Why Does My Cat Scratch The Sides Of The Litter Box?


BetterWithCats.net may earn a small commission when you use one of the links on this page to purchase.

Some cats are like toilet ninjas, they always make sure that their toilet business goes unnoticed.

But if your kitties are anything like mine then their litter box time is more of an event. They simply have to let everyone know what they’re up to by intensely covering their waste as well as scratching every side of their litter box!

But why do cats scratch the sides of the litter box? If there isn’t enough litter some cats might start scratching the sides of their litter box, while struggling to cover up their waste. Your cat might also scratch the sides of the litter box to remove any dirt stuck to their paws.

If this sound also drives you nuts, then you might want to know all the possible reasons behind this odd behavior, and whether you can change it.

Let’s get started then!

Why Does My Cat Scratch The Sides Of The Litter Box?

There are plenty of reasons to love our fluffy overlords and their cleanliness is definitely a plus for a cat-loving family. The sound of a cat covering their toilet business might not be the most pleasing, but it’s definitely part of their clean and tidy personality, but what happens when they begin to extend their digging and scratching to the surrounding areas like the sides of their litterbox?

Reason 1: To Cover Their Waste

It might seem like a strange behavior if you’re a new cat parent, but hearing your cat digging their litter before and after they are done using it is healthy and a manifestation of their natural instincts. It’s an ingrained survival mechanism they’ve developed to stop predators from tracking them down.

In the wild, their process of covering their waste would be quite similar, and if your cat was to use your yard as their litterbox they wouldn’t be restricted by the sides of their litterbox, instead, your feline companion would be free to dig as deep as they want.

The sound of an indoor cat’s claws scratching the plastic litter box is simply inevitable, whether it’s the sides or the bottom. Larger amounts of litter might prevent your cat from going hard on the box itself, but that will also depend on how thorough of a digger they are.

Simply put, since litter boxes aren’t infinite, most cats are bound to produce noise, and they will most likely scratch the sides unintentionally.

Reason 2: To Keep Their Paws Clean

While some cats scratch the sides of the litterbox randomly, other kitties use this ingenious method as a way of cleaning their paws from the clumps of litter that accidentally get stuck between their toes. For some cats scratching the sides is part of their regular routine, but for others, it might happen the odd time they’ve stepped into their own mess, or if they’re suffering from diarrhea.

To be fair, this is a great technique on its own, but scratching the sides of their litterbox after use could also help them stretch their backs, and use the plastic to sharpen their claws like they would on a scratching post.

After all the Human Society of the United States, says that “Scratching is normal, instinctive behavior and you don’t want to discourage it completely. Instead, your goal should be getting your cat to scratch acceptable objects, like a scratching post.”

So, if you’re not happy with this behavior you could try training your cat and redirecting their litter box scratching towards more acceptable objects like a cat tree!

Reason 3: It’s A Playful Activity

Hearing your cat wreak havoc inside the litterbox might come as a surprise especially if you’ve just cleaned it or changed the litter completely! During their kittenhood, my cats would roll around playfully in the fresh litter, which was cute and a little bit gross at the same time.

It’s a common enough behavior for kittens, after all the litter box is a safe space and the place that’s intensely covered in their scent. But even some adult cats will indulge in this naughty behavior of scratching the whole litter box including the sides if they’re in an extra playful mood. It mightn’t be the most graceful habit, but some cats are just natural diggers!

Just look at this adorable fluffball goofing around in his clean litter box!

Spending some playful time inside the litter box can be an innocent habit, but if your cat spends too much time in there then they might be in distress or in pain. Colleen Wallace, D.V.M. and associate veterinarian at the Cozy Cat Veterinary Hospital in Raleigh, N.C. warns cat owners that if they see their cat spending too much time inside the litter box then, “that’s the time for pet owners to be on notice.”

Reason 4: To Mark Their Territory

Another reason that could explain your cat’s obsession with scratching the sides of the litterbox is territory marking. This can be typical behavior of unneutered/unspayed cats or cats that share their home and their litter box with other cats.

You might wonder how would scratching help them claim their own toilet, but cats use their paws all the time. By kneading you, by scratching the couch, and by scratching the sides of the litter box your kitty is releasing their scent through the scent glands located on their paw pads. Scent-marking is the feline way of claiming their territory, an object, and even you, their human!

In a multi-cat household, you might find more than one cat scent-marking the litter box, but they might also use this technique to let their cat mates know that the toilet is occupied.

Reason 5: To Let You Know That The Litter Box Is Dirty

I think by now we all know that cats love to be clean. I mean they spend hours on end cleaning their coats, they always make sure to fall asleep on washed laundry and they’re the first to claim the fresh bed sheets.

