Why do cats not cover their waste?

1. The instinct to mark territory

Cats have a natural instinct to hide their waste. This behavior stems from their long-standing history of using urine and feces to mark their territory. While cat feces may have a similar smell to humans, cats can differentiate their waste from that of others through unique chemical scents called pheromones found in their urine and feces.

In nature, dominant cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, and cheetahs competing for territory often do not bury their feces. This signals their desire to claim a specific area. Smaller, weaker, or subordinate felines, on the other hand, tend to bury their waste as a way of saying, “I am not a threat, and I am not here to claim this territory.”

Domesticated cats also have a similar instinct for self-protection. Even though there may not be any carnivorous predators inside the house, your cat still wants to ensure its waste is buried to prevent unwanted attention from potential threats or to protect its litter of kittens.

The habit of burying waste by domestic cats also signifies that they view you as the dominant “cat” in the house, or they feel dominated by other cats in the neighborhood or within the household. Desmond Morris, an ethologist and zoologist, wrote in his book, Catlore, that in an undisturbed household, all house cats consider themselves subordinate to their owners. Therefore, in normal circumstances, all house cats will use the litter box or bury their waste in the yard.

Cats aren’t the only animals that bury their waste to eliminate potential predators or resolve territorial disputes. Beetles, skunks, and some other species are also known to cover their feces.

2. Why do cats not cover their waste?

a. Marking territory

Cats do not cover their waste to mark their territory. They use marking behavior to alert other cats that a specific territory belongs to them, aiming to minimize contact with unfriendly cats. Besides spraying urine, headbutting, and scratching objects, cats also leave their waste behind to spread their scent and mark their territory. This behavior is particularly common among male cats.

If you have recently introduced a new cat to your home, your cat may stop burying its waste to communicate to the newcomer that it is the dominant one here.

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Even if you haven’t brought any new cats, and the cats in your home have already established a harmonious relationship, your cat may have reached social maturity (usually around 2 to 4 years old) and started displaying territorial marking behavior.

b. Unfavorable litter characteristics

If cats do not like the texture or smell of the litter, or if the litter box is excessively dirty and not cleaned regularly, they may not want to spend more time in it than necessary. This is why cats do not cover their waste. Dr. Katherine Houpt, a certified applied animal behaviorist, told VetSTREET, “A cat who dislikes litter will often not dig before and after defecation.”

Cats are highly sensitive to smell, and they may dislike using a litter that has an unpleasant odor. Fortunately, they still go in the right place instead of eliminating elsewhere in the house, such as on carpets, beds, or bathtubs.

If you want your cat to bury its waste after using the litter box, you should clean the litter box daily following these steps and consider changing to a more suitable litter for your cat.

c. Unsuitable litter box conditions

Cats may encounter various issues with their litter boxes, leading to them not covering their waste.

  • Start with the size! An ideal litter box should be large enough to accommodate your cat’s body comfortably. It should have enough space for your cat to maneuver and find untouched areas for urine and feces.

  • If the litter box has a lid, that may be a problem. Generally, cats prefer uncovered litter boxes because they retain less odor, and your cat feels safer when it can see its surroundings.

You can refer to some guides on choosing a litter box for cats to find a more suitable option.

d. Location of the litter box

Even if your cat is satisfied with the litter box, it may have an issue with the location. If you have recently moved your cat’s litter box to a new spot, and this location may be stressful or unpleasant for your cat, it could lead to your cat not covering its waste.

e. Medical issues

If your cat suddenly stops burying its waste, it may be experiencing a health issue such as a urinary tract infection or aching limbs. For example, your cat may have pain in its paws, which makes it reluctant to dig and bury waste. If you have trimmed your cat’s nails, the discomfort in the nails can also hinder your cat from covering its waste.

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f. Cats not taught to bury waste

While burying waste is a natural instinct for most cats, it may not be an instinctive behavior for all feline species. Domesticated cats may learn this behavior, while cats who did not receive this lesson from their mother as kittens may not know that they have to bury their waste.

To teach your cat to bury its waste, you can gently hold its front paws after it finishes using the litter box and guide them to cover the feces. Cats are intelligent, and with a few repetitions, they can learn. Reward them whenever they perform the desired behavior. You may need to repeat this training process several times to train your cat fully.

If your cat does not cover its waste when using the litter box, adding more litter boxes may help. If you have multiple cats in the house, you should have an appropriate number of litter boxes. As a general rule, the number of litter boxes in the house should be the number of cats plus one. For example, if you have two cats, you should have three litter boxes.

Place the litter boxes in different areas of the house so that each of your cats can have its own territory for using the litter box. Make sure to keep some away from loud noises, such as washing machines or busy traffic. A cat distracted by noise may forget to cover its waste.

  • The litter box should be easily accessible for cats.
  • It should not be placed near the food and water bowls.
  • The location should be quiet.
  • The cat litter box should be in a well-ventilated area so that your cat does not feel confined.
  • It should have sufficient lighting.
  • Avoid placing it near appliances like washing machines or refrigerators (as the sound may scare the cat).

You may need to place several litter boxes around the house to find the most preferred location for your cat before removing the extras.

c. Reduce stress

Sometimes, stress can cause cats not to bury their waste. If you suspect that your cat is stressed due to competition with other cats, create a stress-free environment inside the house by arranging scratching posts, hiding places, and providing a water fountain. Alternatively, you can try some of our stress-relieving methods for cats, such as using a pheromone diffuser. These substances release odorless vapor that helps cats feel comfortable. Playing with the cat to burn off excess anxiety can also be helpful.

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d. Check the litter quality

  • Clean the litter box at least once or twice a day. Occasionally, you should also replace all the litter. The frequency depends on the condition of the litter and the number of cats you have; it can range from twice a week to once every two weeks. This can help address the issue of the cat not covering its waste.

  • Cats are very sensitive to cat litter. Most of them prefer soft litter without a strong smell. So, try different types of litter, from granules to clumping litter. You can learn more about and try the pros and cons of different cat litters on the market to choose the one that your cat prefers. When switching litters, do it gradually by mixing new litter with old litter until you eventually use only the new one.

e. Change the litter box

Cats may not cover their waste if they have an unsuitable litter box. Use a litter box without a lid that is large enough for the cat to move around comfortably. You can try using a low-sided litter box for older cats or cats with hip dysplasia. They may feel pain when trying to step into the litter box, leading them to quickly leave the box or choose to eliminate outside the box. You can follow our instructions above to choose a suitable litter box for your cat (section 2c).

f. Consult a veterinarian

If you have tried various solutions and your cat still does not cover its waste, you should consult a veterinarian. Sudden changes in behavior may indicate a health problem. If your cat normally covers its waste but suddenly stops, it could be due to a medical issue.

In conclusion, in nature, large cats like lions, tigers, and leopards do not bury their waste to assert their territorial dominance. Smaller cats bury their waste to communicate that they are not a threat. Domesticated cats also exhibit similar behaviors to protect themselves. However, some cats do not cover their waste due to various reasons:

  • Marking territory
  • Medical issues
  • Dislike of the litter and litter type
  • Inappropriate litter box location
  • Lack of knowledge on burying waste

To encourage your cat to cover its waste, you can try the following methods:

  • Change the litter type and litter box
  • Change the location of the litter box
  • Add more litter boxes
  • Teach your cat to bury waste
  • Reduce stress for your cat
  • Consult a veterinarian

Remember, if a cat does not cover its waste, it does not mean it is being malicious or angry with you. It may not be covering its waste due to stress, discomfort, or litter box issues. Be gentle with your cat and try some of the solutions above to see if they help.

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