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Why Do Cats Roll Around in Litter Boxes (And How to Stop It)

Nicole Cosgrove

One of the least pleasant aspects of cat ownership is dealing with the litter box. It’s bad enough that you have to scoop out and clean your cat’s bathroom, but when they roll around in it, play in it, and spread litter everywhere, it’s even worse. Why do cats roll in their litter box? Is this normal behavior?

The primary reason cats play in their litter boxes is to satisfy their feral instincts. Even though your cat has become a civilized, domestic animal, they are still wild at heart. Feral play behavior can include scratching, digging, jumping, or rolling around in the litter. However, your cat’s behavior in the litter box can also be a sign of emotional or medical distress.

divider-cat4 Reasons Why Cats Roll in the Litterbox

1. They are marking their territory.

If there have been any recent changes in your cat’s life that are causing stress, they may be staking out their territory in the litter box. If you’ve gotten a new pet, had a baby, or moved recently, cats can feel like their home, and their place in it is being challenged. Sometimes they can feel this way simply because you moved their litter box to a new location.

Regardless of the cause, your cat might be feeling like the litter box is the only thing in the world that truly belongs to them. Or a safe place where they can be alone and not bothered by anyone. Sitting in the litter box, or rolling in it, leaves your cat’s scent behind for other cats to smell, sending the message that the litter box belongs to them.


2. They feel scared.

Cats can experience anxiety just like people. Strangers in the home or a lot of loud noises can scare them and make them want to hide. They consider their litter box a safe place to seek out shelter.

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Image Credit: Davynia, Shutterstock

3. They have a medical issue.

Rolling in the litter box may indicate that your cat is itchy. It can be a sign of skin irritation or allergy, or it could be something more serious.

Cats are often prone to urinary tract conditions that affect their ability to urinate. They can scratch and roll to try and relieve the problem. It can be as simple as a urinary tract infection, or it could be kidney stones or Feline Interstitial Cystitis, a neurological condition that affects a cat’s ability to eliminate.

If you notice that your cat is playing in their litter box, and they aren’t producing as much waste, as usual, accompanied by mood changes or constant meowing, see your veterinarian to rule out a medical problem.


4. They are dust bathing.

If your cat likes to roll around in the litter box right after you’ve cleaned it, they may be dust bathing. Outdoor cats frequently roll around in the dirt to remove excess fur and bacteria that make them itchy and dirty. Cats who don’t have access to the dirt outside will use the litter box for the same purpose.

While it seems counterintuitive to us to roll in dirt in order to feel clean, many mammals do it, and it’s perfectly normal behavior.

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Image Credit: Tanya-Plotnikova, Shutterstock

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Why your cat might be scratching at the litter box

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Image Credit: Zoran-Photographer, Shutterstock

Cats who scratch the sides of their litter box are indicating that they are not happy with the conditions inside the box. Cats are very sensitive to odors and like to be clean. It’s not uncommon for cats to refuse to relieve themselves in a dirty litter box. Scratching at the sides is often a clue that it needs cleaning.

Sometimes cats scratch their litter box because they don’t like the litter inside it. Cats aren’t just sensitive to smells; they’re sensitive to textures, too. Litters that come with artificial odors can be offensive to some cats. They may also have a preference for the type of litter you’re using and the material it’s made out of. You might have to do some trial and error with cat litter to find one they like.

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Behaviors surrounding litter box cleaning

Most cats are overjoyed when you clean their litter box. They like having unsoiled litter to do their business. It’s actually quite common for cats to use the litter box immediately after cleaning.

Cats who are territorial about their litter box will also enter it after it’s cleaned. In order to assert their position or mark their dominance over other cats in the household, they will have to spend some time re-marking their territory and establishing the litter box as theirs.

On occasion, a cat will be so territorial about their litter box that they will be angry or even attack while you’re cleaning it. If this happens, it’s best to shut your cat in another room while you clean the box or make sure they’re distracted with a favorite toy.

owner cleaning her cat's litter tray
Image Credit: Yuliya Alekseeva, Shutterstock

How to Stop Your Cat From Rolling in the Litter Box

If you’ve ruled out any medical conditions, and your cat isn’t stressed or territorial, it’s most likely that they are rolling in their litter box to remove their outer layer of fur and clean themselves. This is the most common reason for rolling.

You can help your cat by thoroughly brushing them on a regular basis to remove excess dirt and debris from their coat. This will also relieve any itching they feel on their skin.

A shallower litter box with less “playroom” can also help to discourage rolling around. If they don’t have enough room, they won’t do it.

Sometimes it helps to switch from dust litter to a litter made from crystals, pellets, or pine. These materials don’t hold the resemblance to dirt for your cat, and they will be less likely to take a dust bath in them.

If your cat spends time outdoors and it’s safe for them to do so, let them roll around in the dirt outside. This will allow them to satisfy their need to roll and serve to remove dirt and bacteria from their fur. Over time, you will notice your cat becomes softer and cleaner as they take more frequent dust baths.

Excessive litter box rolling can indicate an underlying skin condition that your cat is working hard to relieve. If your cat’s rolling is undeterred, see your veterinarian to rule out skin issues.

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Other ways to stop your cat from playing in the litter box

Not only is rolling in the litter an annoying and frustrating behavior, but it can also get expensive with all the wasted cat litter. Here are five things you can do to stop your cat from using the litter box as a playground.

1. Have enough litter boxes.

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Image Credit: Leoniek-van-der-Vliet, Shutterstock

The general litter box rule is to have one box per cat, plus one more. Some cats like a single litter box, while others like the convenience of having them in different locations. If you have more than one cat, you can avoid territorial spats by having different litter boxes, in different locations, for each cat.


2. Try a different type of litter box.

Curver Pet Litterbox

Make the litter box just a little less comfortable for your cat to play in by switching the type of box. A covered box might offer some privacy and make them less anxious. A self-cleaning box might be too active for them to hang around to play. A shallower depth of litter might be less inviting.


3. Keep the litter box clean.

disposing cat litter using biodegradable bag
Image Credit: Natalya Lys, Shutterstock

Digging, scratching, and flinging litter are all signs you need fresh cat litter or at least need to scoop out the mess. Clumping litter is the easiest way to quickly clean your litter box on a regular basis.


4. Put less litter in the box.

Cleaning cat litter box
Image Credit: Zoran Photographer, Shutterstock

Cats like to roll in deep litter, so putting a shallower level of litter will be less satisfying for them to roll in. It will, however, need to be cleaned more often.


5. Meet your cat’s emotional needs.

Woman holding a cat
Image Credit: JensEnemark, Pixabay

If your cat is anxious or using its litter box to hide, the problem may have nothing to do with the litter box. If their routine has been altered, recognize that your cat has emotions and may be feeling out of sorts. They may need some extra love and attention to be reassured that they’re still important in your life. Be patient and give them time to adjust to new circumstances.

Any time things are a bit out of the ordinary, or something is new in your cat’s life (this can be as simple as a new job where you’re home less often), spend some extra time talking to, cuddling, or playing with your cat. You know them best. If they appear to be having trouble with their emotions, they may need some extra attention for a while.

If the problem persists, you may need to consult your veterinarian or a cat behavior specialist.divider-cat

Final thoughts

While cat owners often find it a nuisance, cats consider their litter box a special place. While it can be an indicator of underlying problems, rolling in the litter box is totally normal behavior for your cat. It can also be an indicator of when something is wrong. The tips listed above will help you to at least reduce the behavior, if not stop it altogether.


Featured Image Credit: xamnesiacx84, Shutterstock

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.