So, it completely makes sense that they’ll choose a clean litter box over a dirty one!

Even the scientific journal agrees and recommends scooping the litter at least once a day every day. So, if you forgot to clean your kitty’s litterbox or they don’t like the state of it because their standards are high, they’ll try to avoid the dirty litter and will end up scratching the sides of the litterbox instead.

What To Do When Your Cat Is Scratching The Sides Of The Litter Box Excessively?

As we’ve established by now, a cat covering their waste is completely natural, and during this process, you’ll hear them scratch at the litter, and quite possibly at the sides of the litter box. But if you notice your kitty indulge in this behavior excessively then it’s something worth investigating and dealing with it accordingly.

Litter Box Etiquette

To understand why your cat’s natural behavior of covering waste has transitioned into an excessive one, it’s important to start with the basics. First, we need to break down your cat’s litter box needs and the possible issues they might have with the state their toilet is in.

The Litter Box Isn’t In A Private Location

Like most people, cats can be quite private when they use the litter box, after all, it’s a vulnerable time for them and they need to feel safe in order to drop their guard. That’s why, it’s important to offer them a stress-free toilet environment, which can be achieved by placing their litter box in a room that is rarely used.

I keep mine in the bathroom, since it’s not the busiest of rooms, and I make sure not to disturb my cats whenever I hear them using it. Something I kinda wish they did for me!

If you don’t have an extra room to spare and a closed litter box isn’t enough to make your kitty feel safe then consider getting the Eco Flex stylish wooden cat litter box hider that you can check on Amazon.

Not only is it a great-looking piece of furniture, but it offers multifunctional usage, which is perfect for small apartments where storage is extra important and most importantly it can offer a sense of security for a shy kitty, and the necessary isolation so they can use the toilet in peace without any excessive and nervous side scratching! It’s also durable enough that it even made our list of the best outdoor cat litter boxes!

The Litter Box Is Too Small​

Choosing the right litter box for your precious familiar will also depend on their size, age, and their health.

While scientists might agree that there’s no major difference between a covered and an uncovered litter box the size is definitely an important factor to consider. Kittens will most likely require an open litter box that’s easy to access, something a senior cat could also appreciate, while large cats like a Maine Coon or a Norwegian Forest cat will need more space. A closed litter box could also feel confining for some cats.

If you find your cat’s business outside or if you see your feline companion excessively scratching the sides or the floor around the litter box, then there simply isn’t enough space for them.

Consider Your Cat’s Litter Preferences

To know how much litter is needed in a litter box will depend on the brand’s instructions, the type of litter for example clay, crystal, or wood pellet litter, and the size of the litter box. Usually, the less litter you use the louder the more accessible the sides of a litter box are and the scratching sound is louder. Too much litter on the other hand might reduce the noise, but it could end up scattered outside.

It’s also important to take your cat’s preference into consideration. Scented litter might seem like the perfect choice for you, but not for your cat.  So, by scratching the sides of the litter box excessively your smart kitty might be telling you that the lavender or summer breeze scent isn’t working for them!

Litter should also be thoroughly cleaned and regularly changed. The lingering smell of old or dirty litter, especially if you have more than one cat might lead to a strike, during which some cats will stop using it and start making their business in unwanted areas.

There are many alternative and eco-friendly options when it comes to litter, and you can even choose how thick or fine the grains should be. Most brands design all kinds of litter all suitable for your cat’s eclectic needs, some are perfect for a multi-cat household, or for long-haired breeds, and in some cases, you could even try and mixing different cat litters, as long as they’re compatible and your cat is happy with the combination!

It’s The Result Of A Multi-cat Household

There are studies supporting the idea that a good and positive litter box environment improves the well-being of a cat. Which totally makes sense, wouldn’t you choose a clean toilet over a dirty one? This positive litter box environment is even more crucial when there is more than one cat living in the house, otherwise, you can expect frequent litter box scratching, because of stress or simply because your cat is marking it as their territory.

The RSPCA recommends that there should be one litter box per cat, and in some cases, a spare one might be even more beneficial. A single shared litter box between two cats can simply cause an antagonistic attitude and in turn excessive scratching, and if you notice such behavior while having a sufficient number of litter boxes then consider keeping them separate.

Taking Your Cat To The Vet

Once you’ve established that the litter box is up to your cat’s standards then the next step would be to look for other clues or signs of distress that could’ve caused your kitty’s excessive scratching.

