How Do Cats Know to Use the Litter Box? (Really?)
If you have ever seen a cat just naturally gravitate to a litter box (Click here for 3 of the best cat litter mats for urine) with no training, it may be mind-boggling as to how they even know how to use this. Let me explain how and why they do this…
How do cats know to use the litter box? This is instinctive for cats. It is an attempt to hide their scent from predators. Also, cats are instinctively clean animals and like to be tidy. If you fail to clean the litter tray after usage, your cat will ignore it.
I remember seeing my son walking for the first time, as he stood up and gained balance, looking at us with such a bright smile on his face, with a video recording capturing this magical moment, I was elated and amazed how he did this.
It’s similar to cats, without any real training a cat can use a litter tray. Anyway, let me give you more detail on how and why they do this now.
How Cats Instincts Influence them to use the Litter Box?
As discussed, this is an instinctive thing for cats. They are naturally clean animals and want to make sure that they deal with their litter in the right way.
Getting a cat to use a litter tray is really not much effort at all. All you really need to do is show them where it is and they will instinctively want to hide their mess.
For kittens, they may need a little bit of assistance mainly by their mother. But, again, it is not really a big tutorial for them. It is mainly just their mother showing where the litter tray is and they can usually work it out from there.
If you’re still thinking “how can you actually get your cat to use the litter tray?”…. Let me give you a few pointers now.
Make sure that you provide a clean a litter tray
If you don’t the chances are your cat won’t want to use it. Make sure the location of the litter tray is in a private place. Because they do not like to be in busy areas where too many people are watching them, would you like to poo in public?
Show her where it is
Simply lead or carry your cat and place her into the litter tray, so she knows exactly where it is.
For best results, place her there immediately after she’s woken up from a nap or after a meal, why? Because this is when she is most likely to want to use the litter tray, are you with me?
Why do cats use the litter tray in this way?
Ultimately cats use litter trays as a way to hide the scent that is present when they excrete faeces.
Larger animals view cats as prey. And, in the wild, they built a natural survival Instinct of hiding any sense to avoid the chances of their prey finding them.
This instinct is still seen with domestic cats. It’s effectively ingrained in them.
Therefore, when they are digging in the litter tray, they are hiding the evidence (their scent) of them being around.
Also, it’s worth noting that cats have many different ways of hiding their scent. Hiding their urine and faeces in the litter is just one of a few different methods. In a later section, I will give you a few more examples.
How do feral cats deal with hiding their litter?
Wild feral cats still instinctively hide their faeces. Because of this instinctive nature to hide their scent.
The Dominant Feral Cats behaviour
When they are in a collective group of feral cats there is usually one dominant cat that will purposely not dig and hide its faeces.
This is done to mark their territory and also to allow their subordinates to do their dirty work. Meaning, these subordinates will literally hide the dominant cat’s mess (gross!).
Wild feral cats will typically look for loose dirt or sand to hide their faeces. Its a lot easier for them to do it this way.
What other methods do cats use to hide their scent?
In this section, I’m going to explain a number of different ways that cats hide their scent.
— Patrick Delaney (@supergreybeard) May 2, 2018
Cats lick themselves throughout the day (Click here to see why cats lick their paws then wipe their face) this is seen as a form of grooming to the naked eye. However, it is also a way of hiding their scent.
Hiding and burying their faeces
As discussed in the previous section cats will instinctively hide their faeces by digging. This is done in litter trays, but could also be found in random places like plant pots (annoying!).
Moving newborn kittens
Another tactic used by female cats after giving birth to kittens is to move them to a new location. The reason for this is, during labour, there is a lot of amniotic fluids, traces of blood, etc. These fluids carry their scent, which is a risk for their new kitten.
For this reason, the female cat will often relocate her kitten to keep both of them safe.
Hiding uneaten items of food
Although this is not as common as the other methods, it still happens. Any leftover food, such as half-eaten animals or insects will be hidden. This is usually done by digging up some dirt or loose sand. This avoids the scent being detected.
In this section, I will cover some frequently asked questions related to cats using a litter box.
Q: Why do some cats poop outside of the litter tray?
This tends to happen for a number of different reasons, let me explain…
The box is too small
If you buy a really small litter tray, in an attempt to save money, you may find that your cat does not want to use it. Therefore, you risk finding cat poop outside of the litter tray.
The location of the litter tray
As previously mentioned in an earlier section, cats like their privacy. So, if you place this litter tray in a busy, high traffic area. The chances are you will find poop outside of the litter tray (Click here to see my 3 Best Cat Toilet Training Kits to eliminate this problem).
You may also notice the same problem if it is particularly hard to get to. For example, the cat has problems actually reaching the litter tray. This may sound a little bit unbelievable, especially considering how nimble they are, but it is possible depending on the layout of your home.
If your cat has a health-related issue such as constipation or diarrhoea this could cause them to use to poop outside of the litter tray.
For example, if they have diarrhoea they may find that they do not get enough time to get to the litter tray before their bowels open.
Avoiding problems with their territory
You may find that the location of your litter tray may be causing a territory issue. Putting your cat in an anxious situation, face to face with a rival cat. If they feel intimidated by another cat in your house or by a neighbouring cat, they just won’t use it.
Changes in your household
Believe it or not, if there are simple changes in your household such as the introduction of a new pet, a new arrival of a baby or anything that has a slight change in lifestyle.
This could cause your cat to start marking her territory by leaving poop outside of the litter tray.
The litter tray is too smelly
For the most part, the biggest reason why cats do not use the litter tray and poo outside of it is because they find at the litter tray is too messy.
If you’re using a litter tray its important to clean it on a regular basis. If you neglect to do this your cat will simply not use it anymore. It will end up defecating outside of the litter tray.
Q: Why do cats use litter trays but dogs do not?
Dogs are very different from cats. They are not instinctively inclined to use a litter tray because they do not have the same behaviours as a cat.
It is possible to train a dog to do this but it would take a lot of time and dedication because this is not a natural thing for them.
Cats do this instinctively because it is part of their nature. And, as we discussed previously, they have a very specific reason why they want to do this, which is hiding their scent.
Q: What type of litter tray do cats prefer to use?
Cats like clean, large litter boxes that are open. Avoid using covered litter trays because this can make your cat feel anxious and feel that they can’t escape from the box.
The size of the litter tray is, ideally, one-and-a-half times the size of your cat. Also, having larger sides are also beneficial. This is good for cats that are quite enthusiastic about digging deep into the litter to hide their mess.
These larger sized litter trays can also be used for kittens or cats with mobility issues. You can also modify them yourself by cutting part of the tray if required.
If you can find a litter tray that has translucent sides this is also a big plus because it allows them to see outside of the litter tray to make them feel more comfortable that they have privacy.
Large storage boxes that are usually hidden under beds can also be reused as litter trays but if you’re going to go down that route it is ideal if it does not have covers on it or wheels.
Most of all they appreciate is a clean litter box (Click here for my 3 best self-cleaning litter boxes), so make sure you are on top of the maintenance.