Why Is My Cat Scratching the Litter Box?

Blue Tabby Maine Coon cat sitting in cat litter box

Every cat owner knows how unique and quirky their fur babies can be. From changing food preferences to swapping sleeping spots, cats can be puzzling creatures. One behaviour some feline owners wonder about is their cat scratching the litter box. Why do cats do this? What happens if it becomes excessive? Find out the answers you need about why your cat is scratching the litter box and what you might be able to do to help them stop doing it excessively.

Litter Box Scratching

As strange as it might sound, cats scratching in their litter boxes is healthy, and most of the time, it’s nothing to be concerned about. After kitties do their business, they dig and scratch in the litter to find the perfect spot to bury their waste, and this is a natural feline instinct.

The reasons for this behaviour stem back to when cats spent most of their time in the wild — hiding waste ensures other nearby dominant cats don’t feel challenged. Even though cat feces smells the same to humans no matter who it came from, cats can tell the difference between their waste and another cat’s, and feces or urine is seen as a way of marking territory. When they hide their waste, it’s as if they are saying, “I am not marking my territory here. You don’t have to feel challenged by me.”

Cats also bury their waste to prevent being found by a predator. Hiding the scent of their feces or urine makes it harder, if not impossible, for a predator to find them.

Excessive Litter Box Scratching

Sometimes what might be normal litter box scratching becomes excessive, and this is when there might be a problem. Start by assessing your cat’s litter box area, as any one of these could be the source of the excessive scratching.

  • Litter Amount: A depth of 3 inches is typically recommended for your cat. While you may think that increasing the litter amount can resolve litter box scratching, that’s not the case. Many cats may opt to not use a litter box that has been overfilled. Make sure to maintain a litter depth of 3 inches to give your cat the appropriate amount of litter to dig around in.
  • Litter Box Size: As a general rule, your kitty’s litter box should be about 1.5 times their length. One that’s too small may result in too much scratching.
  • Cleanliness: Many cats are very picky and will not use an excessively dirty litter box. Make sure to clean it at least once a day, and if you have multiple cats using the box, you may want to consider tidying it up twice a day.  In multi-cat households, make sure to provide one litter box per each cat in your home plus one additional box in your home.
  • Location: Ensure your cat’s litter box is in a peaceful, private area away from lots of foot traffic. A bathroom is usually an ideal place, but make sure that it is not blocked off for long periods of time during the day or night. If your cat can’t access their litter box, they may use a different location in your house as a toilet.

Covered Litter Boxes

Many cat owners prefer using covered litter boxes because it helps keep the area around it cleaner and might assist with odour control. Still, many cats do not like them for one reason: a covered litter box prevents cats from being able to spot predators. Although your cat is safe and cozy in your home, a litter box can still be a vulnerable place for other pets or people to sneak up and surprise them.

Cats generally prefer to do their business out in the open where they can see everything around them. They are unlike humans in this way, who prefer to have plenty of privacy when using the bathroom.

Furthermore, a covered litter box tends to smell more inside because it holds onto odour, and most cats prefer using a clean litter box over a dirty one. The odour may encourage them to scratch more inside as if they’re trying to dig deep and reach a clean spot.

What If Your Cat Scratches the Side of the Litter Box?

You may have noticed your cat occasionally scratching the sides of their litter box. If you live in a multi-cat household, your cat might be scratching the side of the litter box to leave their scent markings around the exterior, marking their territory for the benefit for your other pets.

However, scratching at the sides of the litter box can also be a sign that your cat is  displeased with their current litter box experience. Reasons for frustration can include:

1. Your choice of litter. Have you switched litter brands recently? Your cat might be telling you that they have a strong preference for the litter they use to do their business, and this one is not it.

2. Using a hooded box. Cats that are new to a hooded litter box might “bang” on the side of the litter box out of frustration.

3. Using the wrong sized litter box. If your cat’s litter box is too small, they may struggle to carry out their normal litter box behaviours, such as burying their waste. Instead, they may scratch at the side of the lid of the box. This may mean you need to switch up your litter box set-up.

4. A dirty litter box. Every cat has a different tolerance level for how dirty their litter box can be, and they will make sure to let you know when they find it too dirty use! By scratching the sides of the litter box, your cat may be telling you that their box is not clean enough for them to bury their waste.

Scratching the Outside of the Box, Floors and Walls

Generally speaking, scratching anywhere else besides the litter box often means that it’s time to give the litter box a thorough clean.  Clean your litter box with a mild soap. Make sure to never use any products with ammonia, as it can cause your cat to stop using their litter box, and in some cases, harsh cleaning products are toxic to cats.

Scratching on a hard surface also helps your kitty keep their claws healthy and functional because it helps wear away the old outside husks so new nails can emerge. Making sure your cat has access to a scratching post made out of rope or cardboard can help them keep their nails healthy. Routine nail clipping can also help reduce excessive floor scratching.

If you’ve considered all the possibilities and you still can’t pinpoint why your cat is scratching the litter box, it just might be another one of their quirky behaviours that can’t be explained. Read more about cat behaviours and cat care.

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