If it’s a newly acquired behavior, then you might want to go for a veterinary check-up as soon as possible. Especially if your cat has trouble using the litter box or their business looks “unhealthy”.

Gastrointestinal Issues

Problematic toilet behaviors, like scratching the sides of the litterbox excessively might have to do with the state of your cat’s poop. Healthy feces should be dark brown and not too soft or too hard. If they’re solid as a rock or watery, or if there’s blood in them, it might also a sign of an underlying health issue.

This reaction can be caused by a new diet, and if they’re allowed to go outside then they might’ve eaten a toxic plant or spoiled food. Bacteria, parasites like Giardia, and roundworms are also very common in cats, and all of these, as well as food allergies or the consumption of dairy products, could result in diarrhea, or constipation, which is usually followed by a cat’s intense efforts to cover up their waste.

Realizing that your cat is scratching at the sides of their litter box can be a sign of discomfort, or they might be trying really hard to cover poop that’s too smelly or watery. By taking your kitty to the vet you can also exclude more serious poop-related conditions like Hyperthyroidism, colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, or even cancer, which can cause great distress and long-term complications.

Urinary Issues

While your cat’s stool is easy to observe their urine also requires attention. Chuck Miller, D.V.M. and owner of Triangle Veterinarian Hospital in Durham, N.C. recommends that we keep an eye on any changes in the color or consistency of the urine, and that blood is a sign that you need to take your kitty to the vet.

Excessive litter box scratching, whether it’s the sides or not could be a reaction to a urinary tract disease (FLUTD). According to American Veterinary Medical Association, “while FLUTD can occur at any age, it is usually seen in middle-aged, overweight cats that get a little exercise, use an indoor litter box, have little or no outdoor access, or eat a dry diet.”

Your vet can look at your cat’s symptoms, their litter box behavior, and run tests to find if they’re affected by a urinary-related condition, a kidney disorder, or any other possible problem!

Stress and Anxiety

If your cat’s toilet scratching isn’t caused by a physical health issue, it could be a mental coping mechanism against stressful situations. Most house cats aren’t adventurous and instead, they enjoy a predictable routine because changes big or small can trigger anxiety and even depression. Such changes could be the lack of their cat owner’s attention, a change in their diet, or the adoption of another pet.

A cat that has recovered from a urinary or gastrointestinal condition and has experienced physical pain during their litter box visits can associate it with pain, and excessive scratching can be their way of making the process less stressful. Senior cats with arthritis or cats with mobility issues will most likely experience discomfort while using the litter box which can also lead to excessive behavior such as scratching the sides of the litter box.

Potty Training From Scratch

If your cat is scratching the sides of their litterbox, this could mean that they’re not properly potty-trained. While most cats will bury their waste, some cats will not, or they’ll do a bad job covering everything properly. You might realize this while cleaning the litter and discovering that their poop hasn’t been covered, meaning that your cat probably scratched everything but the litter.

This lack of understanding can be a cute quirk when they’re a kitten, but as they grow older it turned into an unwanted habit for some. If you don’t mind the excessive scratching at the sides of the litter box, or your cat’s unprofessionalism when it comes to covering their waste then you can simply let them be. If on the other hand, you want to teach them how to properly cover their waste, and subsequently reduce the side scratching then the best way to do so is by using positive reinforcement.

According to the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, the method of “positive reinforcement training with cats is a useful tool for improving the human-animal bond, treating behavior problems, and teaching novel tasks.”

During the training period, and in general, it’s crucial that you don’t shout at your cat, punish them or spray them with water in order to “teach them a lesson.” Negativity never works with cats, instead, it will break your bond, and scare them away. Cats don’t speak our language, but they can read our body language and our tone, so be patient, use treats, your soft voice, and a toy to pull them away from the litter box when they start scratching the sides.

Litter box accidents are bound to happen, but we can always take control of the situation by being kind and loving to our cats especially when they’re struggling to unlearn an old habit.

Closing Thoughts

Once again, another cat mystery is unraveled! Who knew this litter box behavior would reveal so many things about our cats, their toilet habits, and sometimes struggles. Hopefully, this information will help us be more vigilant about what goes on behind the litter box door, and a little more accepting of our cat’s toilet scratching activities.

How about you, does your cat scratches the sides of the litterbox? Let us know if any of the above reasons sound familiar or whether there’s a special reason behind your cat’s unusual litterbox behavior!

Marina Titova

Marina was cat-struck 8 years ago. It was early autumn when Dante, her grey cat, found her and adopted her. They’ve been inseparable ever since. Dante has been a great cat-teacher and BetterWithCats.net seemed like the perfect place to share his cat-knowledge.

Recent Posts