Why Cats Scratch, Dig & Play in Their Litter Box

gray cat and black and white dog
By Pet Expert Team
Updated: 5/16/20242-4 minutes
Cat scratching litter box

Certain cat litter box behaviors may puzzle owners, but there’s usually an explanation for their quirks. It just takes some “digging.”

As a cat owner, you may ask, “Why is my cat scratching the litter box?” or “Why does my cat play in the litter box?” These are good questions, and, in most cases, the answer is simple – some cats enjoy digging and playing in their litter boxes. This is a normal activity for most cats. Other times, your cat may be trying to tell you something.

Here's what this behavior could mean:

They Are Burying Their Urine or Feces

The most common reason cats dig in their litter box is to bury their urine or feces. They may dig before or after elimination. Cats may enjoy the feeling of the cat litter on their paws, so it’s important to have a litter with good paw feel so those who do like to dig and bury can easily perform those behaviors.

Marking Their Territory

For many cats, marking their territory can be an important way to gain a sense of security. This is often why cats scratch the side of their litter box. Doing so adds their scent to the object, which is usually more about reassurance rather than discouraging other cats from using it.

There Isn't Enough Litter in the Litter Box

Excessive digging can be a sign they don’t have enough litter in their litter box, causing them to dig around to try and find a good spot to eliminate.

If you suspect your cat is digging in the litter box because there may not be enough litter, double-check to make sure the litter is at least two to three inches deep and add more if necessary.

The Litter Box is Too Small for Your Cat

Cramped quarters can be problematic for a cat trying to do their business. Some litter boxes may be too small for some cats, depending on their size and breed. Cats that have the desire to scratch and dig, but due to limited space can’t position themselves well to dig at the litter, will scratch and dig “around” it instead.

Make sure your cat's litter box is big enough that they can easily move around in a circle.

The Litter Box Needs to Be Cleaned

Cleanliness is essential to cats and litter boxes need to be scooped daily. Cats prefer not having clumps obstructing their litter box usage, and infrequent cleaning can also lead to health concerns. One sign your cat's litter box needs to be scooped and/or cleaned is excessive digging, which can be a sign your cat is having trouble finding a suitable place to eliminate.

The Litter Box Needs to Be Put in a Quiet & Private Location

Cats like a quiet and private place where they can do their business. If they’re doing a lot of digging before elimination, repeatedly starting and stopping, it may be because they’re uncomfortable with the location of their litter box and may find the surrounding area too distracting. If you suspect this is the case, move the litter box to a more secluded location and see if that doesn’t solve the problem.

Remember: if your cat occasionally plays in the litter or regularly digs in the litter box, it’s perfectly normal, but if the duration of digging and scratching becomes excessive and problematic, reach out to your veterinarian or an applied animal behaviorist. They can assist you in finding the cause of and solution to your cat's behavior.

Learn more about cat behavior by reading what our pet experts have to say and visiting our Pet Expertise page.

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