The question in the title is not strictly accurate because it implies that domestic cats always bury their waste and they don’t. By waste the questioner must mean faeces and urine. Sometimes both these waste products are used to mark territory and when they are used for this purpose they are not buried because they’re meant to be smelled by other cats. To be clear, therefore, we are referring to the burying of poop or faeces by a domestic cat and asking why they bury it.
One reason why they bury it – as concluded by a scientist, Beaver, in a 2003 study – is that in the wild, cats bury urine and faeces in order to reduce odour and limit the risk of disease and parasites spread. We have to refer to wild cats because they have the same behaviour as domestic cats at a fundamental level.
A second reason, depending upon the circumstances and the place, would be to conceal their presence. However, wild cats often use toilet areas to deposit faeces and they don’t always cover them. This is because they are markers as to ownership of a territory.
Another scientist1 concluded that domestic cat faeces was always covered within the “core areas of male ranges”. But faeces outside of the core areas are frequently left uncovered. He is referring to free roaming farm cats living in a group where they are more likely to adopt true wild cat behaviour without modification because they’re not living inside the human home.
Another scientist2 concluded that female farm cats were more likely to cover their faeces within the core of their ranges.
I have lived with cats – and I’m referring particularly to a large male cat – who sometimes buried his faeces in the cat litter but sometimes he did not. He did not feel that he needed to. Perhaps he was marking or was confident enough not to bury it or was careless.
I’ve also read (but can’t retrieve the reference) that in feral cat colonies sometimes the dominant male deliberately does not cover his faeces as a signal of dominance by which I mean that he doesn’t think that it is necessary whereas a more submissive cat will bury their faeces because it’s an act of submission to the more dominant cat. It is in effect hiding themselves through the scent of their faeces.
The conclusion is that domestic cats do not always bury their waste.
On a practical level, a domestic cat living in the home, and using cat ltter, may not bury their faeces because the litter is too shallow. There is an optimum depth the letter which I discuss in another post.
Of course, sometimes domestic cats defecate inappropriately which means they defecate outside of the litter box. This will normally be because they are stressed and are marking territory with poop rather than urine to reassure themselves. I recall one domestic cat doing this on the owner’s bed because she was absent too often and for too long. This, then, is a deliberate form of feline behaviour in response to circumstances.
In a multi-cat household there may be one litter box which is overused. This may force one of the cats to defecate outside the box; in which case her faeces would not be covered. Or a timid cat bullied by a dominant cat is forced to defecate outside the box where it is not covered.
Can you think of other reasons why a cat might not cover their poop?
- 1. O. Liberg 1980 Spacing patterns in a population of rural free roaming domestic cats.
- 2. R. Panaman 1981 Behaviour and ecology of free-ranging female farm cats.