Don’t sneak a peek! Once you’re done with the quiz, then scroll down the page. We’ll decode all 10 signs of litter box frustration.
Litter box problems: It’s not only about out-of-box elimination
A 2017 study found that contrary to common belief, cats who spend less time in the litter box are actually more satisfied with it. This may seem counterintuitive, because we tend to think that a pleasant experience is a drawn out one. The study writes that a “relatively brief elimination sequence may be indicative of a more positive litter box experience.”
Another interesting finding that the researchers arrive at is that cats will continue to use the litter box even if they are frustrated with it. The study developed a list of cat behaviors that’s associated with using the litter box. The study writes to counter the popular beliefs that “cats will immediately turn to out-of-box elimination if they are dissatisfied with their litter box”.
We’ll break down all 10 signs that your cat is frustrated with the litter box. Learning how to decode your cat’s behavior can help you better understand your cat. We will also look at how a satisfied and happy cat behaves.
Litter box behavior is important to maintain good urinary health. A cat may still be using the litter box, but if she’s frustrated with it, she’ll use it less frequently. We’ll deep deeper into how the frustration can turn into a serious health risk.
10 signs your cat is frustrated with the litter box
Sign #1: Spend a lot of time in the litter box
If your cat spends a lot of time in the litter box, it could be a sign that the cat is frustrated with the litter box. This applies for both urination and defecation. The cat will still be hanging around even after peeing or pooping. A frustrated cat also seems more restless and less relaxed when using the litter box.
When your cat is happy with the litter box: On the other hand, if your cat enters and exits the litter box quickly and readily, then good news. A cat shouldn’t linger around if she’s satisfied with the litter situation. The cat shouldn’t hesitate and spend only a brief moment in the box.
Sign #2: Balance on the sides of the litter box
Does your cat almost tiptoed into the litter box? Balancing on the sides of the litter box when entering or exiting the box shows hesitation. It almost looks like your cat would like to avoid stepping on the litter.
When your cat is happy with the litter box: Your cat steps into the box confidently and is comfortable stepping on the litter. All paws should be firmly placed in the litter box, on the litter substrate.
Sign #3: Place its paws on the side of the litter box
Once your cat is ready to poop or pee, she gets into a squatting position. When squatting, if she places her paws on the side of the litter box, she’s not comfortable.
I’ve seen cats who balance on the side of the litter box during the act. It almost looks like they’ll be falling over. This often results in the cat peeing over the edge of the box.
When your cat is happy with the litter box: She squat low, and plants all paws firmly on the litter. She doesn’t seem to be too concerned with dirtying her paws.
Sign #4: Approach the litter box, hesitate then walk away without using it
Does your cat have litter box aversion?
Is your cat wary about using the litter box? She fusses about going into the litter box and doesn’t seem very sure about the decision.
Does she approach the litter box, get into the box, but jump out without using it?
This hesitation is a sign of dissatisfaction with the litter box. According to a study by Griffith et al, the behavior of sniffing and pawing in and around the litter box but doesn’t eliminate immediately after, is a sign of stress in cats.
When your cat is happy with the litter box: She approaches the litter box confidently, and uses it. She doesn’t second guess the decision or feel insecure about it. Every attempt to use the litter box is successful.
Sign #5: Not circling in the litter box
Failing to walk back and forth, or circle, in the litter box is not a good sign. One of the main reasons she’s not doing that is because of space constraints. If the litter box is too small, there will hardly be enough space to turn/pivot. There certainly won’t be enough space to pace.
When your cat is happy with the litter box: There will be enough space in the litter box to turn around. Your cat will be walking back and forth before settling into a squat position to eliminate.
Sign #6: Not digging in the litter box
According to animal behavior researchers, the absence of digging in the litter box indicates dissatisfaction with it. The research found that cats who dig for less than 4 seconds before eliminating (either pee or poop) are more likely to have toilet issues.
If your cat is not digging the litter before eliminating, it’s a sign that they’re uncomfortable with the situation. This behavior is much like not wanting to touch the litter and placing her paws on the side of the litter box.
When your cat is happy with the litter box: Before she pees or poops, she digs around the litter box, sometimes in different spots. This pre-elimination behavior puts your cat at ease and feels natural and relaxed.
Sign #7: Not covering it’s pee or poop afterwards
According to researcher Horwitz, cats with inappropriate toilet behavior are less likely to cover their pee or poop. Cats refusing to use the litter box are frustrated with it. And when they eliminate outside the litter box, naturally there will not be any substrate available to cover the waste.
When your cat is happy with the litter box: Your cat will be diligent about covering its waste every time she goes toilet. She wants to keep the smell and sight of her waste as unnoticeable as possible.
According to some researchers, the cat’s behavior of covering its waste is to prevent being detected by predators. Other theories suggest that this behavior is to reduce the exposure to pathogens in the waste, and it is a protective mechanism.
Sign #8: Paw at surfaces after peeing or pooping
This is a big one. It should not be confused with digging at the litter to cover the waste. Sign #8 and #9 (sniff waste) are very distinct behaviors displayed by cats frustrated with the litter box.
