Cat Digging Excessively in The Litter Box: causes and Solutions

A black cat sniffing and pawing the litter in a blue litter box.

Digging in the litter box is normal for cats after they have gone to the bathroom to cover up their urine or feces. However, if your cat is digging in the box more often than they usually do, this could not only be an obnoxious mess, but it could point to a health or behavior problem. Let’s look at some reasons behind why your kitty might be spending more time than necessary in their litter box and digging excessively.

Reasons Your Cat Won’t Stop Digging in Their Litter Box

A black and white cat lying down next to a blue litter box, starting at a pile of litter on the floor.

Here are some reasons why your cat might be making frequent trips to their litter box and digging in their litter box more than usual. If you notice your cat displaying this abnormal excessive behavior, they may be trying to tell you something is wrong. You will first want to bring them to see your veterinarian and make sure they aren’t suffering from any of these medical or behavioral issues. Let’s look at some behavioral issues first.

Behavioral Issues Why Your Cat Is Digging Too Much

A brown, white, and black cat standing on the top of a pink and white enclosed litter box, looking towards the camera.

These causes of abnormal behaviors can be just as worrisome as medical causes and could explain excessive digging in the litter box.

  1. OCD: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a behavioral issue where a cat becomes fixated on a particular action and performs it regularly and repeatedly. It can be hard to break these habits, especially when they involve innate behaviors such as scratching and digging.
  2.  Anxiety/Stress: Cats are finicky creatures and can become stressed by even little changes in their household. Stress can cause cystitis, as mentioned above, and can contribute to abnormal behaviors, including inappropriate urination or defecation, hiding in strange places (litter boxes included), and OCD type behaviors.
  3. Marking; Naturally, cats will signal to other cats in various ways such as urine marking, scent-marking through pheromones, and scratching. When cats knead, dig, or scratch, they display this marking behavior and leave their scent through pheromone deposits. Excessive digging or scratching in the litter box could be related to marking their territory or signaling to another cat.
  4. Playing: Some cats find the strangest places to play. The litter box can be one of these places. This is more commonly seen in cats who haven’t been properly trained or aren’t used to being inside and using the litter box as their bathroom.
  5. Hiding Food or Toys: Stray, feral, or wild cats can be found hiding their resources from other animals. Even domesticated cats living solely indoors can display this behavior and may take to hiding their toys, treats, or food in odd places such as the litter box.
  6. Boredom: A bored cat is a destructive cat. If your cat isn’t given the necessary enrichment to keep them entertained, they will fend for themselves and find places to play, items to destroy, and expend their energy in whatever way they see fit. This could include playing in the litter box, excessive digging in the litter box, and other abnormal behaviors, as previously mentioned.

Medical Issues Why Your Cat Is Digging Too Much

A white and tan cat lying down looking tired, with a brown teddy bear on top of it.
  1. Diarrhea: Diarrhea is abnormally frequent defecation where the feces are soft or liquid. This can result in an increased urge and frequency to go to the bathroom.
  2. Intestinal Parasites: Cats can suffer from various intestinal parasites such as tapeworms, roundworms, hookworms, and others. These parasites can cause an upset stomach leading to vomiting, diarrhea, gas, and frequent defecation.
  3. Constipation: Constipation is the inability to defecate regularly or easily. This can result in straining in the litter box and frequent visits to the litter box.
  4. IBD: IBD, or Inflammatory Bowel Disease, is a disease where a cat’s gastrointestinal tract is chronically irritated and inflamed. This commonly causes diarrhea, vomiting, and a decreased appetite.
  5. UTI: Urinary tract infections are bacterial infections of the bladder and other parts of the urinary tract. Common signs include frequent urination, urinating small amounts at a time, blood in the urine, and inappropriate urination.
  6. Idiopathic Cystitis and FLUTD: FLUTD, or Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease, includes several different urinary tract disorders that cats are prone to. This category does include UTIs, but a more common condition cats can get is idiopathic cystitis. Cats with cystitis have similar signs as those with UTIs, including frequently urinating in small amounts, blood in the urine, and inappropriate urination, none of which is caused by a bladder infection. Sometimes this is caused by stress, anxiety, inflammation, diet, or behavioral issues.
  7. Urinary Blockage: Male cats are the most at risk for a urinary blockage than females due to the small size of their urethra. A blockage of mucus, tiny stones, or crystals can form in the urethra preventing the cat from urinating. These cats usually have a painful abdomen, strain to urinate but don’t produce urine, make frequent trips to the litter box, and often act sick. This is an emergency! If you see your cat trying to pee but he can’t, you need to take them to see your veterinarian immediately.
  8. Diabetes: Cats with Diabetes Mellitus don’t respond normally to insulin, which results in high blood glucose. Common symptoms include drinking more water than usual and urinating larger amounts (thus more frequent trips to the litter box).
  9. Kidney Disease: Cats are prone to Chronic Kidney Disease as they age. This disease causes a loss of kidney function over time. Some common symptoms included weight loss, anorexia, vomiting, drinking excessively, and increased urination.

