Skip to main content

Why your cat is stealing food and how to stop him

Cat stealing food from table
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Is your cat stealing food? Much as we love our kitties, we don’t love them jumping on the table and swiping tasty morsels from our plates. Cats are natural hunters, and unfortunately this applies to pretty much everything from rodents to the hem of your favorite pants to any hotdogs that might just be lying around within reach. 

They’re just exhibiting their natural behavior patterns, but the stealing of food should be discouraged. Not only can it promote the spread of parasites, but it can also be very harmful to your cat. Read on to find out more about why it happens and how you can stop it.

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.

In addition to natural instinct, it’s possible that your cat could be stealing because he’s bored. He sees you focused on something (eating your dinner) and wants a piece of your attention. He knows that if he sneaks up you’ll interact with him, even if it’s just to tell him to go away! It’s also not impossible that your cat could be hungry when he begs for food, although this is less likely.

If your cat is stealing from his feline brother rather than your plate, then he could be being dominant. If you have more than one cat and feed them together in the same room, there’s a risk that the most dominant of the tribe will take most of the food as a way of asserting himself. He could also just be being greedy!y

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.

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.

Don’t automatically ignore your cat’s behavior though, as it’s possible there’s an underlying reason. Your cat could be constantly hungry, or craving substances not normally found in commercial cat food such as salt or sugar. This could point to a health condition such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes or parasites (worms). If your cat has any other symptoms such as excessive drinking, weight loss, diarrhea or vomiting, consult your veterinarian for advice. 

How to stop your cat stealing food

Black and white cat stealing food off of kitchen bench

(Image credit: Getty Images)

It is important to stop your cat 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 his intake. Certain types of human food can also make your cat very unwell – check out our guide to 8 foods to definitely avoid for your cat. Cats have quite sensitive digestion systems and won’t react well to anything with too high a fat or sugar content, either.

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 purposes 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.

If your cat insists on climbing on your lap or the table, then pick him up and firmly put him back on the floor. Try one of the distraction techniques mentioned above to keep him occupied while you’re eating, or simply shut him in another room until you’ve finished.

Summary

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.