A Pet Owner’s Guide to Keeping Ants Out of Pet Food

The sight of ants crawling in your pet’s food bowl is NOT a pleasant one. Not only does the food need to be thrown away, but you also have to figure out where the ants are coming from and how to keep them out of the food.

To keep ants out of pet food, you should keep your house clean, store pet food in airtight containers, and clean up spills. If ants come into your house, determine where they entered and then seal that area. Also, consider buying ant-proof food bowls and products that create ant-proof barriers. 

Understanding how ants find food is helpful in coming up with successful strategies for keeping your pet’s food ant-free. Below, I’m going to explain how ants locate food and what you can do to prevent them from finding it!

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How Do Ants Find Food?

Ants find food in two ways—by accident or by smell.

Smell is their most important sense. Researchers at Vanderbilt University mapped the olfactory system of ants and discovered that ants have 400 odor receptors. This is more than TWICE as many as a honeybee, which has 174, or a mosquito, which has somewhere between 78 and 158.

Luckily for ants, their extremely poor vision is overtaken by their very good sense of smell. The compound eyes of an ant let them detect movement and see areas around them, but for only short distances.  

Just because they have compound eyes does not mean that they are totally blind! Along with their scent, ants do infact also rely on visual cues when they travel, such as landmarks, the position of the sun—or inside light sources—and use them to return to their nests.

Plainly, they just can’t see too well. If only there was a market for ant glasess…

Ants Don’t Have a Nose and Use Their Antennas to Smell

Remember how I just said that ants have a very strong sense of smell?

Well, they actually don’t have noses.

No, an ant does not have a nose, but rather they use their antennas to smell. Their antennas do double-duty— as they hold organs for both touch and smell. This is why you will often see them touch brush their antennas against the ground or objects while they are traveling!

Ant antennas have three parts—the socket, the scape, and the funiculus.

If you compare their antenna to your arm, the socket is your shoulder, the scape your biceps, and the funiculus is your forearm. The funiculus is divided into smaller segments, and the exact number depends on the species of ant that we’re talking about.

The spot where the scape and funiculus meet functions much like an elbow, allowing them to move their antenna side to side and therefore, smell!

Their Antenna Moves As They Walk 

When ants follow a trail, they sweep their antenna side to side while following a trail using a 3-step process:

  1. Probing. When they are looking for a trail, moving slowly, or being still, they keep their antenna close together when being still or moving slowly
  2. Exploratory. Once they discover a trail, they spread their antenna farther apart to determine how wide the trail is.
  3. Trail following. Once they have found a trail, they keep their antenna far enough apart, keeping one on either side of a trail.

Letting Other Ants Know Where the Food Is Located

Ants use foraging signals to lead other ants to food. It works something like this:

A worker ant finds a food source and takes as much as he can and returns to the nest. While doing this, the ant leaves a scent trail behind (a good one, I’d imagine)

Once the ant returns to the nest, it lets the other ants know that it has found food, and gets others to follow it back, using the scent trail as a guide.

To make sure no one gets left behind, ants often move in tandem. The ones in front will walk a few steps and then wait for the other ants to catch up. As they move, they are constantly tapping each other so that they stay together as a team!

Letting the Ants Know How Many Are Needed

Sometimes you will see a stream of ants walking, and other times it seems like an army swarming. How do ants know how many are needed for the task at hand?

The ant that returns with food, signals to his or her fellow ants that it has found food. But not only does the ant communicate that it has found food, but it gives the other ants an idea of how much food is available.

If the ants are receiving a signal that a swarm is needed, they let other ants know by a kind of popular vote. It works like this:

Ants are generally work in groups of swarming ants and worker ants. Swarming ants run into worker ants, then the worker ants join the swarming ants if needed for a task

So if there are ten swarming ants and five working ants, the working ants will switch to swarm mode, and suddenly 15 ants are swarming. As the group of swarming ants grows, more and more worker ants join them as needed!

The process works in reverse also. If five swarming ants encounter ten working ants, the swarming ants will turn back into working ants if they aren’t needed at the time.

Now, why is this important?

Because – we need to understand that even one solid WHIFF of pet food on the ground can end up leading a swarm of ants right to your pet food if not taken care of in a timely fashion.

What Kind of Ants Do You Have?

