We get it, you’re a curious cat. You’ve got questions and we’ve got answers. For this series, we send your burning kitty q’s to our panel of experts who can help you get inside your cat’s high-held head.
We consulted Dr. Mikel Maria Delgado, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis. Mikel has worked professionally with cats for almost twenty years, starting in the Cat Behavior Program of the San Francisco SPCA, and more recently through her cat behavior consulting partnership, Feline Minds. She’s also co-author with Jackson Galaxy of the 2017 book “Total Cat Mojo,” and has published her research in several academic journals. She lives in Sacramento, California, with her boyfriend and their 16-year-old rescue cat Clarabelle.
Okay so now that I’m spending all this time at home, I’m taking a page from my cat’s book and getting curious about everything. Since transitioning to WFH full-time, I’ve had to set up my desk a few feet away from my kitty’s litter box. Luckily, I mostly forget it’s there (shout out Smalls food and litter), but every now and then I hear her little paws digging up a storm.
Then I got to thinking: I never taught her to use a litter box. I adopted her as a kitten, and it’s just something she just does. I haven’t ever really thought about it, and it seems like she hasn’t either. How do cats know to use the litter box? And why do they dig and bury their waste?
— A Curious Cat
One amazing thing about cats is how clean they are - most cats will use a litter box and cover their waste, typically without any training. You can just set up a box, put in some kitty litter, and most cats will naturally gravitate to it and use it to urinate (pee) or defecate (poo) in. What’s behind this feline magic?
The tendency to dig in a sandy substance appears to come naturally to most cats. The instinct to dig before and after elimination, and to cover areas where they have peed and pooped has likely offered many benefits to cats over time. First of all, digging a hole for elimination keeps your cat’s fur and paws clean. After your cat goes to the bathroom, you may see them sniff the waste, and then scratch the litter to cover the area. Covering their waste covers their scent, which would protect cats from predators or competitors. Covering of poo may also help control infection with parasites, or likely did as cats were evolving! Even our indoor cats still retain those strong instincts!
If your cat does not dig in their litter or bury their waste, it can mean a few things. Cats tend to prefer a softer, sand-like, unscented litter. Litters that have larger particles, like pellet litters, may be uncomfortable to your cat’s sensitive paws. So if your cat is spending more time scratching the walls or floors than touching the litter, it may be because they don’t like the texture of the litter you are offering! Cats are more likely to cover their poop when they are in their “core territory” -- so if the litter box is too far out of the way, your cat may not do as much covering as they would if the litter box was closer to where they spend time.
Some cats just appear to be a bit “easy going” or even lazy when it comes to covering their waste. This reflects the natural variation we see in any behavior, even if it is instinctive! Those instincts may be stronger in some cats than others.
In nature, cats rarely use the same place twice to eliminate. This is why it is important to offer your cat more than one litter box, and to keep them boxes very clean, so they don’t seem “used” to your cat. If your cat is NOT using the litter box, the first thing to do is to take them to your veterinarian to make sure there isn’t a medical reason for the problem. The second thing to do is make sure the litter boxes suit your cat’s needs - that they are large and open, in safe but accessible locations, have a few inches of soft unscented litter inside, and are kept VERY clean - scooped at least once a day!
If your cat stops using the litter box, there’s always a reason. Sometimes litter box avoidance is related to stress or relationships within the home. Please do not punish your cat for these accidents -- but if you can’t understand why your cat isn’t using the box, and you’ve ruled out a medical problem, you can work with a behavior professional who can help you get your cat back to the box again!
[#BeginTLDR#] Most cats will use their litter box and cover their waste—without training. [#SplitTLDR#]To keep your kitty comfortable, it's important to offer your cat more than one litter box, and keep them all clean. [#SplitTLDR#] If your cat is avoiding the litter box, it could be caused by stress. Avoid punishment, and work with a behaviorist to get your cat back to the box again![#EndTLDR#]
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