Cats may have been domesticated for nine thousand years, but they haven’t lost many of their wild ways, and that extends to their toileting habits which include burying their feces.
Burying feces is a natural cat instinct that most of us greatly appreciate unless it’s the local cat who is burying their feces in the neighbour’s sandpit that is.
So why do cats bury their feces?
There are two routinely accepted explanations as to why cats bury their feces, but I will add a third possible reason.
To avoid predators
Cats have larger predators, and they don’t want to attract attention, particularly if the cat is a queen with a nest of kittens who make an easy target.
Predators seek out the old, the young, the sick and the weak, and are good at tracking potential sources of food. Hiding the feces well away from the nest helps to avoid detection.
Because they are submissive to other cats
Cat communication is complex, and marking behaviour is a common form of communication. There are four types of marking in cats:
- Middening (depositing feces uncovered in prominent locations)
Dominant cats will leave their feces uncovered as a way to assert their position. The urine and feces of each cat have its own unique scent due to pheromones. Middening is rare in domestic cats, and if a pet cat is defecating outside the litter tray, it is more likely to be due to an underlying medical condition, dirty litter trays or inter-cat issues (for example a submissive cat being bullied by a dominant cat).
Back to burying the feces, submissive cats in the wild bury their feces to not only avoid attracting the attention of predators but also to avoid dominant cats in the area feeling challenged which could lead to territorial turf battles with other cats. It is also speculated that household cats see their human family as dominant over them.
Feces is a common source of infection
I haven’t seen this theory out there, but I do wonder if cats are hardwired to bury feces because of its potential to spread several infections. Properly disposing of feces (ie; burying it) reduces the chance of spreading infection and parasites.
Many species of animal are naturally repulsed by feces, which makes sense due to its high risk of disease and parasite transmission. In other regards, that argument falls short because every day I watch my cattle dog smell the feces of other dogs, and my Labrador has been known to snack on the cat’s feces in the litter tray, so clearly she does not find it repulsive. It is a point to ponder though, what we do know is that cats don’t like to go to the toilet near where they eat or sleep, nor do they like dirty litter trays. You can read more about why humans and some other animals are repulsed by feces.
Related: Why does cat urine smell so bad?
What about cats who don’t bury their poop?
There are four possible causes for this:
Litter box issues: Dirty litter tray, inadequately sized tray (too small, or too big), type of litter tray (some cats like covered, others prefer uncovered), and location.
Medical causes: Diarrhea, constipation, anal gland disorders. Sometimes cats will avoid the litter tray because they associate it with pain.
Behavioural: Being bailed up by a dominant cat, dog, young child.
Middening: All of the above are defecation issues, and you may notice that the cat has attempted to cover the feces with an item of clothing, or has defecated in an out of the way place such as behind the fridge. In contrast, a cat who is middening will deposit the feces in a prominent position such as hallways and doorways. Feral cats deposit uncovered feces on elevated points inside their territory and the higher, the denser the feline population in an area, the more frequent the middening.