Living With Animals: Cats And The Litterbox

By Hope Bidegainberry on December 2, 2019

Let me admit my very strongly held opinion that cats should be indoor-only animals. Cats allowed to roam outside are at risk of harm (from other cats, raccoons, dogs, poisonous plants, sewer drains, nasty humans, Chevrolets, etc.) and are themselves also a major risk factor for native birds and other wildlife. Agree, disagree, get my point but don’t necessarily buy it…? Sure, all those are options, but having seen the sad evidence of those risks for more than 40 years of caring for both cats and wildlife in shelters, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I am right. Period.

That lecture now over, I will admit to the one downside of the indoor-only cat: the indoor-only litterbox. To be fair, as one of my favorite children’s book’s title names it, “Everyone Poops.”  And as vile as cleaning a litterbox can be (although if cleaned as often as it should be, that vile is actually pretty minimal), cleaning up the carpet from a puppy-in-training is at least as vile, and nothing quite compares with cleaning up what our own species’ young deposit. Which all leads, perhaps circuitously, to the topic for the rest of this column. Why do cats use a litterbox in the first place?

Ancestors of today’s pussycats might have been predators, but those were pretty puny predators in a very predatory world. Several instinctual behaviors we see today are linked to what those ancestors needed to survive in their predator-eat-predator environment. Speed, agility, virtually silent movement. And hiding their presence by, in part, hiding their smelly poops by burying their waste. And if you stop to think about it, burying poop in sand or soft dirt is easier than having to move rocks or dig up rock-hard impacted soil, just as burying poop in sand or soft dirt is far more effective in terms of hiding the smell than is burying poop under dry leafs and twigs. The feel of that sand or soft dirt is comparable to the feel of the various types of cat litter on the market, and also explains why kittens take instinctively to the litterbox and don’t have to be “trained” by adult cats or humans. 

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