Why Do Cats Play With Their Food?

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Are you a cat owner who’s frustrated with their cat for playing with their food? It’s quite common for cats to bat their food about with their paws or take it out of the bowl before eating it. They might even run around with it or take it somewhere else to chow down.

Quick Overview


Playing with food can be rooted in a cat's instinctive hunting behavior or simply a fun diversion.


Most often, a cat playing with food is nothing to worry about, though you might have a mess to clean up.


If your cat is playing with their food and also not eating, losing weight, dropping food out of their mouth, drooling, or experiencing bad breath, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.

If you find yourself following your cat around with a mop, or getting the carpet cleaner out regularly, you might be feeling at the end of your rope. Let’s find out why cats play with their food, and when this behavior might indicate a problem.

Why Do Cats Play With Their Food?

Think for a moment about how your domestic cat might behave if you weren’t there to give them their food in a bowl. What if they had to find their food themselves, using their instinctive predatory behavior? If you think about your pet cat’s natural behavior, and even the behavior of feral cats or wild cats, it might give you some clues about why they sometimes play with their food.

Here are some of the normal reasons cats might play with their food:

1. They’re Hunters

Cats are hunters, which means they’re used to chasing, stalking, pouncing, and even playing with their food before they kill and eat it. Sounds unpleasant, but it’s perfectly normal for cats. Even though your cat is fed cat food from a bowl, their predatory instinct to have a bit of fun, build up some hunger, and use their hunting skills before dinner might remain.

2. It’s Fun

Some cats play with their food simply for amusement.

For cats, dinner time might also mean playtime. In the human world, it’s frowned upon to play with your food because it’s considered impolite. However, felines don’t have the same societal rules that we do. Fundamentally, playing with food is fun, especially if you’re a cat with claws, paws, and lightning reflexes.

3. They’re Bored

If your cat doesn’t have much in the way of toys or activities to keep them occupied around the house, or if they’re left alone for long periods, they might get a bit bored. If they’re bored, they’re more likely to go looking for fun wherever they can find it, which could mean playing with their lunch.

This is especially common in indoor cats who don’t get the opportunity to express their hunting behavior outside.

4. There’s Competition For Food

If you have more than one cat, a curious toddler, a cat-friendly dog, or other pets it might create a sense of competition for food. This could make eating feel like a bit of a game for your cat. On the one hand, they might bolt their food down quickly so no one else can steal it.

However, if they’re feeling confident, they might play with it for a while to show other competitors that they’ve “won.”

5. They Don’t Like The Food

If you recently switched foods, it could be that your cat doesn’t like the new food’s flavor or texture.

If your cat is a bit of a foodie and doesn’t think your cat food offerings are up to scratch, they might turn their nose up. Just like children sometimes play with their food rather than eating it when they don’t like it, cats might do the same with their kibble.

When Should You Be Concerned?

Although playing with food can be very normal for cats, sometimes it could be something to worry about. Here’s what you should look for:

1. They’re Not Eating

If they’re not eating anything at all, it could just mean they don’t like the food. However, eating less can be a sign of lots of different health issues, from infections and stomach upset to hormonal conditions or organ failure. So, if your cat’s eating habits change, it’s always best to get advice from a veterinarian.

2. They’re Losing Weight

If your cat has started to look a little bonier, or if you think they might be losing weight, you should make an appointment with a vet. Playing with their food and eating less when their body seems to need more calories to maintain their weight could be a concern.

3. They Drop Food

Cats with dental issues might drop food on the floor, not to play but because their mouths are hurting.

Playing with food is one thing, but if your cat is dropping food from their mouth while trying to eat, there might be something wrong with their mouth. Dental disease, ulcers, or tumors in the mouth can all cause pain which can make eating more difficult.

So, if your cat keeps dropping food, eats on one side of their mouth, or cries out when they’re eating, schedule them for an oral examination at your local veterinary clinic.

4. They’re Vomiting

Nausea can have a big impact on appetite. So, if your kitty isn’t feeling like eating much, they might be feeling sick. If you notice your cat is vomiting or is going to their food bowl and just sniffing or playing with it, get them checked over by your vet.

5. They’re Drooling

Drooling in cats can be a sign of bad teeth, mouth infections, ulcers, or even a wound or tumor in the mouth. This might mean your kitty doesn’t want to eat because it’s painful. They might still go to their food bowl and mess around with it because they’re hungry, but they probably won’t eat much.

6. Their Breath Smells

Is cat's breath normal

If your cat is playing with their food and not eating, and you smell bad breath, call your vet for an appointment.

Halitosis isn’t just unpleasant, it’s also a sign of certain health issues in cats. Of course, it’s unlikely that your cat’s breath is going to smell fantastic, but foul odors might mean tooth and gum disease, kidney disease, or an abscess.

Final Thoughts

It might not seem like great manners when your cat plays with their food. However, it’s part of a cat’s natural instinct to play with their food before eating it. Although there are a few warning signs to watch out for, for the most part playing with food is just part of being a curious cat. Make sure your cat has plenty of toys and gets good nutrition, then try to accept their funny ways.

Also Read: The 10 Best Cat Foods In 2022

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I get my cat to stop playing with his food?

Playing with food is a natural behavior for cats, so you might not be able to stop it completely. However, you could try making sure your cat has plenty of mental stimulation with toys and puzzles so that they’re not bored. Using a puzzle feeder might encourage a different type of playing with food, that doesn’t make a mess! You could also try changing their diet to a cat food they prefer but remember any diet change should be done gradually.

Finally, picking up your cat's food bowl after twenty minutes and not putting it down again until the next mealtime might mean your cat is hungrier for their next meal. But you’ll probably have to put up with a lot of loud protesting!

Why do cats play with their prey before killing it?

Cats will play with live prey to practice their hunting skills or fulfill their predator drive. This is especially true if they’re not feeling very hungry. Making sure that their hunted prey is exhausted from the chase will also help to ensure that they don’t get a nip when they go in for the kill.

Why do cats swat their food?

Cats might swat their food as part of their hunting instinct, but they might also want to test it out. They’ll want to know the texture and temperature and perhaps try a teeny bit off their paw before committing to eating the whole portion. They might also use their paw to bat the food around or move it somewhere else to eat later. After all, if you’re a cat playing with your food is fun!

Why is my cat playing with his food bowl?

If your cat is playing with their food bowl, they might be dropping a hint that they’re hungry and they want you to fill it! Equally, it might be time to buy a few new cat toys to keep them busy and content and stop the cat's bowl from looking so exciting in comparison!

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About Dr. Hannah Godfrey BVETMED MRCVS

Hannah graduated from the Royal Veterinary College, UK in 2011 and began work straight away at a busy mixed practice. Initially, she treated all species, but as the small animal hospital became busier, she focussed on small animals. Hannah is an expert on cat behavior and nutrition.

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