Litterbox Habits

Every cat is their individual, and that means they each adopt different behaviours for using the litterbox. Some of these habits have answers, and others have only theories to explain why your cat does what it does. The majority of the habits mentioned here can be harmless but could also be an indication of a more significant problem. If a new habit has formed and you’re not sure why, please bring your cat in for a check-up and discuss with your veterinarian the best course of action to correct it.

Running Away After Defecating

This is a behaviour that can only be theorized about. No one truly knows why a cat will tear through the house after visiting the litterbox, and it’s not a habit that is known to be broken unless there is a medical concern that can be fixed. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Vagus nerve – a nerve that when stimulated through the evacuation of the colon can cause excitement throughout the nervous system, giving the cat energy it didn’t have before. Cats will run around to burn off this energy, or some go wild on their scratch post.
  • Smell – smell can indicate a multitude of things to an animal, and your cat may want to distance themselves from the smell of their bowel movement for a few reasons. Maybe they’re sick in some way and want to be far away from any predator who might sense that. The smell can also be an indication of claiming territory, so cats will either bury their waste not to challenge a predator’s claim or possibly run from it, so they don’t have to follow through with the challenge they’ve just inadvertently made.
  • Flaunting independence – young cats will go to their mothers after eliminating so that she can clean them off. Perhaps a cat will get into the habit of running out of the litterbox, either to get to mom faster because they want to be cleaned quickly, or they are proud of themselves for not needing mom to clean them up anymore.
  • Discomfort – eliminating could be uncomfortable, whether your cat has an infection, inflammation, allergies, full anal glands, etc. Their waste could indicate to another cat that they are sick and vulnerable, so the cat may be trying to distance itself from the problem quickly. This habit could be coupled with others on this list. Consult a veterinarian if you suspect anything is wrong so they can help fix the underlying problem.

Announcing They Are Coming From/Going to the Litterbox

There are a few reasons why a cat would vocalize before or after using the litterbox, and sometimes it can be hard to tell what the cause is. There isn’t necessarily anything to be done about it (unless it’s a medical concern), so it is a harmless habit for your cat to have. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Flaunting independence – similar to above, a young cat may announce to its mother that it’s used the litterbox on its own and no longer needs her help. At this point, a cat might stop doing this, or they might develop a habit.
  • Displaying dominance – dominant cats are either comfortable in their top position in the household, or they are readily challenging anyone who might try to take their place. Either way, a dominant cat could be announcing to other animals before or after litterbox use what they are about to do or what they have just done because they are unafraid that everyone knows.
  • Habit – either of the above reasons could cause your cat to develop a pattern of vocalizing before or after using the litterbox. They also could have learned the behaviour from their mother or siblings. It is not known what can be done to break this habit.
  • Medical concern – if a cat has just started to display this behaviour, they could have a medical issue. This type of vocalization usually happens more during the litterbox visit than before or after. Your cat may be having trouble with urination or having a bowel movement, which means a trip to the veterinarian is likely necessary. Constipation can be an emergency, depending on how long it has been going on because eventually, the feces can become large enough not to be able to get past the pelvis. Not being able to urinate is an emergency, especially in male cats. Males have a smaller opening for urine to pass through, so if they happen to be prone to developing urinary crystals, the opportunity can become blocked, and their bladder can fill up quickly. If you notice your cat is unable to urinate or is having very small frequent urination (often with vocalizations due to pain), please contact your veterinarian immediately.