What to Do About Excessive Digging in the Litter Box

4 kittens in a cage, 3 of which are sitting in a small litter box.

Now that we have gone over several reasons why your cat might be spending more time in the litter box and excessively digging or scratching in it, let’s look at some solutions.

  1. See the Vet: Number one, as we already mentioned, is to take your cat to the vet. You’ll want to make sure you aren’t dealing with a serious medical or behavioral problem that needs attention.
  2. Size of Litter Box: Make sure your cat’s litter box is big enough that they can turn around, have plenty of space to move, and space to dig and cover as needed. The top shouldn’t be too low where they have to hunch over. It must also be long enough and wide enough. If you think your litter box is too small, try a bigger size.
  3. Type/Style of Litter Box: Cats can have different preferences as to what kind of litter box they prefer. Some enjoy the privacy of a hooded or sheltered box with a top. Others feel too confined with a hood and want an open box.
    • Cats with arthritis, injuries, or other mobility issues will require a litter box with lower walls, making it easier to get in and out of.
    • Self-cleaning litter boxes are popular because of the convenience and cleanliness they provide for the cat owner. However, some cats are scared of the motion and noises and may not use them appropriately.
  4. Number of Litter Boxes: It is recommended to have one more litter box than the number of cats in your household. You may need to add another litter box.
  5. Location of Litter Box: Litter boxes should be found on each level in the house or spread out across different areas.
    • Litter boxes should be located in quiet, out of the way areas.
    • Litter boxes should be kept away from other pets such as dogs.
  6. Litter Substrate – Type of Litter: Cats may have preferences for the type of litter they want to use.
    • Typically, the best and most common type of litter is a clay litter – either clumping or non-clumping.
    • Litter should always be unscented. Scented litters, while appealing to cat owners, is not appealing to the cat.
  7. Enrichment & Entertainment: If your cat displays abnormal behaviors such as excessive digging in the litter box, make sure to provide enough enrichment. This includes toys, play, attention, cat trees, scratching posts, and time and space to explore.  
  8. Amount of Litter: Ensure that the litter box has enough litter in it. There needs to be enough for the cat to be able to cover what they need to completely.
  9. Cleanliness: Last but certainly not least, the litter box must be kept clean. This means scooping it at least once a day, changing out the litter weekly to monthly, and cleaning the box itself regularly.
    • Cats don’t like to be dirty, and even though a litter box seems like a filthy place, cats will avoid it if it is too smelly or full.

Why Do Cats Use a Litter Box? 

An overhead shot of a brown/blackish cat looking down into a litter box with white and blue litter in it.

It is a cat’s natural instinct to use a litter box as their toilet. After they urinate or defecate, they bury it in the litter. Cats are notoriously clean and tidy creatures and prefer a clean environment. From a young age, they inherently know that burying their excrement helps keep their environment clean. Their wild ancestors would bury their droppings to cover their scent from other animals, keeping predators unaware of their whereabouts.

Normal Litter Box Behavior

A brown and white cat sitting in a litter box looking up at the camera.

Normally, when a cat or kitten has to go to the bathroom, they will seek out an area where they can bury their excrement. For outdoor cats, this could mean the kid’s sandbox, the garden, or a dirt pile. 

Indoor cats must be provided the substrate to bury their droppings. A proper litter box should contain the appropriate amount and type of litter for the cat to use (more on this later). The cat will go into the litter box, walk around until they find that perfect place, and then do their business. When they are done, they will cover it up with litter and leave the litter box.

Abnormal Litter Box Behavior

A grey and white cat with black stripes in peaking out of a an enclosed litter box.

Some signs that your cat is using the litter box abnormally include:

  • Frequently going in and out of the litter box while they may or may not be doing anything in it.
  • Spending a longer amount of time in the litter box. They could be squatting or posturing for a long time, straining to urinate or defecate, sleeping, playing, or digging around.
  • Urinating or defecating outside the litter box. This could be right outside the litter box, on the floor, on a rug, on your laundry, in the bed, or anywhere else.

These behaviors are abnormal, and you should seek out veterinary attention if you notice your cat displaying these types of litter box behavior.

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