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Is Your Cat a Thief?

Do you have a furry, four-footed thief in your house? Has the paper clip you just set down on the desk suddenly gone missing? Or maybe it’s some food from your plate that has vanished? Your keys? A sock? Your daughter’s hair bow? If you live with a very stealthy but oh, so adorable, feline thief, you’re not alone. Many people share their lives with cats who seem to have very sticky fingers… or rather, paws. What’s the Attraction?

Cats Who Steal Food

This is an obvious one to figure out. Cats are predators and most are extremely food-motivated. You have so many enticing food aromas that pass in front of your cat’s nose several times a day and it can be hard for a hungry kitty to resist. This is especially true if your cat is on a special diet and not particularly pleased with that fact.

A contributing factor to food-stealing behavior may be the result of being fed from the dinner table. If you have offered your cat pieces of your own meal as you’re eating or you’ve rewarded her with food when she begs during the family meals, you may have put the notion in her head that she doesn’t really have to wait for someone to give food to her – she can just help herself. Offering food from the table can also create an interest in a food she may not have otherwise been attracted to, such as sugary tidbits.

Stealing food can also occur if it’s left out on an unattended counter or table. If you know you have a feline food thief, remove temptation by making sure leftovers aren’t kept out on the counter or table.

To reduce, and hopefully eliminate food-stealing behavior, consider incorporating puzzle feeders into your cat’s mealtime routine. Whether you feed wet or dry food, you can buy or construct puzzle feeders to encourage your cat to eat slowly and also enjoy some added playtime while eating. Since a cat is a predator, the concept of working for food is very natural and a puzzle feeder is an easy way to provide that. There are many types of puzzle feeders available. Check your local pet product store or Google the term “puzzle feeders for cats.” You’ll find many products that provide varying degrees of difficulty so you should be able to find one that fits your cat’s personality and skill level.

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If you feed on a schedule but there’s a huge chunk of time in-between meals, then that could also be contributing to your cat becoming a food thief. Cats have small stomachs and in an outdoor setting they would probably hunt and enjoy several small meals per day. If you only feed once or twice a day, your cat may be getting too hungry. Try dividing up the meal portion so you can feed three meals a day. You don’t have to increase the amount of food, just the timing of the portions.

If you think you may not be feeding enough food to your cat, get your veterinarian’s guidance. The labels on pet food packages are meant to be general guidelines. Your veterinarian can help you determine the amount to feed your cat based on her current weight, age, health condition and activity level.

cat in a mask

Cats Who Steal for Play

Some cats will steal objects just for the opportunity to play with them. Some objects are so light and can easily be pushed with the slightest touch of a paw that it’s impossible for a playful cat to pass up a chance for a little game. Before you know it though, that rubber band or paper clip ends up under the sofa or stuck under the desk.

Unfortunately, many of the objects your cat may steal out of play can be potentially harmful. If your cat plays with a rubber band, earring or other small object and decides to chew on it, the object could end up getting swallowed. Cats have backward-facing barbs on their tongues and that makes it hard for them to dislodge particular items once in the mouth. Yarn and string for instance, are particularly difficult for a cat to remove from her mouth so those items often end up getting swallowed and that can lead to a potentially life-threatening health risk.

The best solution for a cat who steals objects out of play is to 1) put tempting objects away, and, 2) offer safer alternatives. The alternatives should come in two forms. First, make sure you’re engaging your cat in a couple of interactive play sessions per day. Interactive play therapy is a great way for you to control the action and give your cat the opportunity to really shine as the mighty hunter. Next, increase the fun factor in your home by stepping up the environmental enrichment. Give your cat something to do during the day while you’re at work so she won’t feel the need to steal in order to relieve her boredom. I know you have a bunch of solo toys for your cat but they’re probably just scattered around the house gathering dust. Instead, try staging the environment so it’ll be more interesting:


Put a fuzzy mouse inside an empty tissue box

Leave out some open paper bags with toys or treats inside

Place toys on cat trees

Put some furry mice (fake ones, of course) under furniture so just their tails peek out

Use food-dispensing balls and other puzzle feeders

Place a cat tree near a window

Set up some cat tunnels (make some with open paper bags)

Install some cat shelves

Get a great sisal-covered scratching post

Put a bird feeder outside the window for your cat’s viewing pleasure

Rotate toys on a weekly basis to keep them interesting

Use catnip once a week

Set up a pet water fountain

Play a cat entertainment video that showcases prey

Cats Who Steal for Attention

Some cats may steal as an attention-getting behavior. Cat parents may reinforce this by their reactions to the behavior. Even if you reprimand the cat it’s a form of attention. If you’ve watched the cat play with the object or even participated in the game before taking it away, you’ve also reinforced the behavior. Cats are very smart animals and if your cat sees that stealing results in receiving attention, she’ll most likely repeat the behavior.

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If you think your cat is stealing as an attention-getting behavior, be sure you don’t interact with her when you retrieve the object. Additionally, incorporate the behavior modification mentioned previously about playtime. Give your cat an acceptable alternative to attention-seeking behavior in the form of appropriate and adequate play opportunities.

Cats Who Steal for Stress Relief

black cat with sock

Photo: Pam Johnson-Bennett

Your cat may be stealing particular objects because they provide some comfort to her if she’s feeling stressed. Some cats engage in wool sucking behavior as a self-soothing mechanism so the objects stolen may include socks or other cloth items. Your cat may also steal an object that contains a family member’s scent as a way to self soothe. If you suspect the behavior is stress related, talk to your veterinarian to first make sure there isn’t an underlying medical condition, especially if your cat is engaging in wool sucking behavior. Then, use your detective skills to figure out what could be causing the stress. Keep in mind that stress triggers for a cat can seem very minor from the human’s perspective. Even something such as a change in your work schedule or the fact your oldest child just went off to college could be a potential trigger. Work on relieving the stress and increasing environmental enrichment to give your cat appropriate alternatives for her behavior. Playtime and environmental enrichment are also confidence builders because they allow the cat to engage in natural, normal behaviors such as hunting, climbing, jumping, stalking and running. The more enrichment a cat has in the environment, the more constructive outlets she has for her energy and the more positive associations she makes with her surroundings.

Texture may also play a role in which objects your cat steals for self-soothing. She may be particularly attracted by a certain feel the object has when she touches it with her paws or when it’s in her mouth.

Feline Predatory Behavior

A cat may steal objects and carry them around almost as if she’s carrying prey. She may growl while walking through the house. The cat could even guard objects. If your cat displays aggression toward a family member of another companion animal because of her obsession with objects, talk to your veterinarian about a referral to a veterinary behaviorist.

Need More Information?

For more specific information on cat training and solving cat behavior problems, refer to any of Pam’s books.

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Please note that Pam is unable to answer questions posted in the comment section. If you have a question about your cat’s behavior, you can find information in the articles on our website as well as in Pam’s books. If you have a question regarding your cat’s health, please contact your veterinarian. 

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