Researchers note that the “incessant pawing” on all surfaces around the litter box (except the litter itself) is not a good sign. This includes repeatedly pawing at the wall, floor, sides of the litter box and other nearby objects.
This pawing can last nearly 2 whole minutes after the cat is done with toilet. This is primarily due to having a relatively small litter box and insufficient litter substrate in it. The cat therefore doesn’t have enough litter to cover its waste. And it redirects it’s pawing behavior onto other surfaces.
If your cat is using a covered/hooded litter box, this is often referred to as “box banging”.
When your cat is happy with the litter box: Your cat should be content with just pawing at the litter (and not any other surfaces) to cover its waste.
Sign #9: Sniff its waste afterwards for a long time
This is also a big warning sign that your cat is frustrated with the litter box. Researchers found that frustrated cats will sniff their waste (both pee and poop) up to a minute. And this behavior continues.
The frustrated cat will come back to the litter box nearly 3 to 4 times to sniff at the waste. The research writes that because the smell of the waste triggers a need to complete the sequence of behavior to remove the smell from the environment. They repeat the sequence of returning to the litter box, sniffing and pawing at all surfaces, but still unable to complete the cycle.
When your cat is happy with the litter box: Once your cat is done with toilet, she’ll cover her waste well. She’ll exit the litter box readily. She should not return to the litter box until she actually needs to use it.
Sign #10: Groom itself immediately after using the litter box
After exiting the litter box, your cat grooms herself immediately. This is a sign that points to frustration with the litter box. Grooming includes licking its body and paws, or cat scratches at herself.
Another thing to note is the duration of the grooming. A frustrated cat usually grooms for a long time. This behavior usually happens after defecation, but it can happen after urination as well.
When your cat is happy with the litter box: A cat that’s satisfied with the toilet situation hardly ever grooms herself immediately after using the litter box.
Dangers of litter box frustration: Pee frequency and duration
According to McGowan, cats who are frustrated with their litter box appear to hold their urine. They don’t visit the litter box as often as they should.
This manifests in two ways. A frustrated cat will hold her urine longer and therefore takes a longer time to empty her bladder when she finally goes toilet.
Frequency of urination
How often does your cat urinate? According to the researchers, frustrated cats hold their urine and urinate less often. The study compared cat behaviors in two different settings: enriched environment and clinic-like environment.
Enriched environment: This is the ideal set up. In this setting, the cats are satisfied with the litter box. They exhibit positive toilet behavior as listed previously.
Clinic-link environment: This is the not ideal set up. In this setting, the cats are frustrated and dissatisfied with the litter box. They exhibit negative toilet behavior as listed previously.
The chart below shows the number of times the cats urinate in the two different settings. The light colored bar represents the happy/satisfied cats. They urinate significantly more than those who are frustrated.
Duration of urination
When the cat holds her urine for longer, she’ll urine less often but for a longer duration. According to a study on urination duration in mammals, all mammals take approximately 20 seconds to empty their bladder. This is regardless of the size of the mammals. From the largest mammals to the smallest, the urine stream lasts for about the same duration.
In the enriched vs clinic-like environments, the happy cats do have a urine stream of approximately 20 seconds. This matches the finding on urination duration in mammals.
However, frustrated cats take around 52 seconds to urinate. That’s more than twice as long!
As the chart below shows, not only does the frustrated cat take a longer time to urinate, the whole process takes longer. The post-urination process takes significantly longer. A large part of it is due to the “incessant pawing” that we discussed in Sign #8.
The researchers suggest that holding onto urine can pose health risk to the cat. In humans, urinary tract disease is more common in those who hold their pee for long. Ths same could be true for cats. A frustrated cat may urinate, but it’s not with the ideal frequency.
To ensure urinary tract health, look out for signs of frustration with the litter box in your cat. Try different ways to improve the situation. Make your cat feel comfortable using the litter box again.
This not only is good for their health but will stop any inappropriate toilet behavior from developing. Oftentimes, as frustration builds, the cat will become increasingly less tolerant of it. So, try to improve it before it gets worse.
Dantas, L. M. de S. (2018). Vertical or Horizontal? Diagnosing and Treating Cats Who Urinate Outside the Box. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 48(3), 403–417. doi:10.1016/j.cvsm.2017.12.007
McGowan, R. T. S., Ellis, J. J., Bensky, M. K., & Martin, F. (2017). The ins and outs of the litter box: A detailed ethogram of cat elimination behavior in two contrasting environments. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 194, 67–78. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.009
COTTAM, N., & DODMAN, N. (2007). Effect of an odor eliminator on feline litter box behavior. Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery, 9(1), 44–50. doi:10.1016/j.jfms.2006.08.004
Sung, Wailani. Effect of gender on initiation of proximity in free ranging domestic cats (Felis catus). Diss. University of Georgia, 1998.
Griffith CA, Steigerwald ES, Buffington CAT (2000) Effects of a synthetic facial pheromone on behavior of cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 217, 1154e1156.
Horwitz DF (1997) Behavioral and environmental factors associated with elimination behavior problems in cats: a retrospective study. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 52, 129e137.