Scratch, scratch, scratch… that sound that precedes Kitty’s triumphant exit. No one will know that he visited the litter box since the evidence has been buried! At least, until his faithful human being plays archaeologists to root out the carefully buried waste. But what's the point of this little game?
Although necessary, cleaning the litter box is viewed by some as a thankless task that lowers the master to the rank of a slave. If you are one of those people who can’t stand kitty’s snobbish look when you are bent over, scoop in hand, here is some news that you might find a bit more flattering: burying his droppings could be a sign of submission for the cat.
To fully understand the nature of this behavior, it is necessary to know that animals communicate not only through sounds and gestures, but also through smells. These chemical signals are conveyed by molecules called pheromones, which can be found in saliva, breath, sweat, urine, and feces. They allow members of a species to send each other messages such as "stay away" or "I am fertile".
If an animal leaves its waste in plain sight, it fills the air with its odorous signature. As a result, the animal marks the territory as its own. Fellow cats can, however, try to mask its scent with their own pheromones, as is the case with dogs, which in turn urinate on a pole to claim ownership. Such provocation can lead to dominance conflicts.
Burying the droppings would be a way for the animal to avoid confrontation. Several feline species therefore bury their hatchet, so as not to get into trouble! Hiding the waste in the ground would also hide their tracks to conceal its presence to potential predators. Discretion guaranteed.
The litter grains scattered out of the bin after a frantic scratching session are therefore one of those little signs that kitty considers you to be the undisputed master of your domain… or that he fears the presence of a predator. Learning can also be a factor: if mommy does it, kitten will, too!
What if kitty imposes the scent of his exposed droppings on you? It may be an act of rebellion, but it may also be a sign of stress or illness. One thing is for sure, it is better to make sure that everything is going smoothly with our companion before jumping to conclusions. After all, they act more out of instinct than out of intention or purpose!
(What a "scoop"!)
by Geneviève Coudé
Our Popsci author-in-chief, Geneviève Coudé, brings us a myriad of fascinating and astonishing facts about our feline companions. Geneviève has a Master of Science in Ecology from Sherbrooke University, in Quebec, Canada. Her passion for sharing scientific knowledge has brought her to write in a variety of scientific medias addressed toward the general public. She currently collaborates on two French-Canadian television shows geared towards introducing adolescents and young adults to the fascinating world of science.