure in his dining area, so he paws at it before eating. Coincidentally, you happen to deliver his treasure, or food, around the same time.

Displaying Happiness

Pawing and kneading that area around the food dish implies that Gus is truly happy. Kittens learn to knead from birth as a way to get milk to flow from mama’s teat, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Thus, your little chum associates kneading with something that makes him feel good, since he learned early on he gets food for doing it. As an adult, you may see him kneading the floor in front of his food dish before you fill it because he knows the extra footwork gets him his entree.

Cleaning Up

Cats are notorious for being tidy. You’ve surely seen Gus sweep the area in front of his litter box with his paws after going potty -- he’s just cleaning up after himself. Because his dining area is one area he wants pristine at all times, he might paw at the ground before you fill the bowl, just to pick up loose pieces from last night’s meal. Then, of course, he’ll clean up the area again after he feasts.

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