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4 Puzzling Cat Behaviors Explained

Why do some cats bury their food or smack it around? What causes that "stinky face"?

Marilyn Krieger  |  Apr 10th 2015


Cats are in fashion. According to statistics cited by the Washington Post, cats are more popular than dogs in 29 states including California, Florida, and New York. The American Veterinary Medical Association reported that in 2012 (the most recent numbers available), U.S. dog-owning households outnumber cat-owing households 43.3 million to 36.1 million, but that cats outnumber dogs 74.1 million to 69.9 million as pets. 

One of the upsides to cats’ increasing popularity is that people are learning more about them and their behavior. Thankfully, this is leading to a gradual decline in the spread of harmful myths and inaccurate information. Although most cat behaviors are easily understood, there still are a few that are puzzling.


Why do cats do what they do? by Rhonda Van.

Here are four, including explanations for them:

1. Using paws to eat and drink

Not all cats are conformists, eating and drinking in the standard way. Instead of putting their heads down in their bowls, they scoop the food and water out with their paws and then lick it off. Some will fling instead of gracefully scooping up their vittles in a controlled fashion. Although they’re entertaining to watch, paw-scoopers and flingers have good reasons for choosing this approach over the standard head-down-in-the-bowl way of eating.

Eyesight, whiskers, food bowls, and the bowls’ locations contribute to this odd behavior. Sometimes, play is a factor too.

Cat eyesight has evolved for optimal hunting. Although it’s highly in tune for spotting movement, kitties are a bit far sighted and not as adept at seeing closeup details. That’s where their whiskers help. Containing their own set of nerves and a blood supply, whiskers are sensitive and also act as fingers. They help guide cats through touch to their meals. One of the downsides is that many cats do not like to feel the irritating sides of their bowls with their whiskers so they opt to become paw-scoopers and food-flingers.

The locations of food bowls make a difference too. Instinctually, cats do not want to be cornered or trapped. All cats, even those who live with no other household animals, operate from instinct. Some will become paw-scoopers if their food bowls are in areas where they feel they can be cornered or ambushed.

And then there are those kitties who love to play with their food. There are no hidden agendas. They are playing with their food because it’s fun.

by Shutterstock.‘>

Cat scooping his food. by Shutterstock.

You can convert many kitties back to the head-down-in-the-bowl way of eating and drinking by replacing the bowls and being mindful of where you place them. The best types are wide and shallow. Position them in areas where cats are likely to feel they can’t be cornered.

Bowl sizes and their locations don’t matter very much to those paw-scoopers and food-flingers who play with their food for the sake of playing.

by Shutterstock.‘>

Ideal food bowls are wide and shallow. by Shutterstock.

2. Burying and covering food

This is another mystery. It especially baffles people who own kitties who live the good life, with an endless supply of delicious cat food available. It is puzzling because the cats are many generations away from their wild ancestors and don’t have to count on their wits to survive.

A few theories explain this behavior. The ones that make the most sense involve the behavior increasing their odds of survival. Cats occupy a special niche in the food chain — they are predator as well as prey. Although they hunt for a living, many other animals view them as dinner. Burying and covering food may help keep them under the radar because the smell of exposed food attracts predators. Simultaneously, other animals who are potentially on the feline breakfast menu are alerted by the smell that there is a cat nearby. Wisely, those animals avoid the area. Our little pampered kitties who do not have to worry about predators or where they will find their next meal retain the ancestral instinct to bury and cover their food. This behavior is even more prevalent in multipet households. Covering, in theory, will also hide the food from the resident competitors.

by Kelli Faram at Cheetahsden Bengals.‘>

Some cats cover or bury their food. by Kelli Faram at Cheetahsden Bengals.

3. Pulling a funny stinky face

You know the look. Your cat looks like she doesn’t like the way something smells. Her mouth is slightly open and her lips are lifted. She might also add to the look by wrinkling her nose and elevating her head. This endearing presentation is sometimes referred to as a “stinky face” or “funny face.”

The stinky face look is technically called the flehmen response. Although it may look like your kitty doesn’t like how something smells, the opposite is actually true. She likes the odor and is gathering information by “tasting the air.” Cats have a Vomeronasal Organ, also called the Jacobson Organ. It opens into the roof of the mouth and is lined with olfactory receptor cells.

As is true for everything cats do, there are very good reasons for pulling “stinky faces.” Adult males are more prone to making this face than female cats. Through flehmening, males sample the pheromones of females, which helps them determine queens’ reproductive state. It isn’t all about sex, though. Males and females will “flehmen” when there are new and unusual odors to sample.

Cats aren’t the only animals who pull stinky faces. Others who flehmen include horses, lions, tigers, buffalo, snakes, and tapirs.

by Shutterstock.
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Flehmen response. by Shutterstock.

4. The curious tail wiggle

Cat parents are understandably nervous when their kitties hold their tails up and start quivering them. They worry they’ll find urine sprayed on the walls and furniture. Although cats do wiggle their tails when urine marking, at other times the behavior communicates that they are actively happy about something. This is sometimes referred to by cat lovers as the “happy tail dance.”

Many kitties will greet their favorite people with the happy tail dance after they’ve been away from each other. It’s sweet to come home after a long day to a cat doing the happy tail dance. In addition to the quiver, the tail is held upright, usually has a slight curve at the top and is fluffed out at the base. The degrees of quivering and fluffing are also happiness barometers. Cats who are extremely happy will fluff their whole tails up, starting from the base, ending with the tip, accompanied by vigorous tail quivering. Others will fluff primarily at the base while subtly wiggling their tails. The happy tail dance is often accompanied by endearing kitty love blinks.

by Marilyn Krieger.‘>

Sudan, the author’s cat is extremely happy to see her. Olivia is too, but not to the degree Sudan is. by Marilyn Krieger.

Although some of the behaviors cats do may be baffling, kitties have good reasons for doing them. These behaviors may be instinctual, upping the odds of survival, or they may be newer behaviors that are reinforced.

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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.  

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses positive reinforcement methods that include environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other force-free methods. Marilyn is big on education—she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.