Why your cat is stealing food and how to stop him?

Cat stealing from plate of food
(Image credit: Getty)

If you want to find out why your cat is stealing food and how to stop him, then you’ve landed in the right place. 

A moggy stealing food is not something we want to encourage, for many reasons. For example, a cat can’t get all its nutritional needs from human food, and in more severe cases human food can be toxic for kitties. Excessive eating can also lead to obesity and at the very least, it’s rude manners if your cat is always swiping at your food, which we imagine is not something you want any dinner guests to witness!

But why is it happening? First and foremost cats are natural-born hunters so even if you routinely lay out the very best dry cat food or best wet food in their bowls every day, it’s still in their nature to seek out food. Cats love to explore, hence why outdoor kitties often come back with a small rodent or bird from their excursions but even this won’t stop them from pouncing on your dinner. 

At first, it may be entertaining watching your cat sneak some food, but it’s in your best interest to put an end to this. Cats have sensitive digestive systems and don’t process foods that are high in sugar or fat well. Parasites can spread from food stealing, which is another risk that you don’t want to experience. Thankfully, there are things cat owners can do to prevent the issue. Read on to uncover why your cat is stealing food and how to stop him.

Dr Joanna Woodnutt BVM BVS BVMedSci MRCVS
Dr Joanna Woodnutt

After graduating as a veterinarian from the University of Nottingham, Dr Joanna Woodnutt went on to practice companion animal medicine in the Midlands, UK. Dr Woodnutt is specifically interested in consulting and helping her clients understand their pets better, whether it’s around medical problems such as dermatology, behavior, and nutrition.

Why do cats steal food?

As already mentioned, cats love to hunt and in some individuals this instinct is very highly developed. They’ll hunt anything they can find, up to and including your breakfast toast. Some cats will also steal food put down for fellow felines. Allowing your cat to eat more than he should can lead to obesity and other health problems.

Trained vet, Jo Woodnutt said,  "Cats might steal food because they’re hungry, because they want attention, or because they like your food better than theirs!"

She added, "Consider whether your cat could be hungry – did you forget to feed them? Have they recently been put on a diet?". If your cat appears hungry despite getting enough daily calories Woodnutt recommends considering whether or not they have other symptoms. Hunger us a sign of common cat conditions like hyperthyroidism and diabetes.

As already mentioned, cats love to hunt and in some individuals this instinct is very highly developed. They’ll hunt anything they can find, up to and including your breakfast toast. Some cats will also steal food put down for fellow felines. Allowing your cat to eat more than he should can lead to obesity and other health problems.

Why is my cat obsessed with human food?

A cat that appears immediately when you get the frying pan out and starts crying for scraps can be irritating. It’s possible that your kitty is just begging for your attention or wants to be involved, particularly if he’s young or curious. He could also be being dominant and asserting his ‘right’ to what’s on your plate.

Woodnutt says this most commonly happens because human food is interesting and tastes different from what they’re used to. "The added salt and sugar in our food can make it taste even nicer to cats. The different textures are exciting, too," she explains, "Some cats eat human food to get attention – even though it’s usually negative attention (telling them off), it’s better than nothing."

If cats have previously had the chance to sample human food they may have just decided they prefer the taste of it. Some shelter cats who are used to dining from garbage cans decide they simply prefer the human version, while others may have been spoiled by previous owners or regular visitors.

It’s also possible that your cat’s own diet isn’t meeting his full nutritional needs, so he’s hanging around your plate instead. Take a look at our guide to the best cat foods for advice on feeding a balanced diet.

"Remember, if your cat has stolen human food, it’s important you think about common human foods that are poisonous to cats: like onions, chocolate, and raisins," warns Woodnutt, "And also whether there’s anything physically harmful they could have eaten – like butcher’s string, tin foil, or sharp bones."

Check out our guide to 8 human foods that are poisonous to cats. Ultimately, if you’re unsure whether the food your cat has stolen is harmful, you should call a vet for advice.

How to stop your cat stealing food

Cat sniffing a dish of raw burgers

(Image credit: Getty)

It's important to stop your cat from stealing food. A balanced feline diet is necessary for weight control and a good nutritional balance, and if your kitty is constantly sneaking snacks you won’t be able to monitor their intake. 

The best way to deal with the problem is not to let it develop in the first place. If your cat begs, never feed tidbits and make sure any visitors know that’s the house rule, as well. Any food accidentally dropped on the floor should be cleared up immediately. Don’t leave food lying around, either – some cats are very accomplished thieves and can open cupboards or even boxes. 

Avoid leaving your sink full of dirty dishes – as we know from Garfield, cats have no scruples about sticking their head in lasagne dishes! If jumping on tables or worktops is an issue, you can try putting strips of double-sided sticky tape out to put your kitty off. You can also buy motion-activated sensors which will emit harmless puffs of air when triggered to ‘chase’ cats out of certain areas.

If you’ve inherited a cat with a problem – perhaps you’ve rehomed a cat from an elderly relative, or taken in a shelter cat – then you’ll need to go to greater lengths to retrain him. Never reward begging behavior with food from the table. You can feed your cat at a similar time to your own mealtime so that you can be sure he’s not actually hungry. Cats in the wild prefer small, regular meals and may eat several times a day, so you could try feeding yours three or even four smaller meals during the day.

Another great tool is distraction! You can get a cat treat ball and put his meal in that, so that he has to work a lot harder to get at it or offer a favorite toy. If your cat’s unwanted behavior is because he’s bored, then increasing playtimes can help.

How to stop your cat stealing the food of other cats

If you’re feeding several cats together, there’s always a risk that the strongest may steal from the weakest. This may lead to an obese dominant cat and a potentially malnourished ‘under cat’. The simplest way to solve this one is to feed both cats separately. Get them into a routine where they are fed at the same time every day. Put each cat into a separate room and leave their food down for no more than 30 minutes. They will soon learn that they have only half an hour before food is removed and will clean their bowls quickly. Once mealtimes are over, your cats can socialize again.

How to discipline your cat for stealing food

At the end of the day, your cat is not being naughty as such, simply obeying natural instincts. Any discipline should be for the purpose of breaking the behavior cycle and not used as punishment. It can be very frustrating when cats don’t leave you alone when you’re eating but it’s important not to lose your temper.

According to Woodnutt, the problem with food stealing is that it’s self-rewarding – your cat will be rewarded for stealing food no matter what you do!

She shares her advice to combat this, "Try giving your cat positive attention for not stealing food if you think they could be attention-driven. Breaking the habit by keeping food secure in pet-proof containers is also key as this stops the reward."

"Cats can be trained, just like dogs – try training a ‘leave’ command – rewarding your cat with an amazing treat for leaving the food they’re about to steal and coming to you instead," she advises, "You’ll need to practice with toys and low-value foods long before you catch your cat with a chicken carcass if you want there to be any chance of her listening though!".

As with any learned behavior, stopping your cat stealing food can take time and patience. This is especially the case if you have inherited the problem and he learnt it at a young age! Using some of these techniques including distraction and removing temptation should help to re-educate him, making mealtimes a nicer experience for both of you. 

Want to understand more about your kitty? We answer; why does my cat bite me?

Sara Walker

Sara is a freelance journalist and copywriter of many years’ experience with a lifelong love of animals. She’s written for a range of magazines and websites on subjects varying from pet care to travel. A horse rider since the age of five, she’s currently a full time pet slave to horse Blue and gorgeous, goofy English Springer Spaniel Olly. Adorable Olly has a huge sense of adventure and no sense of direction, keeping Sara on her toes. 

With contributions from