By Cheryl Lock
Most cat owners are well aware of their cat’s habit of kicking litter out of her litter box, but they might not know why she does it. While this might be a frustrating and untidy habit for pet parents to manage, it’s entirely common and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
Why Do Cats Kick Litter?
“I would say it’s a big problem for pet owners, and the perfect example of how normal behavior can be problematic,” says Dr. Valarie V. Tynes. “Domestic cats are descended from wild cats that normally covered their waste. They lived in sandy environments and would normally dig, eliminate and then dig again to cover waste.”
Digging may also have to do with the cat testing out the litter—seeing how it feels, what the texture is like and determining if they like it and where the right spot to go is, says Dr. Sandy M. Fink.
“If they kick the litter out with their back legs, that can also be a deliberate marking type behavior,” she says. “It’s common to have some final kicking when they’re covering after, but if they start kicking like crazy, they may be trying to mark the area with their scent because they’re deliberately throwing soiled litter out of the box.”
Keep in mind that age may also factor into how excessively your cat kicks litter out of her box.
“As cats age and maybe develop arthritis, kicking may become painful and they may do it less,” says Tynes. On the other end of the spectrum, kittens have been known to want to play in their litter, and once they start digging they think it’s fun and want to keep doing it.
“We know that the process of litter box training is learned, so if the mother is a nice, neat digger and coverer, then the kitten might be a neat digger and coverer,” Fink says. “A lot of kittens taken from their mothers when they’re too young haven’t had the opportunity to watch their moms in a litter box, and they’ll make it up on their own. It’s hard to train them not to throw litter out once that happens.”
How to Stop Your Cat from Kicking Litter
While there’s not much you can do to get your cat to completely stop from kicking litter out of her box, there are a few things you can do to try to help curb the mess:
- Get a bigger box. The bigger an area your cat has to do her business in, the less likely she is to make a complete mess. “A litter box should be big enough for the cat to completely reach out her forearms in, and to dig and pull back,” says Tynes. “They should be able to turn around in all directions. From my perspective, when people complain about this issue, it can often be solved by giving the cat a bigger box.”
- Provide more litter. It might seem counterintuitive, but if cats can’t easily cover their waste with the litter provided, they may try harder and kick even more out. “Cats are hiding the evidence they were ever there, hiding it from predators,” says Fink. “Cats get frustrated if they can’t cover, so if the litter is too shallow, that could cause more kicking and spreading because the cat just wants more litter to be able to bury her elimination deeper.”
- Try a box with higher sides and a cover. Some cats don’t like boxes with covers and may eliminate in other areas of the house when they’re the only option, but a box with a cover still might be worth trying, especially for younger cats just learning how to use a litter box. If a cover doesn’t work, an open box that has high sides could do the trick, but make sure it has a lower area that allows your cat to easily step in and out. “Cats need space to dig, so we need to arrange their environment such that it’s not a problem for us,” Tynes says. “That just might mean buying a high-sided box, or one with a cover.”
- Clean the box more frequently. Not only will your cat not like to eliminate in a dirty box, but she could end up kicking more litter out in an attempt to find a clean spot to go or might track more litter out of the box on her paws because it’s dirty and clinging to them.
If you’ve tried all of the above and your cat still kicks more litter out of the box than you’d like, it might be time to move the box to a spot where you don’t mind a little extra litter on the floor.
“A really valuable message to cat owners is that this is a normal behavior, and it’s best if we just learn how to live with it,” Tynes says.