Litter box ambushes can be frustrating for cat owners, but are especially upsetting for the cat being attacked. Imagine getting attacked every time you left the bathroom! The name for this behavior is resource guarding, and although it happens most often around litter boxes, it can also happen with food, water, toys, rooms, and even people. Let’s look at why this behavior exists and what you can do to stop it.
Why Cats Resource Guard
To understand a behavior in cats, it’s extremely useful to look at it from an evolutionary standpoint. In the wild, a cat will guard its resources to help increase its chance of survival and the likelihood that it will pass on its genes. Outdoor cats will mainly guard resources like food and shelter.
Indoor cats can still have an insecurity that they need to protect resources from other cats, pets, or even humans. In the beginning, a cat may seem a little over enthusiastic about their resource, or hang around it a bit more, but if there are any signs it’s resource guarding or about to, it’d important to nip it in the bud. Resource guarding behavior can turn aggressive, which is dangerous for people and pets. It can also lead to litter box aversion, causing cats to housesoil outside of the litter box.
Sidebar: Housesoil vs. Mark
Housesoiling is when a cat completely empties their bladder outside of the litter box. This usually occurs on a horizontal surface. There are four reasons for housesoiling:
- Litter box aversion – Doesn’t want to use the actual litter box for some reason including bad past experience (i.e. UTI or diarrhea), box is covered (or uncovered and they prefer the opposite), box isn’t big enough, etc.
- Substrate aversion – Doesn’t like the type of litter being used.
- Surface preference – Simply prefers another surface than the litter (i.e. smooth surface of tile, soft surface of a blanket, etc.)
- Location preference – Doesn’t like the location of the box.
Marking is when a cat sprays a little bit of urine outside of the litter box, usually on a vertical surface. The most common reason for marking is territory marking, but it’s also often stress related. Even neutered and spayed cats can display this behavior.
Signs a Cat Is Resource Guarding a Litter Box
Keep an eye out for these behaviors:
- Guarding the doorway. A cat may lie in front of the door of the room where their litter box is located to keep an eye on anyone getting close.
- Other litter box users attract attention. One cat follows another cat to the box or comes running when they hear the digging sound.
- Slinking and stalking. A cat will walk low to the ground when it’s stalking. If one cat is in the box and the other starts to slink, they are likely planning an ambush.
- Multiple cats run away from the box at one time. Often, this means one interrupted the other and is chasing it away from the box.
- Vocalization near the box. Keep an ear out for growling or hissing around the litter box. One cat using it and vocalizing could mean something medical, but if multiple cats are around the box and it sounds like there’s about to be a brawl, one cat could be guarding the box.
Ways to Stop Litter Box Resource Guarding
Try any or all of these tips if you think you have a litter box resource guarding kitty!
- Increase resources by adding litter boxes. This isn’t just about a number. Although the “rule” is one per cat plus one, I feel the placement and location of these is important. If you have a home that’s multiple stories, put one litter box on each floor, and then add one or two (depending on how many cats you have) to the floor where they spend the most time.
- Strategically position litter boxes to allow for multiple exits. Avoid putting boxes at the end of the hallway or in a closet where there is often one way out. You want to select areas where a cat has more than one route they can take out of the litter box.
- Add a box to the room that’s the issue. Sometimes adding a second box to the room where the guarding is happening can fix the problem. The guarding cat then has more resources, and less of a need to guard. Don’t put the box next to the problem box, because the cat will guard both. Instead, put the second box across or diagonal from the original box.
- Distract stalkers. It’s better to distract the abuser before they even know the other cat is in the box. If you can tell the victim will head to the box, immediately try to distract the abuser with a toy. Automatic toys can be particularly useful since they normally also pair movement and sound, two ways to effectively distract your cat (this is one of my favorites). As long as the abuser hasn’t noticed the other cat going to the litter box, you can distract with a treat as well. But don’t use treats if the abuser knows the victim is heading to the box. You never want to reinforce the behavior with a reward.
Final Note About Resource Guarding
As a general rule, with any resource guarding behavior, if you had resources, the guarding should decrease. This is why I recommend water bowls or fountains on each floor. I also suggest mealtimes spaced out appropriately so everyone is hungry and eats at their bowl and isn’t concerned with what others do. You can also feed the abuser or victim in a separate room to put some space in between them.
As always, consult your vet or a behaviorist if you’re still having issues. They may have additional recommendations for your specific situation. Introducing stress-reducing medication is another tool to promote a harmonious household.