Why Does My Cat Lie in the Litter Box?

By Maura Wolf

Cats typically spend just enough time in the litter box to go to the bathroom and cover or bury their feces and urine. When hanging out in the litter box is a change of behavior, it can signal illness or stress. On the other hand, a cat who sits in the litter box might be seeking privacy, establishing territory, lying in wait or enjoying a newly discovered napping spot. She may just be unfamiliar with the purpose of the litter box.

Behavioral Changes Signal Illness

Any major behavioral change could indicate your cat is sick. For example, your cat might stay in the litter box because she is unable to go to the bathroom or is experiencing discomfort or pain. Sitting, squatting and lying in the litter box could be indicative of urinary tract problems, a bladder infection, constipation or a blockage. Some male cats develop urinary crystals that block urine from flowing out of the penis and causing irreparable kidney damage. If you notice your cat spending a lot of time in the litter box, look for signs of illness such as loss of appetite, lethargy, urinating outside the litter box and being more sensitive or aggressive. Contact the veterinarian, describe any unusual behavior and bring your cat in for an exam as soon as possible.

Stressful Situations

Lying in the litter box might seem like a quirk, but it could be the result of fear or stress. Once your vet has assured you that your cat is not physically ill, try to determine whether your cat is experiencing stress and what might be triggering it. Sometimes when cats are staying in unfamiliar places, such as boarding kennels, they might sleep in their litter boxes, because they smell familiar and make them feel more secure. A cat at home, meanwhile, may hide out in a litter box if she is being antagonized by another animal or is being annoyed by a human, such as an unfamiliar child. Some cats retreat to the litter box when they hear sudden loud noises.

A Little Privacy, Please

It is not so peculiar for cats to take refuge in their litter box. No one seems to have come up with a definitive answer as to why. Dr. Bonnie Beaver of the American Veterinary Medical Association writes that a lot of cats do this. “Perhaps the litter is soft and the box gives them a secure feeling,” she wrote on a WebMD Q&A. If they want to be alone, some cats hide under beds; others might feel comfortable in their litter boxes. Cats who have been adopted from shelters might find their litter boxes serve as sanctuaries, private places to rest while acclimating to their new environments. If the cat’s veterinarian has said she is healthy and if you clean the box regularly, lying in it should not be a problem.

Establishing Territory

A cat might lie in her litter box or roll around in the sand, claiming it as her personal space to fulfill her need to establish territory. Your cat might decide to use a covered litter box as her cave from which to observe household activities. If other cats live in the house, your cat's litter box could become her special place to hide out and lie in wait for a feline friend, before leaping out, pouncing and starting an exciting game. Supplying a litter box for every cat in your home might eliminate your cat's guarding behavior.

Repurposing the Litter Box

Domesticated kittens are usually taught by their mother to use the litter box and to cover their waste with cat litter. Some cats get in the habit of going about that process quickly, while others spend a lot of time digging and burying and digging some more. When an unhurried cat finishes digging, she might just lie down on the sand. Kittens especially will curl up anywhere their sleepiness takes over. A cat might like the location or the shape, size or smell of her litter box and find ways to entertain herself by playing in the sandbox if it is relatively clean. Sometimes the litter in the box feels cool and seems like a comfortable place to nap on a hot day.