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Why's my cat playing in their litter box? Is it normal behavior and how to stop it

Why's my cat playing in their litter box?
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you're plagued by a cat playing in their litter box, then you're likely wondering if it's normal behavior and, moreover, what you can do to stop it, particularly if it's becoming noisy and excessive. 

While plenty of cats keep their relationship with their litter boxes strictly on business terms, some felines may spend inexplicable extra time with their litter, whether it's playing, digging, and scratching in the litter box, rolling around in it, chilling out or even eating cat litter if they're young.  

To us there's nothing appealing about a litter box – especially that heady whiff of ammonia you get when you lift the top off a covered litter box in the morning – but your cat doesn't see it in the same way; to a cat, the litter box can be a very special place indeed. 

Read on to discover why your cat may be going crazy in its litter, and what you can do about it.

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?

Devon Rex kitten digging sand in litter box while being watched by curious brother

(Image credit: Getty Images)

If there's one thing you can depend on with cats, it's that they're complex and unpredictable creatures. There's no definitive answer to why a cat may be playing in their litter box; if you want to get to the bottom of the problem you'll have to to observe your cat's behavior and look for signs of why it might be doing it. 

Here are some of the main reasons why your cat might be spending a bit too much time in its litter box:

Medical issues

Cats can be particularly prone to urinary problems, and that could well be the reason why your cat's spending more time in the litter box than it should; it might be feeling the need to pee but nothing's happening. Medical problems such as urinary tract infections, kidney stones and feline idiopathic cystitis can all interrupt your cat's flow and leave it straining unsuccessfully in the litter box.

If your cat's rolling around in litter, it might be having a dust bath, and that could be a sign of skin irritation. It could be fleas, it could be dermatitis or it could be something more serious. As with any feline health problem, in such cases the thing to do is to get your cat to the vet to be checked out.

Pregnancy

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.

how to help with cat anxiety

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Territoriality

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.

female hand cleaning cat litter box with shovel

(Image credit: Getty Images / Mila Naumova)

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.

Boredom

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.

beautiful small kitten is standing in the cat toilet and looking up to the camera

(Image credit: Getty Images / BiancaGrueneberg)

How to stop a cat from playing in their litter box

  • 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.

Conclusion

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.

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).