Ask A Vet: Why Does My Cat Play With Her Food?

| Published on February 8, 2017

Cats came to be a part of our world because of their hunting skills. Humans prized early cats for their stealth and savagery against rodents who pilfered grain from their stores. Cats and people developed a partnership that has lasted to this day. Not much has changed inside your cat. She is actually very genetically similar to her ancestors and maintains many of their wild inclinations.

Studies have investigated the hunting and feeding strategies of many feline species and domestic cats are the subject of investigation as well. Our house cats are not usually what a wild cat would call “hungry”. They have their needs met every day and never go long periods without something to eat. Clearly if you asked my cat, he would race to his bowl and explain that he was absolutely famished to any passerby that seemed likely to remedy his plight. But in reality, true hunger is not a feature of our pet cats’ lives.

Scientists examined cats in a laboratory setting. The investigated cats were well fed, but were offered an opportunity to chase and kill a prey animal. The cats overwhelming discontinued their eating in order to toy with and kill the prey item. The cats sometimes dragged the dead prey back toward the dish still sitting with the food in it. 1 The results indicated that a cat’s hunting instinct is not the same as his actual feeling of hunger. Your cat’s drive to stalk and hunt (what we call play) seems to be housed in a different part of his brain. The food that she is playing with is triggering her predatory play behavior. She is playing with it more as displacement for her hunting drive than as a food item.

Cats need to eat, but they need to hunt and stalk too. They can perhaps survive without play, but will not live their best life. Be patient with your cat if she is playing with her food and if it makes a mess or bothers you, try to find substitute play items and prioritize play times for her (and you).

When you consider that hunger and play are very separate on a basic level for your cat, it is easier to meet her needs. Feed her only what she needs to maintain a healthy body weight (you can ask your vet if you are not sure) and offer her a variety of toys that are small like her potential prey items would be.

That way, her natural need to play is met and she is never eating just because she is bored. Another reason why eating less and exercising more has proven to be a healthy lifestyle!


  1. Adamec, R.E. (1976) The Interaction of Hunger and Preying in the Domestic Cat (Felis Catus): An Adaptive Hierarchy? Behavioral Biology, 263-272
  2. Bradshaw, J., Casey, R.A. and Brown, Sarah (2012) The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat: 2nd edition. 132-34.

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