Why Do Cats Cover Their Poop?

Cats love to be clean but the reason they cover their poop is driven by instinct.

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In a multicat household, it can be more difficult to tell which cats do or do not cover their poop. Courtesy of Joanne McGonagle
Joanne McGonagle

We all know cats love to keep themselves clean. Cats are also fond of keeping their surroundings tidy, but the preference for a pristine habitat isn’t just due to their desire for cleanliness. Cats cover their poop because they are hard-wired to do so. This behavior is part of their instinct — to protect themselves from predators and to mark their territory — not just the desire to be clean.

Cats Bury Poop To “Keep The Peace”
Wild big cats belonging to the Panthera genus — tigers, lions, jaguars and leopards — will choose not to bury their waste when competing for territory. This form of marking lets other cats know that the cat is staking a claim for a certain area. The big cats might bury their scat when they want to avoid any undesired attention from predators to themselves. Protecting the location of young cubs or kittens is one of the reasons a big cat would cover her tracks.

Smaller wild cats, especially those that share a territory with one of the bigger cats, will bury their feces to avoid attracting attention from the bigger cats. The big cats are predators for the smaller wild cat, so this burying of waste lets the dominant cat know the smaller cat is not challenging her claim to the territory. The smaller wild cats want to keep the peace and avoid conflict. Cats know conflict can lead to injury and injury can lead to their being at risk of becoming prey.

Our house cats have the same instinct to protect themselves from predators. Your cat, most likely, is free from the threat of a wild big cat lurking around your home, but her instinct is still to cover her tracks. Your cat might consider you the dominant cat in the house and this covering of her poop is telling you she is not challenging your claim to the home.

Keeping Track Of Poop Habits In A Multicat Household
If you live in a multicat household, you might find that some of your cats cover their poop and some do not. In our house, Eddie and Mercy cover their poop but Annie does not every time. When we were a one-cat household it was much easier to check on the output than it is in a three-cat home. The cats, of course, know which pile belongs to which cat because of the unique pheromones present in the urine and feces. I know it is Annie who does not bury her poop, because I sometimes stalk the box checking to see if everything is coming out all right. We humans must resort to spying because our noses are not up to the task of differentiating one cat’s waste from another.

When we shared our home with Gracey as an only cat, she did not bury her poop. I think Gracey thought of us as equals and not as subordinate to Paul or me. Annie, on the other hand, may think she is the dominant cat in the house and she certainly rules over Mercy and Eddie.

With three cats in the house, we maintain four litter boxes so each cat can slink off to do their business in privacy. The two boys seem to have more skirmishes with each other than Annie does with either male cat, so it is important for us to make sure that the more timid Eddie has access to a litter box where he will not feel threatened or at risk while eliminating. With one more box than cat, there is always an open place for each cat to use.

Reasons A Cat Stops Burying Poop
If your cat was covering her poop and then stops, it could be that she is now feeling more at home and secure, or it could be that she has begun to have difficulty eliminating, perhaps caused by a urinary tract infection or other ailment. If your kitty associates the litter box with a painful experience, she will not want to spend any time in the box. This can lead to her soiling outside of the litter box, too. This is why it is important to stalk the box to make sure everything is OK with your cat.

Once a health issue is ruled out, you might experiment with different types of litter. Cats have different preferences in shape, material and scent. If one of these factors is a turnoff for your cat, she may choose to eliminate and scram without covering her tracks, or she may decide to go elsewhere in the home.

Kittens who were separated from their mother too early before they were able to observe mom’s behavior covering her poop might not be as diligent at burying their feces. In a multicat household, one of your cats might cover the other cats’ poop in the process of covering her own. As long as it is not a health issue and your cat is not eliminating outside the box, this lack of covering isn’t a cause for concern.

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Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Cats