It’s always good to know what your enemy wants, so here are some of the most common household ants:

  • Pavement ants. These ants get their name because they prefer to live under pavement and anything gravely. Although their preferred food is something sugary, they also enjoy the meat in your pet’s food.
  • Rover ants. Rover ants are smaller than other household ants. Their preferred food is sugary (so don’t spill any sweet stuff.)
  • Odorous house ant. Crush this brown or black ant, and you will know where their name comes from. They prefer living near vegetation so they can feed on aphids’ honeydew. They love sugary food and dead insects. 
  • Tiny ants. There are many species of but essentially, they all relate to little, small ants. You’ll find them around your home scouring in the kitchen, generally.
  • Carpenter ants. These large dark brown or black ants don’t usually come into people’s homes. If you have carpenter ants, you do not have to worry about them eating your pet’s food. However, you should be worried because they will damage the wood in your house.

Interesting fact: Carpenter ants don’t eat the cellulose that is in wood. Instead, they use the wood for nesting.

Why Do Ants Eat Pet Food?

Most ants aren’t picky eaters, eating anything from vegetables, fruits and other insects. Most people think that ants just love sugar (they generally do) but in reality, ants have an incredibly diverse diet.

Sp, what in pet food makes ants want to eat it?

  • Cat food. Cat food is high in protein that comes from animal sources like fish or chicken. Although cats are carnivorous, cat foods often contain corn or soy products. Sources of starch, such as glucose or fructose, help cats convert sugar into energy.  Fibers from
    vegetables are usually added to help cats move digested food through their intestines. And fats provide important nutrients and help store energy.  
  • Dog food. Protein sources include chicken, fish, beef, and other meat sources.  Grains and plant matter are the carbohydrates that provide sugar. Dog food also has fats, which are provided through the meat or by plant oils.

As you can see, dog and cat foods include many ingredients that ants like, so it makes sense that if they find your pet’s food, it’s a clear cut free meal for them!

Do Ants Eat Food for Gerbils, Mice, and Hamsters?

If you have other pets besides cats and dogs, you still need to be on the lookout for ants.

  • Gerbils, mice, and hamsters. Food for your favorite furry critter will include vegetables, seeds, and dried fruit, as well as fats from seeds.
  • Birds. Birdseed is primarily made from seeds and nuts, high protein sources of food. Sugary foods for butterflies, hummingbirds, and other sugar-loving birds are a magnet for ants.
  • Reptiles. If ants have discovered food in your reptile’s cage, you have bigger problems than them eating the insects you are feeding your reptile. The stream of ants can easily become a swarm, and since your pet is enclosed, ants can become more than a nuisance.

    Likely, you’ll have to dump and clean out your whole tank, which of course, is quite the hassle.
  • Fish. Most fish food contains protein from insects, shrimp, and other animals, although some fish foods are plant-based. Goldfish, for example, are omnivores, while beta fish are carnivores!

Pet foods all-around generally contain plenty of enticing ingredients. Don’t worry though, all hope isn’t lost!

How to Keep Ants Out of Pet Food

Let’s get down to buisiness.

Here are seven tips for keeping ants away from your pet’s food.

Keep Them Out of the House

If you can keep them out of the house, then you have won the battle. What are some ways to do that?

Here’s one way not to keep them out—use something like Ortho Home Defense. You might get rid of the ants inside the house, but if you don’t keep them away outside, then you’re probably going to be in for a rough time.

If you stop them from entering the house in the first place, you’ll be that much closer to keeping your pet food ant free.

Keep Your House Clean

The first ants that show up in your house are scouting the area. If they find food, they will take some back to the colony and do their antenna dance, sending more ants back. Clean up spills, especially sugary ones.  

You can even use something like diluted vinegar to clean your floors and countertops. Ants do not like the smell. Even after you cannot smell it, ants can due to their heightened sense of smell.

When using a cleaner, your goal is to eliminate sources of food and the scent trail, so something like distilled vinegar will do a wonderful job at covering up the scent.

Figure Out Where Ants Are Entering

Until you stop them at their source, you will continue to have ants come in, especially if you leave pet food out. Determining how they are entering your house is the first step to sealing that area.