Playing with or Eating Litter

These habits are not desirable as they are unsanitary and could cause significant issues. For example, if one cat is infected, and it could be passed to another cat through fecal contamination, these habits make it much easier for the infection to spread. It is best that these habits are discouraged, though only through targeting the underlying cause rather than with punishment. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Spreading scent – possibly a display of dominance or a territorial claim. A cat has scent glands in the paw pads that are meant for marking territory (why scratch posts can be so important). Once having used the litterbox, a cat may spread their scent both around the box or outside of it via spreading litter or digging at the walls. It doesn’t matter if a cat is the only one in the household, they could still display this behaviour. It’s also possible that your cat has smelled another cat outside the house, and that has triggered the reaction, whether it’s about claiming territory or trying to get the opposite sex to notice.
  • Not learning proper habits – a cat might pick up this behaviour from its mother, and she may have developed it due to learning it from her mother. They might also learn it from their siblings. Young cats tend to play with just about anything they can get their paws on, and that includes litter. They may or may not break the habit of playing in it, but it’s more likely that they will continue if they are removed from their mother at an early age so she can’t tell them it’s something they shouldn’t be doing.
  • Dust bath – some cats like to have dust baths. The dust from the litter gets under the fur and could be relieving an itch or soaking up extra oils. Or your cat could be deficient in certain minerals, and they’re trying to get more by licking the dust off their fur, whether it’s giving them the needed minerals or not. There have been cases where a cat was eliminating outside the litterbox and was switched to a litter which has additives meant for enticing them back to using the litterbox. Cats who have this litter might enjoy it enough that they want to rub themselves in it, like a dust bath. Maybe try switching to a regular, dust-free litter or checking with your veterinarian to see if there is an underlying problem.
  • Pica – this is the technical term for the urge to eat things that are not food. A cat could be eating more than just litter, such as socks, toys, rubber bands, or anything else they have access to. A few different things could be the cause, such as weaning too early from mother (suckling on other things and eventually eating them), dietary deficiency (lack of sufficient minerals in the diet), boredom (needing more environmental stimulation), or an underlying medical condition (genetic, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or disease). One of the first things to do is stay far away from clumping cat litter. This can quickly build up in your cat’s stomach and block their entire digestive system. Switch to a litter that is more easily digestible (corn or wheat-based is best), has no additives (including fragrance), or use a litterbox with no litter and just a puppy pee pad on the bottom while you contact your veterinarian to help determine the initial cause of the pica.

Digging at Walls or the Floor

This habit is not always an issue, but often more of an annoyance. The sound and action of digging outside the litterbox can grate on an owner’s nerves, partly because it doesn’t seem to make sense. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Dislike the litter – the litter your cat has to use might not be to their liking, so they dig elsewhere rather than on the litter. There also may not be enough litter for them to dig down far enough. Try switching the litter to another type and making sure there are at least 3 inches of it to dig in. The litterbox could also not be clean enough, and your cat doesn’t want to dig into dirty litter. The litterbox should be cleaned out daily, and if you have multiple cats, the general rule is to have 1.5 litter boxes per cat so that there is enough space and clean litter for everyone.
  • Improper litterbox – in addition to not liking the litter, your cat may not like the box it has to use. A covered litterbox can feel claustrophobic, or the box could be too shallow, or the box could be too small. Try a larger litterbox with more litter in it. If you prefer a covered litterbox, maybe try a top-entry box, which has sides that come up and around to help prevent the spread of litter.
  • Habit – any reason a cat has to be digging outside the litterbox, if it goes on for long enough, could turn this behaviour into a habit. Even if the underlying concern is fixed, the digging may continue because the cat will merely always do it. Small ways of trying the break this habit include distracting the cat with a toy close to the litterbox so that they play instead of continuing to dig. If they dig at walls and not the floor, perhaps try moving the litter box away from the wall, or removing the cover if they’re digging at the walls of the litterbox.
  • Trying harder to cover soft feces – there are many reasons why a cat’s feces would be soft, but merely because it’s soft may cause your cat to start digging at the walls or floor in an effort to cover it up more than usual or dig elsewhere because they don’t want to touch it. Whether your cat has chronically soft feces, or if it’s a new development, discuss with your veterinarian the probable causes so that it can be fixed. Hopefully, the wall or floor digging will be fixed along with the problem as long as it doesn’t go on long enough to develop a habit.

Cats are interesting creatures, and their habits can be confusing at times. Be patient with your cat because their habits may be telling you that they have a problem. Cats write their own rules, and we aren’t allowed to read them. We’re left to decipher their behaviours and hopefully help them, in the long run.

Written by Shelagh Squires, RVT