Strange Litter Box Behavior

Keep this in mind: Most of these puzzling habits are preferable to a cat that stops using the box.

You walk into the bathroom and find your cat sleeping contentedly in her litter box. (Luckily, you had just cleaned it.) Is this normal behavior? Should you get her out or let her stay? Your cats litter box can sometimes trigger unexpected behaviors from her. Some of these habits might seem weird or annoying to us, but they are, actually, perfectly normal to your cat.

But there are other behaviors that are more dangerous and require your intervention. Here are the most “common” strange litter habits and what to do about them.

Playing in the Litter

It may not seem like the best place to play to you, but cats will often convert their litter box into a sandbox. Often this starts in kittenhood and continues into adulthood with an occasional playtime in the box. “Some cats like to sleep in their litter, even hide in it,” says Stefanie Schwartz, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist with Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston who is board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. “This is normal if the litter is clean – or even a bit soiled, but dry.”

Basically, you should do nothing. Dont fret, and let your cat enjoy her play time. “Just be glad your cat is using the litter box,” says Dr. Schwartz.

Eating Litter

If your cat starts eating her litter, on the other hand, there is reason for concern. “A cat that suddenly starts eating litter is almost always sick,” says Jane Brunt, DVM, a veterinarian in private practice at the Cat Hospital at Towson (CHAT) in Maryland.

For example, cats with anemia – a condition in which the body doesnt have enough red blood cells – will sometimes eat litter. “Veterinarians arent sure why they do it, but it may be natures way of cats getting more iron into their systems. Cats with kidney disease or feline leukemia will also eat litter on occasion,” she says.

Litter is made with clay that is rich in minerals. Cats that eat poorly (especially those fed vegetarian diets, which are dangerous for cats) may eat litter because they are attracted to the minerals in the clay as potential natural supplements. However, cats that keep eating litter can actually lose nutrients because the clay will leach out more minerals – like iron, zinc and potassium – than it puts back in. Cats that compulsively eat litter can get quite ill unless they get professional help. “Its extremely important to seek the advice of a veterinarian who knows a lot about cat health and their idiosyncrasies. The expert will likely advise performing some laboratory tests to help determine the cause for the unusual craving of inedible substances (often referred to as pica),” says Dr. Brunt.

You can check your cat for anemia, says Dr. Brunt. Look at your pets gums – they should be a bright pink. If they appear pale pink or even white, your cat most certainly has anemia. Some cats with mild anemia may have normal-looking gums, so this isnt a foolproof test. In any event, make an appointment with your veterinarian.

You should also consider switching from a lower-quality food to a high-quality brand that is AAFCO-approved. This will help ensure that he is getting all the nutrients he needs. But be prepared to be patient: Even if the litter-eating is caused by a nutritional shortfall, some experts believe that it could take a month or more before your cat gives up the habit.

You can also replacing the clay litter – both the clumping and the coarse types – with a less “appetizing” litter that is paper-based, such as Yesterdays News, which is available from some pet supply stores. “However, some cats like to chew on or eat on paper, so a paper alternative may not be better for your cat,” says Dr. Schwartz.

Keep your cat occupied, expending energy and focusing on something other than the litter box. Spend time each day playing with your cat. Draw your cats attention away from the box with toys that he can entertain himself with, such as “fishing pole” toys with feathers or fake mice attached.

Excessive Scratching

Some cats just cant seem to stop scratching in the box. They do their business, cover up their feces or urine, but then continue to scratch and scratch their human companions into madness. Some cats start out scratching the litter and then move on to scratching the side of the box, the wall next to it or the floor. “Scratching for several minutes is normal behavior for many cats,” says Dr. Schwartz.

Sometimes, however, cats will develop unusual compulsions, in which a normal habit – such as scratching in the litter box – becomes an uncontrollable urge. This type of repetitive behavior may be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, says Dr. Schwartz.

Its important for you to realize that scratching for a while is a common behavior with cats. But if the scratching is very irritating, move the litter box to a place that is readily accessible to your cat – but where the scratching will bother you less.

If the scratching goes on for more than just a few minutes, is prolonged at each litter box use or even in between, or your cat seems uncomfortable and keeps going back to the litter box, take your feline to the veterinarian, says Dr. Schwartz. There may be a medical cause for your cats behavior, such as a urinary blockage or infection.

Once physical causes are ruled out, you can consult with a veterinary behaviorist, says Dr. Schwartz, who will determine if your cat requires medication to curb the compulsive behavior.

Cats – like people – can develop some strange toilet rituals. Usually these habits are benign and, at most, puzzling to human companions. Again, the most important thing to remember is that your cat is using the litter box. Whatever you do, dont give your cat the idea that voiding in the litter box is a bad idea – or youll have worse problems than what you complained about in the first place.