  • Cracks. Check your house for seams and cracks, especially around the foundation. Also, look for gaps where the foundation and siding meet. The cracks will need to be sealed, but a repellant can be a good short-term fix.
  • From underneath. Ants that tunnel through dirt can get into your crawl space and then make their way into your living quarters. If a plastic barrier is present, this is usually not a problem. If you don’t have a vapor barrier in place, now is the time to do so.
  • Doors and windows. Inspect your doors and windows for gaps, moisture, or signs of rot, caulk, or seal openings. Also, check your door’s weatherstripping to make sure they are not just walking in.
  • Wires and cables. Utility wires can serve as an entry point if not properly sealed. Caulk or seal around them. Don’t forget to check around water spigots.
  • Passengers. Sometimes ants arrive as passengers on items you bring into the house, such as outdoor plants or kids’ toys.
  • Permanent residents. Sometimes the ants were already living in your house, and you just didn’t know it. If this is the case, you might want to call a professional!

Keep the Area Around Your House Tidy

  • Make sure that your trash cans are closed and tightly secured.
  • Keep leaves and brush away from your house. 
  • Trim bushes and branches so ants cannot use them as a ladder to climb up your house.

Use a Barrier

Keep your ants from entering your house with a barrier that keeps them from entering. Although you will find all sorts of products mentioned online, doing something like spraying the entire outside of your house with lemon juice is not totally practical.

There are many commercial pesticides available, but if you have outside pets or want to stay away from pesticides, there are a few other products that you can use that act as deterrents.

  • Cinnamon. Ants hate cinnamon so much that if ants invade an area with cinnamon trees, other plants will get decimated, and the cinnamon will survive. That’s because cinnamon has Cinnamaldehyde and Cinnamyl, which have an extremely adverse effect on ants. Sprinkling cinnamon around an entire house is impractical, but use it in a targeted area and the ants generally will not cross it.
  • Diatomaceous Earth. If you need to apply a deterrent over a larger area and want something safe and effective, this fits the bill. Diatomaceous earth gets its name from tiny aquatic organisms called diatoms. The fossils of these organisms are ground into dust and used widely, not just for killing insects.

The diatomaceous earth dries out insects by pulling oils and fats from an insect’s exoskeleton. As long as it stays dry, it remains effective.

Repeated applications might be necessary, or you can apply it against floorboards inside.  

Of course, make sure to read all of the cautionary information depending on if you’re using this product inside or outside, but a good place to start is with the Safer Brand Diatomaceous Earth.

Store Pet Food Where Ants Cannot Get to It

If you notice ants near your dog or cat food bags, it might be time to put your pet’s food in airtight food containers. If you buy pet food in twenty-pound bags, then you need something big. 

What you might want is the Gamma2 Vittles Vault. It comes in two sizes—40 and 60 pounds—and is stackable. The heavy-duty plastic is shatter-proof and is durable enough to be used in barns or sheds. And because it is airtight, food will stay fresher.

Ant Proof Your Bowl

Ants are poor swimmers, so consider creating a moat around your pet’s food bowl. People who recommend this have some variation in setting a dish of food in a larger pan and pouring water into the larger pan. Some people will smear Vaseline against the outside of the pan moat pan for added protection.

Although the moat method works, the water tends to get dirty or splashed. Therefore, several manufacturers have created ant-proof bowls that do not require water.

The Ant Proof Bowl

One of the best is the Ant Proof Bowl. This bowl has a clever double bowl design that uses the ant’s scent track against it. The ant climbs into the bottom bowl, and when it does not find any food, it uses its scent track to climb back out.  

This “Fool a Bug” video has an excellent explanation of how the bowl’s design thwarts ants.

The BugSnub Ant Proof Tray

If you would like to keep your bowls, then consider the BugSnub Ant Proof Tray. This 16 x 12-inch tray is held up by four cup-like legs. Fill the cups with the BugSnub gel designed to create a sticky surface that ants cannot cross.

One thing you might appreciate is the flexibility of the tray. You can use it to hold a bowl of food, your composting container. It can also be used on a picnic table to keep the ants away.

If you already have a tray, BugSnub sells the BugSnub Ant Proof Legs separately. The company also sells packets of the gel, specially formulated not to melt on hot summer days.

Bottom Line

There you have it—helpful hacks to keep your ants out of your pet’s food. If you can keep them out of your house, great. If they get in, remember that eliminating scent tracks makes it difficult for them to get back to the food source. Clean up spilled foods and drinks, consider buying food bowls that are ant-proof, and have a bag of diatomaceous earth on hand.  

And if you want to stop ants in their tracks, grab some cinnamon. They won’t cross it—even to get to sugar.

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