Why Do Cats Bury Their Poop?


What the Fluff?

Why Do Cats Bury Their Poop?

Cleanliness is next to catliness, but this instinct is actually rooted in survival—not sanitation. sarah-m-dowdy
sarah-m-dowdy By Sarah Mouton Dowdy Medically Reviewed by Leslie Sinn, CPDT-KA, DVM, DACVB January 25, 2022 Medically Reviewed by Leslie Sinn, CPDT-KA, DVM, DACVB Advertisement Pin FB More Tweet Email Send Text Message Print cat leaving litter box after burying their poop with what the fluff logo in corner
cat leaving litter box after burying their poop with what the fluff logo in corner Credit: CasarsaGuru / Getty

Given how proper and dignified house cats are, it seems almost rude to discuss their bathroom habits behind their furry backs. In fact, they're so perfectly polished that you might interpret the way cats bury their poop as further evidence of fastidious feline decorum.

But in reality, the reason behind cats' defecation disguise is most likely rooted in keeping themselves alive rather than keeping up appearances—in survival, not sanitation. We enlisted the help of a certified cat behavior consultant to help us dig into the details of why cats bury their poop.

The Reason Why Cats Bury Their Poop

Your cat may sleep on your lap and eat out of your hand, but she hasn't completely lost all of her wild ways. Tigers and lions and Bella the house cat have several behavior patterns in common, including burying their poop.

"Cats have the instinctual behavior of eliminating away from their core living area and then burying their waste so they don't alert predators to their presence," explains Pam Johnson-Bennett, CCBC, author and owner of Cat Behavior Associates and member of Daily Paws' Advisory Board. "This behavior keeps the whole cat colony safe."

Poop burying makes perfect sense for cats living outdoors, but what about your indoor cat? What predator is posing an imminent threat (other than maybe the robotic vacuum)? Johnson-Bennett says you can chalk it up to instinct. "Even indoor cats have it," she explains, "and that's why they take so easily to the litter box."

What Does It Mean If Your Indoor Cat Doesn’t Bury Their Poop?

Even though burying waste is an instinctual behavior, Johnson-Bennett says you shouldn't expect to see the habit in every cat. The reason why may be as simple as nature vs. nurture. "If your cat's mother didn't teach her the behavior as a kitten, it may not be as strong of a need—especially in indoor life," Johnson-Bennett explains.

However, there are other explanations for why your cat may not be burying her poop (and may even be avoiding the litter box altogether).

1. The litter box is too dirty.

Cats like a clean litter box, says Johnson-Bennett, so be sure to clean your cat's tray at least once a day. "Some cats may deposit their poop right in front of the litter box if it's not an appealing setup but they're trying to get as close to it as possible," she explains.

2. The litter box is too small.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) says that the litter box should be at least 1.5 times the length of your cat for her to fit comfortably.

3. Your cat prefers a different kind of litter substrate.

Johnson-Bennett notes that your cat may find a particular litter texture to be uncomfortable on her paws. The litter's scent may also be off-putting to your kitty's sensitive nose. The AAFP says that most cats prefer an unscented, clumping litter substrate.

4. There aren’t enough litter boxes.

The rule of thumb is this: Provide one more litter box than the number of cats in your home. So if you have one cat, you should have two litter boxes. If you have two cats, you need three litter boxes, and so on.

5. Your cat isn’t comfortable with the litter box’s location.

"Cats who feel unsafe in the litter box may not take the time to bury their waste after elimination because they want to limit their vulnerability," Johnson-Bennett explains. Litter boxes placed near windows and glass doors or in noisy, open spaces can be problematic. Even areas that are too confined can cause discomfort because cats like to feel they can easily escape if a threat arises. Private, low-traffic spots where your cat already likes to hang out are better bets. Litter box placement can be especially tricky in multi-cat households, so don't hesitate to ask your veterinarian for tips.

6. There is a multi-cat conflict.

The ASPCA explains that in homes with multiple cats, one of the felines may prevent another from accessing the litter box.

7. Your cat is stressed.

Change isn't just stressful for you–it can upset your cat, too. So if you've recently moved, started a new job, adopted another pet, or brought home a newborn, your cat may be thrown off of her normal routines.

8. Your cat is sick or in pain.

In some cases, abnormal toileting habits are a sign of a medical issue. For example, a cat suffering from arthritis may be in too much pain to climb into the litter box, and a cat with a paw injury may stop burying her poop. In addition, many major medical problems can cause inappropriate elimination, including hyperthyroidism, diabetes, kidney disease and more.

9. Your cat is trying to communicate with other cats.

Some cats may use feces as a social signal to other cats, possibly to establish or reinforce territory boundaries. This behavior is called marking.

How Can I Get My Cat To Bury Her Poop and Use the Litter Box Consistently?

If your cat isn't burying her poop, the first step is to visit your veterinarian so you can rule out any medical causes—especially if she's eliminating outside of the litter box. Once you determine that her health isn't the culprit, you can start addressing the potential problems listed above with the goal of giving your cat the best possible litter box experience.

As you go through the list and contemplate making litter box adjustments, Johnson-Bennett says it's key to offer your cat a choice and not just change. "Cats don't like abrupt changes," she explains. "Abrupt changes can be stressful and lead to litter rejection."

So for example, if you suspect your cat simply doesn't like the litter you're currently using, don't throw out the old substrate and completely switch to a new one cold turkey. Instead, offer the old in one container and the new in another. Johnson-Bennett says you can use disposable boxes to keep costs down as you experiment to find what works. Consider providing a "cafeteria-style" of choices with several different types of boxes and several different kinds of litter to help discover your cat's individual preferences. Studies indicate that most cats prefer clumping, unscented clay-type litter.

There are a lot of possible solutions, but the ASPCA says that scolding your cat and rubbing her nose in her waste should not be on your list. Cats are highly intelligent, but they're unlikely to connect human frustration with their toileting habits. Instead, they're more likely to simply pick up on their owner's stress, which could exacerbate the issue. Gently praising your cat when she does eliminate in her box will make her more likely to do so in the future!

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