Why do dogs bury food?

Burying food is a curious behaviour, which makes very little sense to us humans at first. When we consider the relative comfort that our dogs live in these modern times, the idea of hiding and burying food in the dirt seems peculiar, right? Rest assured that this is a natural behaviour for dogs, sparked by an instinct that can be traced back through their ancestry.

However, while it may be normal behaviour, burying food can have some health implications that you should be aware of.

Where does this behaviour come from?

To understand why burying food is hard-wired into our dogs’ DNA, we need to go back in time a little. Remember, domesticated dogs share a common ancestry with their wild counterparts, such as wolves, who have a natural tendency to bury excess food. This behaviour makes sense for wolves living in packs in the wild, where food scarcity and competitive hunting are everyday realities.

When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, hoarding and guarding leftover meat is a smart move. It’s an insurance policy for leaner times. So while your modern-day dog may live in the lap of luxury and want for nothing, this instinct still remains.

Why does your dog think burying food is a good idea?

Some owners may find it discouraging when they give their dog an exciting new treat, and instead of watching them enjoy it, it ends up buried somewhere in the garden.

If your dog has something that they think is particularly precious, like an especially delicious or long lasting treat, something they have no intentions of sharing, they may instinctively think that burying it is the best way to keep it safe, so that they can enjoy it later.

Of course, there may be other factors at play. You may be unintentionally overfeeding your dog. If they feel that they have more food than they need, their natural instinct may be to bury some food to eat later. Something to consider if you observe this behaviour in your dog may be to weigh their food at each meal to ensure you are following the recommended guidelines. Being generous at dinner times can have a negative impact on your dog’s health, so it’s something to keep in check.

Another reason why your dog is burying food could be due to anxiety. Perhaps something traumatic or negative has happened to them when they were younger? Maybe they had to compete for food in the past, and this may be where this possessive behaviour around food is coming from. This is commonly seen in rescue dogs, who may have had experience living with neglect, abuse or abandonment on the streets. If this sounds like your pup, it may be worth seeking advice from a professional trainer. As your pet settles into their new home, the problem may well go away on its own.

Can my dog get sick from eating buried food?

A bit of dirt on your dog’s food won’t harm them, but there are certain other factors to consider when it comes to eating buried food and your dog’s health. For example, they may bury food in an unsuitable location, or they may not retrieve it in time before it spoils. Eating spoiled food could mean an upset tummy, vomiting and diarrhoea for your dog. Your dog may accidentally eat foreign objects while digging up their food, which could cause intestinal blockages or other health problems. Our advice - if your dog has a tendency to bury food, keep an eye on them when it’s time for meals or treats, and get rid of any items that could make them feel unwell.

Is it just food that dogs bury?

In addition to treats, dogs can also bury personal possessions too - like toys. This comes from a need to protect their most valued belongings, to keep them safe. Also, many dogs just enjoy the act of digging and hiding things. It stimulates their senses, gives them a task to focus on and a feeling of satisfaction.

In addition to burying things, dogs can also hide items in various spots around the house or in the backyard, like behind cushions or under rugs or furniture.

Which dog breeds commonly bury food?

This behaviour can be found across all breeds, however some are more inclined to bury food than others. For example, Terriers were originally bred to eradicate vermin from barns and stables, and to drive rodents out of their burrows, so they’re no strangers to digging.

Should I stop my dog from burying things?

The answer to this question really comes down to whether or not you think this behaviour is a problem.

Questions to ask yourself include:

  • How often are they burying food?
  • Is it making them unwell?
  • Is it causing unpleasant issues within the home? For instance, are they damaging furniture or carpets? Are they digging up flowerbeds or damaging your lawn? Are you finding bones or half-chewed treats hidden in inappropriate places around the house?
  • Does the behaviour appear to come from an unhealthy place, e.g. from anxiety or past trauma?
  • It’s also worth pondering the other side of the equation too. For example, does burying food keep your dog feeling stimulated and engaged?

If you do decide to intervene, here are some ideas you can try to help manage the behaviour:

  • Set up a sandbox or even a pile of blankets, which provides a safe space for your dog to indulge their desire to dig
  • Ensure your dog has plenty of physical and mental stimulation in their routine - i.e. regular walks, training sessions and playtime
  • Consider using interactive games, chew toys and puzzle feeders with your dog, so they feel stimulated mentally without the need to resort to burying items

If the behaviour persists and you’re concerned, discuss a plan of action with your vet or a professional dog trainer.

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