Sometimes it's hard to figure out a cat and why they do what they do. Like why they can spend hours upon hours of energy and excitement chasing a ratty, torn piece of string. Or why, from out of nowhere, they run across the living room floor at top speed as if some gun signaling the start of a race just went off in their brain. But there is a behavior some cats exhibit that gives their owners clues to the fact that all might not be right in Kitty World. And it involves your cat and his litter box.
Most cats visit the litter box for a short period of time. They're in the box long enough to do their business, and then go along their merry ways. But sometimes cats spend more time than usual inside the box. "That's the time for pet owners to be on notice," says Colleen Wallace, D.V.M. and associate veterinarian at the Cozy Cat Veterinary Hospital in Raleigh, N.C. She notes there are basically only two reasons why cats sit in their litter boxes: one is because of a medical ailment and the other is because of stress.
The first reason is more serious. If a cat is having a medical issue, meaning he is having trouble eliminating his waste, clues to this can be found in his actions in the box. According to Dr. Wallace, if a cat (particularly a male) is sitting in the litter box for a significant period of time, or if he's squatting, straining or scratching litter while producing little or no drops of urine, those are indicators that he is either blocked or constipated or could even have feline lower urinary tract disease. Male cats can develop crystals in their urine or other urinary tract problems. The crystals accumulate at the tip of the penis and block the urine from freely flowing, similar to the way a stopper in the sink blocks water. Blockage can be detrimental to your cat's kidneys, and if he's not seen by a vet, he could potentially die within 48 hours.
Yep, it's that serious. That's why it's incumbent upon pet owners to monitor their cat's inability to use the bathroom, and to consult their veterinarian immediately if they notice their cat is having difficulty in that area.
The second reason cats sit or lie down in the litter box is a little more difficult to figure out. "The box can serve as your cat's safe place or his protection if he's feeling scared or uncomfortable," says Dr. Wallace, adding that it's more common for cats to lie in the box rather than sit in it. The cat may take refuge there if he's being bullied by another animal or is fearful of a new pet that's been introduced to the house. Or if he's not happy about a new baby or visiting child. Or if he's afraid of the sound of a neighbor's barking dog or a booming thunderstorm. "Just like some cats hide under a bed, other cats will find comfort in lying down in their litter box -- which for some can be like their small sanctuary," says Dr. Wallace. Cats adopted from shelters often need a little more time to get used to their new surroundings, so don't be alarmed when they hide (in places like their litter box) for the first few days.
Talk to your vet
So should pet owners be concerned if their cat spends lots of time in the litter box? Perhaps, says Dr. Wallace. Look for signs that your cat might really be sick. Ask yourself, "Is he lethargic? Is he eating? (Cats typically stop eating when they aren't feeling well.) Is he showing other signs of illness?" If so, let your next call be to the vet. Be sure to share information about any environmental changes that might be affecting your cat as well so a correct diagnosis can be made.
Did You Know?
Did you know: Most kittens are taught at a young age by their mama to cover their waste after using the litter box. The amount of time that goes into the digging depends on the cat. Some will cover the litter by giving it a quick once-over with their paws. Others will keep digging and digging as if there is California gold in the bottom of the pan.