How do cats know how to use a litter box?
People who have never owned or been around cats sometimes imagine that it takes a lot of time and effort to train a cat to use a litter box. We proud cat parents might like to attribute our cat’s use of a litter box to hours of dedicated training, or to our cat’s superior intelligence. However, the truth is that it is relatively simple to teach a cat or kitten to use a litter box because it appeals to their instincts.
Lone feral cats will naturally cover their waste without any training; they do so to cover the scent from predators and competitors. However, in groups of feral cats, dominant cats will frequently leave their feces uncovered as a way of marking their territory, while cats lower in the hierarchy are expected to cover their waste as a sign of subordination. Since it’s easier to cover their droppings in soft dirt or sand, cats are naturally attracted to this material.
Cats are fastidious, and in a home, it doesn’t take much prompting for a cat to learn to use a litter box. Provide a clean, roomy litter box in a private location and ensure that your cat knows the location of the litter box, and that is about all it takes for most cats to get the message that this is where to deposit their waste. In a household, a cat is considered a subordinate member, so most indoor cats will automatically cover their feces. However, in a multi-cat household, it is not uncommon for the more dominant cat to leave his or her feces unburied.
You might also see your cat try to “bury” uneaten cat food by scratching around the food bowl after eating. The same instinct that drives wild cats to cover their feces to prevent detection by other feline competitors or predators also drives domestic cats to instinctively cover their smelly, uneaten food.