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Why Do Cats Act Weird When It Comes to Their Litter Boxes?

Some run around like wildcats, while others insist on quiet. What's with these rituals?

Phillip Mlynar  |  Dec 14th 2015


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.

I love my toilet. It’s not especially grandiose — it’s a white two-piece porcelain Gerber packing a satisfying 1.6 gallons per flush rating — but there’s something homely and comforting about sitting on it. I have fond memories of checking soccer scores on my phone while nestled there, and I’ve often joked that I should change the signature on my iPhone emails to “Sent from my toilet.” When I return home from a short vacation, becoming reacquainted with the porcelain lets me know I’m back in my rightful place.

I feel calm there; I dare say it’s my Zen place. And I’m starting to think cats feel the same way about their litter boxes.

Are toilets considered territory?

Okay, I’ve never caught my cat, Mimosa, waxing lyrical about her bog-standard, plastic-hooded poo-box (in blue). But there’s definitely a sense that the litter box is the place in the apartment that’s her special sanctuary. I guess the word I’m moving toward is territorial. Cats, I’ve hypothesized, are curiously territorial about their toilets.

Putting my hunch to the test, I spoke to Tracie Hotchner, host of the radio show Cat Chat and author of The Cat Bible: Everything Your Cat Expects You to Know.

Asked whether kitties are possessive when it comes to their bathrooms, she was clear: “Definitely.”

“One of the biggest problems in litter control is cats not letting other cats use their litter box,” Hotchner said.

I’d heard this before, along with the adage that you should have one box for each cat in your home, plus one more. I asked Hotchner why these feline furballs are so jurisdictional when it comes to their little comfort stations. She mused for a moment before offering, “Cats do guard resources, but I’m not sure how well you’d consider poo a resource.”

Fair point.

Cats have reasons not to share

Digging deeper into the great cat litter box conundrum, I sought the counsel of another expert, John Bradshaw, the author of Cat Sense. He added a historical perspective: “Cats are descended from a solitary ancestor, so they value having exclusive access to key resources like food and beds. Sharing litter boxes, like sharing food bowls, does not come easy to them.”

Warming to this line of litter box philosophizing, Bradshaw added that many cat owners become vexed when their kitty insists on burying his food in the litter box — a behavior that can be common when there’s more than one cat in a household. It’s a form of caching that you see in the wild, where a feral cat might bury some of its prey to snack on later.
“The cat is trying to hide it from a potential rival,” Bradshaw said.

Ghost Cat did to the Clean Healthy litter box what she does to every mystery she comes across and sank her teeth in.

For a domesticated kitty, the litter box is a potential treasure trove and, as any smart cat knows, you always guard your treasure.

That’s the litter box’s revered status. But what about the quirky behavior that goes on inside this little feline Zen garden? Mimosa has a carefully choreographed routine: She deposits her nuggets into the crystals while proudly puffing her chest out of the front of the box, then she spends the next 10 minutes bombing around the apartment like she’s joyfully lost control of her faculties.

“The usual explanation [for the dashing around] is a way of releasing frustration or feelings of conflict,” Bradshaw said.

The impulse can kick in when a cat gets a peek of a neighbor’s kitty or a bird swooping past the window and wants to relieve feelings of stress caused by being unable to take action against the rival or prey.

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Orange cat, blue box by Shutterstock.

“While a cat is in the act of using a litter box, she is vulnerable to attack,” added Bradshaw, addressing Mimosa’s behavior. “So if this actually happened at some point in the past, she might start to feel tense when using the litter box — a tension she dissipates by dashing around the room.”

I adopted Mimosa when she was 5 months old, and she was originally found hiding under a car in a parking lot, so it’s possible that at one point her peaceful al fresco pooping was rudely interrupted. But she doesn’t generally seem skittish — she once tried to fight a rooster when she was living in the shelter, so I veer more toward Hotchner’s thoughts on her post-pooping crazies: “It’s just a great release of having relieved herself of that load that’s inside. She’s thinking, ‘I feel so good now!’”

That rings true to me. (Remember Al Pacino’s quote from Glengarry Glen Ross, “You ever take a dump made you feel like you’d just slept for twelve hours?”) Pooping is fun! It’s not just a bodily function — it’s a joyful pastime. It’s a little moment of privacy and respite in a world where we’re constantly connected to each other at all hours of the day. A successful performance undoubtedly leaves you feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world. Sure, cats might seem to act curious in their litter boxes, but if you break down their behavior, they’re very much like us. Now if only we could invent kitty toilet paper …

We had to ask

Does your cat have a unique behavior or ritual when taking a poop?

One of my cats doesn’t “bury her business,” so my other cat does it for her. After all, what are friends for?
— Shirley R Millard

I have had three cats so far, and all of them had to do kitty sprints after taking a poop.
— Donna Beeckman

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One of my cats meows when he’s going, then turns around in circles digging for about 20 minutes.
— Sarah Cole

Always, before my Tazzy cat poops, I have to play chase with him. We run back and forth, from room to room, hiding, then after five minutes of this, he does his business!
— Karen Roy-James

My cat runs out of the litter box to come get me, even in the middle of the night, so that I can clean it out. She then begs for a treat as if she deserves a reward.
— Pam Lookabill

My cat is a very picky eater and his tastes frequently change. So when I put something in his dish that he really wants, he goes to his litter box to poop. Is that a poop ritual or an eating ritual?
— Kim Pinkley

Tux always wakes me up in the middle of the night with the sound of smacking the plastic edges of his litter box. He poops in the center, then smacks the plastic. The poop doesn’t get covered up, but he does successfully wake me up.
— Jeremy Scott Ringley

One of mine has all four paws lined up, balancing on the edge of the box. How he does it, I don’t know. One goes into each and every box, smells around, spins around — nope — next box, repeat, next box, repeat, until she finds one that she can use. My one cat sits and meows at me until I clean the box, then he hops in and uses it every single time.
— Robin Fontenotto

What about your cat? Does he or she have any weird behaviors related to the litter box? Tell us in the comments.

About the author: Phillip Mlynar writes about cats, music, food, and sometimes a mix of all three. He considers himself the world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats.