Cats display all kinds of unusual behavior that to the new cat owner might seem confusing or even worrisome. One of these classic but weird behaviors is sleeping in the litter box.
Sleeping in your own toilet is pretty disgusting — and considering cats are so obsessed with keeping clean, it’s super-confusing they would choose the litter box as a place to take a nap.
Our own precious cats would never dream of such grossness, until, that is, we uprooted them from their home. Yup, we tried to make switching to a new apartment as stress-free as possible, but moving sent our cat Bill straight for the litter box. And he didn’t even have to pee.
This litter box hiding lasted for days. At first, he wouldn’t even come out to eat — we had to leave food next to the box, and he’d take a few bites while he was still sitting inside it. However, after a few days and a lot of attention, he started venturing out into his new space.
The stress factor
According to our vet at Prospect Animal Hospital, sleeping and hiding in the litter box is a common reaction in cats to any overly stressful situation. While it may seem gross to the pet owner, a cat’s litter box may feel like the only safe haven in new surroundings because it smells like it does. According to Susan Paretts of The Nest, “cats actually mark their territory with their urine and its scent can sometimes be comforting to an anxious cat.”
Cats also hide in litter boxes for the same reason they hide in cardboard boxes — the smaller, enclosed space feels like added protection. Mychelle Blake, MSW, CDBC and expert for the Pet Health Network, told SheKnows, “This is why if you visit an animal shelter, you will often see cats in their kennels lying in their litter boxes.”
If you’ve recently adopted another pet (especially a cat), your cat may sleep in its litter box as an act of claiming it. Cats are very territorial, and if another animal threatens their space, they’ll act out in order to assert dominance.
Remedy: If your cat’s feeling threatened by another animal, make sure there are as many litter boxes around as there are felines. If you have a dog, make sure the litter box is out of the way, so the cat doesn’t feel like it has to sneak by the dog every time it wants to use it. You can also use pheromone sprays and diffusers around the litter boxes to alleviate stress.
Sleeping in the litter box can also be the sign of something more serious, so you want to be sure and monitor your cat closely if it suddenly starts doing it. Dr. Celeste Clements, DVM, DACVIM, told SheKnows, “If the cat’s behavior is unusual or changed in other ways, including lack of appetite or thirst, or possibly increased thirst, or if you note a change in the pet’s social interactions, or that he or she is sleeping more, or seeming to have difficulty moving about when removed from the box, then a more serious condition or illness might be present.”
This could be indicative of any number of illnesses, not just ones having to do with elimination. However, if you notice your cat (particularly if it’s male) sitting or squatting in its litter box for long periods of time, scratching at the litter but producing no urine, it may have a lower urinary tract disease. According to Animal Planet, male cats can develop crystals in their urine that if left untreated, could block their ability to pass urine completely. Full blockage like this could be fatal in only 48 hours, so if you notice your cat straining to urinate more than once, take it to the vet immediately.
That being said, you shouldn’t jump to the worst case scenario if your cat suddenly starts sleeping in its littler box. Just keep a close eye on it and if other unusual behaviors, like the ones listed above, start to develop, you should definitely give your vet a call.
Originally published October 2015. Updated November 2017.