Indoor Soil Digging

Techniques to Redirect the Behavior

Does your cat dig up soil around an indoor plant? Does she scatter dirt about, leaving you wondering when the clean-ups will end and how your plant will survive? Do you wonder whats wrong?

Most likely nothing at all, says Tracy Kroll, DVM, animal behavior resident at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Plant digging is a perfectly natural behavior for a cat, based on the feline instinct to dig before eliminating. Soil, a cats litter in nature, tends to evoke this instinct. And since digging is so natural to cats, its probably enjoyable, too.

The attraction often starts with curiosity about the plant, says Kroll. Your cat, for example, may want to bite a leaf or scratch the trunk if it is a large enough plant. Scratching is a natural way for cats to maintain their nails and mark their territory. Make sure none of your indoor plants are poisonous or otherwise toxic to cats (see American Veterinary Medical Association list of poisonous plants at

Prompted by disease, bad behavior, or just curiosity
After being drawn to the plant, your cat may find herself stepping in soil. Soft, textured, porous soil is just what feline nature ordered. She may then dig, following ancient instincts, and she may urinate or defecate, too. If shes eliminating in the pot as well as digging, Kroll advises you to consult with your veterinarian.

Sometimes such elimination signals a physical problem, especially when the digging and pot-placed elimination begins in an adult cat suddenly and continues with regularity. Sudden, full behavior shifts are often a cats only way of signaling a disease-based discomfort.

Cats often show behavioral problems indirectly, too. Ask yourself if there has been an upsetting change in the household routines. Has a shift in your life, for instance, caused you to forget the nail trimming routine shes counted on? Or, is there a new resident in the house who has upset the social order in your cats life? Ask yourself if there are any conceivable changes that might in any way be linked to the cats new digging.

Fortunately, these problems usually arent the cause for digging in house plants. Most often, especially with a young kitty, occasional digging represents natural exploration. For other kitties, a new, interesting, and invitingly located plant in the house may be the temptation, or the attraction may be a plant brought in after a summer outside that your cat welcomes like an old friend.

Kitty-proof your plants
When you have a kitten beginning to dig, its like when you have a young child. You need to child-proof or kitten-proof the house, says Kroll, who received her DVM from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. The challenge then is to kitty-proof your plants rather than change your cats exploratory urges.

First, see if you can move the plant to a less accessible location by raising it out of your kittys reach. Move it away from any place thats easy for your cat to jump on, such as a windowsill or table. Or place other objects on the open areas onto which shed been jumping to reach the plant.

You can also place obstacles or aversive substances between her and the pots soil. Place a smooth material, such as plastic film or aluminum foil, on top of the soil, punching holes to allow moisture to escape so the roots do not rot. Cats get no pleasure from texture-less surfaces. Small stones or rocks will also be deterrents, as will partially or fully inflated balloons placed on the soil and tethered to the bottom of the plant trunk.

Cats dont like certain odors and will stay away from smells they dislike. Place small amounts of vinegar or perfume, for example, on the pots rim, to keep kitty away.

Remembering that occasional digging is natural for cats, help direct her curiosity in less bothersome directions, and feel glad your cat is healthy, active and curious.