Cat scratches litter box walls and digs a lot

A query about a domestic cat scratching her litter box walls may also be part of a general enquiry about why their cat is digging in their litter substrate too much. It looks like slightly manic and abnormal behaviour and it is slightly abnormal but there is a natural and normal reason for it.

It’s abnormal partly because the litter tray or box is a substitute for the soil of the outside which is a natural litter tray for domestic cats. I can remember my female cat, years ago, scratching the inside walls of a covered litter tray. Clearly these actions were an attempt to cover her poop rather than flicking the litter material over her poop. She ended up scratching the sidewalls of the covered litter tray. It looked like irrational behaviour but instinctive nonetheless. An example of instinctive feline behaviour applied to an abnormal situation which results in what appears to humans to be irrational behaviour.

For her, the reason may have been that she was feeling insecure because I had rescued another cat who was then present in her environment. She was quite a timid cat so this manic behaviour of trying to bury her poop may have been an expression of insecurity.

Cat digging in cat litter
Cat digging in cat litter. Image deemed to be in the public domain.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Masking scent

But at the root of digging and scratching at cat litter is the desire to mask the smell of their poop by burying it. That’s the ultimate purpose for all this frantic activity of scratching endlessly and digging a hole which they can’t do it in a litter tray which is about an inch deep in litter material. So they end of scratching the bottom of the tray.

The reason why they want to mask the smell of their poop is because they want to mask their presence. If they want to mask their presence it means that they might be insecure and feel a bit nervous and it may be an emotional alternative activity to hiding. Timid cats hide under something like an item of furniture to physically hide themselves and when poop is buried they hide themselves by hiding their body odour or scent. As a cat’s scent is very important to other cats, hiding scent is very effective. A cat’s scent identifies them especially as poop contains scent deposited into it by their anal glands.

Distortion of normal behavior and some cats don’t bury poop

So to recap, scratching litterbox walls is about trying to cover their poop and pee and is an slightly irrational extension of simply flicking litter over their poop but the behaviour has gone a bit wrong and is distorted. What should be added to this explanation is that some cats do not make any attempt to bury their poop or urine. They just do it and walk out the litter. It might be argued that these cats are confident and don’t mind the smell. Indeed it may be a statement that this is their area and they want other cats to know that. They do this even if there are no other cats in the home because it is instinctive behaviour.

Marking territory

In the wild, cats sometimes use poop in marking territory. Typically cat spray urine on vertical objects such as trees to mark territory and this is done normally on the boundaries of their territory for obvious reasons. But poop can also be used in the same way. This is a reminder that the action of burying poop or leaving it unburied as a behaviour is built around marking territory.

Expression of distress

Sometimes a domestic cat might, rarely, poop on their owner’s bed which is distressing, obviously. If this happens it would be a sign of emotional distress, in my view. It might be because the cat is being left alone too long and they are merging their scent with the scent of their owner which is present on the bed. It’s an act of insecurity and a need for reassurance.

Artificial environment

I also believe that the natural scent depositing behaviours of cats to mark territory can be distorted in the artificial environment of the human home. And sometimes domestic cats become a bit confused because they are driven by wild cat instincts which are deeply ingrained but they are unable to effectively express these instincts in the human home. Domestic cats can also become confused about the relationship between themselves and their human caregiver.

This can distort their behaviour. Do they see that their owner as a cat or a person or another animal? How do they relate to us because we are much larger than them? They can’t do their normal cat-to-cat behaviours when interacting with us because we are so much larger. There are no trees and grass and soil in a person’s home. If the cat is a full-time indoor cat this is an unnatural environment to which they have adapted but it can (not always) distort to varying degrees their natural behaviour when it comes to peeing and pooping in the litter box.

Harmful? – Dust?

Another point worth making is that if a domestic cat is scratching a lot and digging a lot in the litter box, it is probably doing no harm and therefore it should be accepted. The only danger I can think of is that if she digs around too much in dusty litter she’s going to ingest dust and that is an issue which should concern people. Some litter is very dusty and as the cat also tends to put their head down in the hole that they have dug it is more likely that they will ingest dust. I would be concerned about this.

You need a very low dust litter but some litter is positively dangerous. I’ve written about a product called Tidy Cats which I would consider to be dangerous. If that interest you can read about it by clicking on this link.

Complex topic

I’ve been slightly imprecise in trying to get to the bottom of this behaviour. That’s because there are no clear, definite answers. The underlying behaviour is natural which is to bury scent produced by poop and urine but this natural behaviour is expressed in a slightly abnormal way by constantly scratching and digging.

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