The Dirt on Why Cats Bury Their Business


Cats are known for their meticulous grooming habits and peculiar bathroom behaviors. One of the most intriguing feline behaviors that may seem strange to humans is covering up their poop after using the litter box. While you may wonder why your cat goes through the effort of burying their waste, this instinctual habit serves an important purpose rooted in the ancestral origins of our domestic feline friends. Understanding the reasons behind this quirky cat behavior provides fascinating insight into the natural instincts that still guide our furry companions today.

Wild Cat Behavior

Feral and wild cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, and cheetahs will often bury their waste to cover their scent and hide signs from potential predators or prey (Source). Burying their waste helps big cats avoid drawing unwanted attention while they are hunting or make them less detectable to rival cats that may compete for territory. According to wildlife experts, burying poop is an innate survival behavior for wild felines.

In the wild, big cats do not use litter boxes, so they rely on natural instincts to bury their waste. By scraping soil, leaves, or snow over their feces and urine, wild cats can mask their smell and blend into their surroundings more effectively when hunting. However, wild cats will also leave waste uncovered in particular areas as a way to mark territory and send a warning to potential intruders.

Domestic Cat Origins

Cats are believed to have been first domesticated around 10,000 years ago in the Near East, when humans began storing grain and allowed rodents to proliferate. Wildcats of the species Felis silvestris lybica likely started interacting with humans and patrolling the rodent populations near early human settlements. Over time, these wildcats adapted to living alongside humans and were bred selectively, becoming the domestic cats we know today (The Library of Congress).

Genetic research shows that all domestic cats are descended from those Felis silvestris lybica ancestors in the Fertile Crescent region. Unlike other domesticated animals like dogs, cows, or horses that underwent significant genetic changes through selective breeding, domestic cats have changed very little from their wildcat progenitors. Their genomes are still around 95% identical. This evidence indicates cats likely domesticated themselves by taking advantage of human civilization, rather than being bred deliberately by humans for specific traits (Scientific American).

Instinctual Behavior

Burying waste is an innate instinct for cats, even domestic house cats. According to this LiveScience article, the act of meticulously burying their waste stems from cats’ long evolutionary history of using urine and feces to mark their territory in the wild. Feral and wild cats will bury their waste to hide their trail from potential predators. Even though house cats may not face the same risks, the instinctual behavior to bury waste persists.

As the Daily Paws article explains, domestic cats still retain many of the instincts that served their ancestral wild cats for survival. When given litter to digging in, most cats will automatically go through the motions to cover up their poop. While the reasons behind the behavior have changed, the innate drive to bury waste remains ingrained in cats.

Litter Box Preference

Cats have an instinctual preference for loose, soft substrates that they can dig and cover in. This likely stems from their ancestral origins as desert-dwelling felines who would cover their waste with sand and dirt to mask their scent from predators. Domestic cats retain this instinctual digging and covering behavior, which is why they prefer litter boxes filled with loose substrate.

According to a Reddit discussion on cat preferences, “I think that cats may prefer [loose substrate litter boxes] because they are always clean. But in general I think my cats will always prefer uncovered.” [1] This indicates that while cats have an ancestral preference for loose litter they can dig in, the cleanliness of the box may be an even stronger factor influencing preferences.

Experts confirm that cats prefer litter they can dig in. As Purina notes, “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 digging act itself.” [2] The digging and covering instinct remains strong in domestic cats.

Hygiene and Disease Prevention

One of the primary reasons cats bury their waste is for hygiene and disease prevention. Feces contain bacteria and parasites that can spread disease, so burying it can help limit the spread of infection. Wild cats do not have access to litter boxes, so burying their feces helps reduce smells that can attract predators. Domestic cats retain this instinctual behavior even though their litter box contains the smells.

According to veterinarians, burying stool helps prevent the spread of diseases like toxoplasmosis and parasites like roundworms and tapeworms to other cats in the area (Source 1). By covering up their feces, cats reduce the chances that other animals will come into contact with their waste. The litter itself also helps absorb moisture and odors.

Even for indoor cats using a litter box, burying waste can prevent the spread of bacteria and intestinal parasites to humans and other pets. Properly disposing of cat feces is an important part of keeping a sanitary home environment.

Scent Marking

Cats have scent glands in their paws and instinctively scent mark their territory. Even though pet cats live indoors, the burying of their waste may be an inherited territorial behavior from their ancestors. When cats bury their feces, they are marking the area with their scent to claim it as their territory.

Indoor cats may not need to mark territory in the same way as outdoor cats. However, the instinctual urge to bury their waste and leave their scent remains strong in domestic cats. Burying feces can satisfy this innate desire to leave visual and olfactory signals for other cats that they consider an area theirs.

So while burying waste helps with sanitation, the behavior also likely serves as a territorial marker. Even indoor cats feel the need to mark areas like their litter box to indicate ownership and define their space within a home.


While most healthy cats instinctually cover their waste, there are some exceptions. Ill or injured cats may not have the energy or mobility to properly bury their feces after using the litter box. Arthritis, injuries, and other conditions that cause pain or stiffness can make it difficult for a cat to squat and rake litter over their poop. Elderly cats also often experience age-related health issues that prevent them from covering their waste.

Long-haired cat breeds can also sometimes leave their poop unburied. The long fur around the back end can get coated with feces during elimination. This can prevent proper burial as the feces-coated fur moves the litter around rather than allowing the cat to rake clean litter over the poop. Regular grooming and hygiene trims may help reduce this problem for long-haired cats.

So while most healthy cats exhibit the natural instinct to bury their waste, cats with mobility issues, pain, or long fur may be exceptions. Understanding the cause can help cat owners address problems with unburied cat poop in the litter box.

Troubleshooting Issues

If a cat who previously buried their waste stops doing so, there may be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. Some tips to troubleshoot this behavior include:

Check for signs of illness – Cats may stop burying their waste if they are feeling unwell. A vet checkup can identify any medical causes.

Try a different litter – Cats can be picky about litter type and texture. Switching to a new litter may encourage burying again.

Clean the box more frequently – Cats like a clean bathroom. Scooping waste out more often can make the box more appealing.

Add more litter boxes – Having multiple sites to choose from can prevent “bathroom avoidance”. Place boxes in quiet, low traffic areas.

Reduce stress – A stressed cat may fail to cover their waste. Using calming pheromones or addressing sources of stress can help.

Overall, if a previously house-trained cat stops burying their waste, some detective work is needed to determine the cause. Medical issues, litter preferences, cleanliness, stress, or other factors may be at play. Understanding your cat’s needs and environment is key to troubleshooting this behavior.


In closing, we’ve explored the natural digging and covering behaviors of cats and reasons why our domestic cats exhibit similar litter box habits. While wild cats bury their feces to hide their trail from prey and competitors, domestic cats retain instincts to eliminate scent markers for territory. Burying waste is also hardwired as a hygienic protection from disease. Overall, the scooping and covering we see cats do in their litter box comes from innate survival behaviors passed down from their wild ancestors.

Understanding these natural motivations can help cat owners embrace kitty litter habits instead of resisting them. We can also troubleshoot problems by ensuring cats have an adequate litter box, cleaning regularly to reduce smells, and giving them opportunities to mark territory in other ways like scratching posts. With patience and properly setting up their environment, we can appreciate cats’ amusing bathroom behaviors as a window into their ancestral wild nature.

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