Why's my cat playing in their litter box?
Is your cat playing in their litter box? We dug deep to find the answers with help from an expert vet
Is your cat playing in their litter box? If so, you may be wondering whether this behavior is normal or something to be concerned about. From playing and digging to scratching and rolling about, some of our feline friends see their litter box as one super fun little playground.
While many of us pet parents invest in the best cat litter box that money can buy in the hope of making those toilet breaks as comfortable as possible, it can come as quite a surprise when we notice our kitty choosing to spend extra time in there frolicking about. But according to Dr. Joanna Woodnutt, it’s nothing to be concerned about where young cats are concerned.
“It’s often normal for a kitten to play in their litter box, especially if they don’t have as many places to hide and pounce from as they would like,” she explains. “It’s also one of the few times cats get to dig, and your kitten may enjoy practicing this important skill. Most cats grow out of playing in their litter box and it’s unusual for adults to spend much time in there.”
If your cat is playing in their litter box, chances are, it’s nothing to worry about. However, there are occasions where it may be a cause for concern, so we spoke to Dr. Woodnutt to get her thoughts on when a trip to the vet is in order. Check out our guide to how to stop your kitten eating litter or read on to find out what she had to say.
After graduating as a veterinarian from the University of Nottingham, Dr Joanna Woodnutt went on to practice companion animal medicine in the Midlands, UK. Dr Woodnutt is specifically interested in consulting and helping her clients understand their pets better, whether it’s around medical problems such as dermatology, behavior, and nutrition.
Is it normal for cats or kittens to play in their litter box?
Most of the time, a cat playing in their litter box, either by scratching or digging, is normal behavior. You'll likely notice your feline friend typically covers or buries their poop which can explain some digging behavior: this is a natural feline instinct to use feces and urine to mark territory.
While some cats simply enjoy playing in their litter box, if the behavior becomes excessive or you notice your cat sleeping in their litter box, it could be cause for concern.
Why do cats play in their litter box?
“Generally cats play in their litter box because they enjoy a particular type of game and they’re struggling to get it elsewhere,” explains Woodnutt. “For instance, a cat might enjoy hiding in the box and pouncing on a passing playmate. If you don’t provide clean boxes for your cat to use for this, or the boxes are in the wrong place, it’s not surprising they’ll reach for their litter tray.
However, there can be other reasons why your cat might be spending a bit too much time in its litter box:
"There can be medical explanations for your cat spending more time in their tray that have nothing to do with playing," Woodnutt explains. "Stress, urinary problems and even problems with blood pressure or thyroid issues could cause your cat to spend more time in their box. If your cat isn’t usually playful or doesn’t seem to be playing in there, you should consider taking them to the vet for a checkup."
If your cat is spending more time than usual in the litter tray, she might well be checking out places to have kittens, and for most cats the litter tray is a quiet, safe space, even if it's a disgusting one by our standards.
Anxiety and stress
Our feline friends may seem calm and relaxed, but cats can be just as prone to anxiety or stress as the rest of us. And if anxiety or stress gets the better of them, one of their reactions may be to bolt to a safe space, and strange as it may seem, the litter tray may be that very space.
It's their most private place and may well be the part of your home that they most consider to be theirs, so it makes sense that it could be the place they run to when things get a bit much. Any number of things could be causing your cat enough anxiety or stress to make it retreat to the safety of its litter tray.
Unexpected changes of routine, from small ones to bigger upheavals such as moving house, could drive up your cat's anxiety levels. Another cause could be loud noise, such as fireworks or building work nearby. Alternatively, the arrival of a new family member or a new pet could be stressing your cat.
Similar to anxiety and stress, a challenge to your cat's territory may make it retreat to the safe space of the litter box. It could be a new pet or family member, or simply a change in its relationship with other cats in the house.
If you have multiple cats, it pays to ensure that there are enough litter boxes to go around. While you should have one per cat, it doesn't hurt to have extras about the house. That way there's less likelihood of territorial disagreements, thanks to reduced competition for litter boxes.
On a related note, if your cat is playing in the litter box after you clean it, while it might just be delighted at fresh new litter, the reasoning could be territorial: if your cat sees it messing about with its litter box, it might see this as an invasion of its territory (and in some cases it may attack you while you're trying to sort its litter out).
You can avoid this situation by making sure your cat can't see you cleaning its litter box; shut the cat out, get the job done and then open the door again, and it should be none the wiser.
Sudden change to routine
A sudden change in litter – particularly if you've moved to a scented option or one that's texturally very different to the one your cat's used to – can confuse your cat and break its association between the litter box and its toilet, and it instead starts treating it as a play area or sleeping spot.
To prevent such confusion, don't completely change its litter immediately; instead start mixing the new litter in with the old stuff, and gradually increase the ratio of new litter over a few days until your cat's adjusted to the change.
A bored cat is liable to act up in any number of ways, and playing in its litter tray could be a non-destructive way of demonstrating its dissatisfaction. They may not be getting enough attention from you, or they could be tired of its old toys, or it might feel that the quality or quantity of playtime with you is inadequate.
If you suspect your cat may be bored, liven it up with extra stimulation. It could be as simple as a fresh catnip mouse, or you may need to devote more of your time to snuggles and games.
How to stop a cat from playing in their litter box
“Provide your cat with toys that fulfill the same purpose- if your cat is using the box as a hide, try giving him cardboard boxes that look similar,” Woodnutt suggests. “If your kitten seems to be enjoying digging, it’s best to let them practice- a coveted box or one with higher sides should help contain the litter while they learn. Remember not to shout at your cat, as this causes fear and inhibits learning. Instead, try calling your cat over and giving them a treat, then distracting them.”
Here are some other tips to put a stop to your cat's litter box frolicking:
- Get your cat checked by a veterinarian, especially if they are showing other signs of ill health like diarrhea, difficulty urinating, or stiff joints
- Try calming pheromone plug-in diffusers if your cat is feeling stressed
- Clean the litter box when your cat is out of the room
- Keep good litter box management: Provide multiple litter trays in accessible areas and ensure they're cleaned once a day. Consider a clumping, unscented clay litter.
- Give your cat other places that they can hide like cardboard boxes or cozy beds; use their favorite blanket that already carries their scent.
- Keep their routine consistent: Try to avoid major changes to their litter and consider gradually introducing a new one if required.
- Ensure your cat is stimulated: Ideally, your cat needs at least an hour of active play time daily.
Having a cat playing in their litter box can be a troubling situation to find yourself in, but by observing your cat's behavior closely you should be able to get to the bottom of things and take action to help change it.
It might mean a trip to the vet to deal with a medical issue, it could involve making some improvements to your cat's environment, or it may just mean extra playtime with your furry little pal. However, whatever the cause, it shouldn't be an insoluble problem.
If you’ve just welcomed a new cat into your family and want to get them toilet trained quickly and easily, be sure to check out our guide to how to litter train a kitten.
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Jim is a writer, performer and cat-wrangler based in Bath, who last year adopted a pair of sibling rescue cats who turned out to be effectively feral, and has spent a lot of time since then trying to get them accustomed to people (some success) and each other (ongoing project).