Web surfers ask whether all cats bury their poop and the answer is a categorical No. There is a general belief that domestic cat bury their poop but this is incorrect. In fact I can remember my previous domestic cat companions using a cat litter tray and not burying their faeces. They did not feel subordinate to me which is nice to know.
But it goes wider than that. With respect to feral cats, most often they do not bury their faeces (also called “scats”). Many scats are left in elevated positions on grass tussocks (areas of grass which are denser and higher than surrounding grass). This was discovered in two studies, one by Corbett in 1979 and the other by Fitzgerald and Karl in 1986.
Domestic cats tend to bury their faeces when close to home. But further afield they often leave them unburied. Burying faces is a way of reducing the cat’s odour display. When a domestic cat buries his faeces is because he is fearful of his social standing. The cat is subordinate to others.
Returning to feral cats it was discovered that dominant tomcats do not bury their faeces. They want to advertise their feces by depositing them on hillocks or another raised point where the odor would have a maximum effect on the others. The weaker more subdued cats hid their feces. If a domestic cat is burying his or her faeces as a matter of routine it is stated to be “a measure of the extent to which they see themselves dominated by a human companion”. They also might be dominated by other cats in the neighborhood or at home. The reason why we dominate our domestic cats is because we are much bigger and stronger than them. And more importantly we provide their food. Dr Morris says that the domestic cat is “permanently in awe of us” and therefore they always make sure to bury their faeces.
Domestic cats who bury their faeces can still transmit information about themelves through their scent which is subdued enough to not present a serious threat to other cats.
In a study by Panaman in 1981 while following female domestic cats he observed them defecate 58 times. On only two occasions did they make brief attempts to dig a hole before defecating. The substrate was scraped over more than 50% of the holes but most feces were not completely covered. Importantly, scats were left exposed when deposited outside the home area. This was confirmed in another study by MacDonald and colleagues in 1987. The evidence is that faeces are by no means buried even by domestic house cats.
One theory is that if a cat buries his feces near the main living area it may be done for hygienic reasons. It may be the case that it has been encouraged by humans selecting domestic cats who were considered to be clean. However, Dr Morris does not believe that burying faeces has anything to do with hygiene. But further away from home faeces are much less likely to be buried and therefore they are used as a form of marking behavior.
The sources for this information come from myself, Desmond Morris’s Catwatching and The Domestic Cat: the Biology of Its Behaviour by Dennis C. Turner.