cat in litter box pawing at camera

Why Does My Cat Freak Out When I Clean The Litter Box?

Cleaning out a cat’s litter tray should be a straightforward task but sometimes our cats like to get involved and remind us that they are the boss. 

If you have experienced your cat freaking out while you are cleaning out their litter box you might be wondering what is going on. 

Below we have listed the most common reasons cats freak out when the litter box is changed. Following on from the list are top tips that will help make this routine chore a bit less stressful. 

4 Reasons Why Your Cat May Freak Out When Their Litter Box Is Cleaned:

1. They Are Territorial

cats may become territorial about their litter box if a new cat is introduced

The most likely reason your cat is unhappy when you clean out their litter box is that they are territorial. 

Your cat considers the litter box as part of their territory and it is important for them to properly bury their faeces and ensure they are covered.

Having you in their territory digging up their faeces and making changes to their litter is sometimes not appreciated and can cause your cat to freak out.

You might find this odd as, despite everything, cats do appreciate having a clean litter box and won’t use the litter box if it is dirty. 

You can try to deter this behaviour by ensuring there is a reserve litter box that your cat can use while you are cleaning their main one. In some situations, it may be best for you to remove the dirty litter box from the room and clean it elsewhere so your cat cannot sit and watch you while you clean it.

2. To Show Dominance

cat freaking out

The next reason your cat may be freaking out when you are cleaning the litter box is dominance.

A litter box is a place of marking territory and being the first one to the litter box can be a way of demonstrating dominance within the house. If you have more than one cat in the household there will likely be competition around the litter boxes. 

Having you coming and cleaning out the litter box is also removing your cat’s territorial markings. This means as soon as you have finished cleaning your cats will race to mark their spot. Therefore, your cat may be freaking out because they are anxious to get into the litter box to mark their territory.

This probably sounds very familiar. Many cat owners witness this behaviour as their cats are very keen to get into the litter box as soon as they can to demonstrate their dominance within the territory. This is often why cats closely watch their owners clean the litter box. 

3. Due To Stress or Anxiety

wood based cat litter

As many of us know, some cats absolutely hate it when we are touching their stuff. It can make them feel stressed or anxious so they want to stay close and watch exactly what you are doing. 

They may be watching to make sure you don’t move the litter box to another area of the house or to make sure you are not replacing their old litter with a new type of litter that they are unfamiliar with.

You may be doing your cat a favour but for them, you are disrupting their area.

Most cats do not like change and although cleaning the litter tray is a routine job it can take a while for your cat to get used to this.

Hopefully, as they realise you regularly clean the litter tray and nothing bad happens they will soon relax. 

4. They Are Curious 

a curious ginger cat

Your cat may simply just want to watch what you’re doing. 

Cats like to manage their humans and freaking out while you are cleaning the litter tray may be your cat’s way of telling you you aren’t doing it up to their standard.

Cats want to make sure you are not doing anything that will impact their area and sometimes they just need to get used to having you clean it.

If your cat is watching you closely and vocalising at you while you clean (but without showing any aggression) they may simply be curious and trying to explain to you how you should be cleaning the box and what they want you to do. 

What You Can Do:

Having your cat freak out every time you clean their litter is far from ideal.

You need to get them acclimatized to the situation so they know they are safe, their territory remains theirs and they will be able to use the litter box again very soon. 

Knowing what is causing the behaviour is a huge help and the tips below can help you both get onto the same page.

The best ways of reducing stress during litter tray cleaning are:

1. Develop a regular cleaning routine

litter box cleaning

A litter box should be scooped out once or twice a day. This is a quick and simple task that involves a scoop or sifter and nothing more.

Most cats don’t mind this and are more likely to freak out during the big weekly clean. 

The litter box should be fully cleaned once a week or every two weeks (depending on how dirty the litter box becomes).

A full clean means removing all of the litter and scrubbing the box with soap and warm water.

Once the tray is clean and dry you can refill it with fresh cat litter and place it back to the area your cat uses it. The clean litter tray will be good for the next week or two.

Keeping the litter tray clean is essential. If you are having problems with your cat not wanting to use the litter box it can be because it is too dirty.

Keeping to a regular routine will help your cat understand what you are doing and they can begin to expect this cleaning to happen each day/ week.

Even with a regular routine, your cat will probably still want to keep a close eye on you during cleaning but they shouldn’t freak out about it. 

2. Have more than one litter box available for them

white cat looking out of white litter box

If your cat knows they have another litter box around that they can use while you are cleaning one of them this may help them relax.

They will still be eager to mark their territory in the new box but at least they know they have options if needed. 

The general rule of thumb is that you have one litter tray for every cat in the house, plus one.

So if you have one cat have two litter trays, if you have two cats have three litter trays and so on. Having that extra tray is important for your cat to feel comfortable. 

Having more than one tray can help reduce how territorial your cat feels about the tray.

If they only have one tray they will likely feel very protective around it and will become stressed, aggressive or anxious if you do anything that threatens that part of their territory. 

3. Not making any big changes on cleaning days

our cat whisky looks at a bag of cat litter

Not making big changes on cleaning days is very important. Although it would be convenient to do so, never switch the type or brand of litter you are using suddenly.

Any changes you make need to be made gradually and if possible, don’t use the cleaning days to start making these changes.

Sudden changes can stress your cat out and if you’ve made that change when you were cleaning they may associate having you around the litter box to stressful (and unwanted) changes which could lead to more freakouts in the future. 

Being as mindful as possible by cleaning the tray quickly, using the type of litter they are familiar with, the amount of litter they like and repositioning the tray exactly as it was before you cleaned it all go a long way in helping your cat feel comfortable. 

4. Cleaning the litter box in another room away from your cat

environmentally friendly cat litter

If you are having a really hard time cleaning the litter box when your cat is in the same room, try taking the litter box elsewhere to clean it.

This can help reduce your stress and anxiety too. You can clean the litter box in peace without having your cat running around, meowing or pawing at you.

If you do this it is important to make sure you don’t take too long and you place the litter box in exactly the same spot after cleaning. Having the litter box out of the room for too long can stress your cat out so try to be quick.

Note: If you have been cleaning your cat’s litter box regularly for a long time without them freaking out but suddenly they have become uncomfortable with this situation (with no external changes to warrant this) then a trip to the vet may be needed.

This is a new and significant change in behaviour so just make sure everything is okay by getting your cat health checked. 

Reduce Freakouts When Cleaning The Litter Box

To summarise, cats are territorial and don’t like change.

This is a combination that can lead to freak outs when you are cleaning out their dirty litter tray. 

Try to make cleaning the litter tray part of a regular, predictable routine and your cat should feel more relaxed about it.

Keep the number of changes made to a minimum by using the same type of litter and putting the litter box back exactly as it was when you have finished cleaning.

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