The Food-Covering Canine

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

Every so often my dog covers her food with whatever she happens to find handy, even my son’s clothes. Why does she do that? Is there something about the food she doesn’t like?

More often than not, when animals try to hide their food it’s because they do like it and want to eat it, but something going on makes them feel uncomfortable about eating it at that particular time or in that particular place. A basic rule of animal behavior states that establishing and protecting the territory takes precedence over eating and drinking: If an animal doesn’t feel secure in its space it won’t eat, no matter how tempting the food you offer it.

Where did this food-hiding behavior come from? In wild animals this display, called caching,generally takes one of two forms. After some animals eat their fill, they may hide any leftovers to eat later. Most of these animals either drag the food into the underbrush or bury it, but cheetahs eat and cache their meals in trees. Other wild animals collect and hide food specifically for future use. We’ve all seen squirrels and birds hoarding nuts and seeds for the winter; however, male wolves also may bring food to their nursing mates and pups and bury it near the entrance to the females’ dens.

It’s tempting to associate food-hiding with a pet’s dislike of the food or some medical problem that makes it painful for the animal to eat or digest the food, but neither of these situations typically involves caching. Dogs who don’t like their food will ignore it, but also pester their owners for something else. Animals with medical problems may either ignore their food completely, or they may attempt to eat it, discover it causes them some kind of discomfort, and then ignore it. Thus when Skippy succumbs to a hot virus and the fever that goes with it, she doesn’t even feel like walking from her bed to the kitchen, let alone like dragging Junior’s shorts there to cover her food. Similarly, when an infected tooth causes her pain when she tries to chew her crunchies, she drops the food and backs away, feeling no desire to cover her food whatsoever.

If it’s not a food or a medical problem, what causes pets to hide their food? Most commonly, a combination of the animal’s personality and certain environmental factors lead to the display. For example, sometimes owners place their pets’ food and water bowls more for their own convenience than to fulfill their pets’ behavioral needs. If Skippy’s owners put her bowls in some remote corner of the pantry so someone won’t accidentally kick them, the dog may feel so isolated she hides her food instead of eating it. When her owners share that same space with her, however, she gobbles the food right down.

While Skippy prefers to eat when and near where her owners eat, other dogs may find the human mealtime activity overwhelming. Mealtime arguments or even just boisterous banter may trouble more timid animals sufficiently that they’ll cache their food and only eat when things quiet down. Still other dogs adapt well to their owners mealtime rituals, but feel threatened by human and/or animal guests or when they must eat in strange surroundings such as when staying at the kennel or veterinary clinic.

While a sufficiently threatening environments may cause any dog to display this behavior, it most commonly occurs in more timid animals. And although the sight of Skippy dragging Junior’s shorts into the kitchen and draping them over her food dish may enchant her owners and guests alike, the fact remains that the behavior loudly and clearly communicates that it’s time to evaluate her feeding routine. If the behavior only occurs intermittently, her owners should play detective and discover what makes those times different from others. One owner discovered that his pet’s food-hiding episodes coincided with fuel oil deliveries to his home; another associated her pet’s display with the presence of one particular guest.

If food-hiding occurs routinely, owners should consider changing the location of the dog’s food and water dishes or feeding the dog at a different time to relieve the tension that may cause the caching behavior. Owners of timid animals in multiple-pet households may find that a pet carrier or even an upside down box with a dog-sized entry cut in one side makes a perfect private canine dining area for shyer pets.

Food-hiding is one of those animal behaviors that often cause owners to throw up their hands and lament, “If only dogs could talk!” In reality, though, most dogs do communicate very well. It’s just a question of our learning to understand their language.