Keeping cats indoors prevents potential conflicts with wildlife and exposure to parasites and toxins. If you occasionally (and responsibly, of course) venture outside with your cat however, you might have witnessed her dust bathing.
Why do cats roll in dirt, exactly? While there’s limited research about this topic, our experts offer insights into what may drive cat dust bathing, how to manage it, and potential dangers to take note of.
Why Do Cats Roll in Dirt?
Why do cats roll around on anything? Studies are limited, but our experts shed some light on this common behavior.
They’re Motivated by Scent
Cats rely heavily on their sense of smell to communicate with other cats. In fact, they have scent glands in their paws, cheeks, and around the tail, says Dr. Sasha Gibbons, an associate veterinarian at Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut. These glands, she says, “emit odors that signify to other cats that the space is claimed.”
Cat dust bathing may also be a survival method. “Rolling in dirt that another predator has left his scent in may be a way to disguise the more vulnerable cat’s own scent,” says Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant and owner of The Cat Coach in the San Francisco Bay area.
To Cool Down
On a hot day, a cat rolling in dirt might be a way to seek relief from the heat and sun. You might notice your cat loosening the top layer of dry soil to reveal the cooler layer beneath, says Pam Johnson-Bennett, certified cat behavior consultant, author, and owner of Nashville-based Cat Behavior Associates. “It’s common to see the cat lounging on the cool soil afterward.”
To Relieve an Itch
If your cat has a hard-to-reach itch—which might be a sign of a flea infestation—it may feel good to stretch and roll in the dirt, says Krieger. “The texture of the dirt is perfect for satisfying that itch.”
A Form of Play
A cat rolling in dirt might be trying to initiate play, says Bennett. “Cats don’t have one official play solicitation gesture but a common one seen is rolling from side to side.” If you happen to be outdoors, a cat may roll around in the dirt or grass as a way to initiate play.
A Response to Catnip
Rolling is a common reaction to encountering catnip, says Bennett. Catnip contains a chemical called nepetalactone, which can elicit euphoric behavior, including rolling in the dirt.
As Part of a Courtship Ritual
A female cat may roll on her back, including in the dirt, to show interest to male suitors. This behavior may be accompanied by purring and rubbing up against an object.
Do Cats Roll in the Litter Box?
It’s not as common as frolicking outside in the dirt, but when cats roll in the litter box it’s often for the same reasons.
“Rolling in the litter box is one way a cat may spread additional scent to claim ownership or create a familiar scent,” says Bennett. It’s more common when the box has just been cleaned and contains fresh litter, she adds.
It can occur more frequently in multiple cat households where conflicts are present, Krieger says. “The cat who is being picked on or is the low cat on the totem pole may roll in the litter box. Rolling in litter boxes deposits the scent from the other cats on them.”
There could also be a perceived payoff to performing this behavior. “This has not been researched, but from a behavioral perspective there would be something about the behavior that the cat finds reinforcing, either while they are performing the behavior or immediately afterwards,” says Valli Parthasarathy, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist with Synergy Behavior Solutions in Portland, Oregon.
Are There Dangers for Cats Rolling in Dirt?
Dirt is not necessarily an issue unless it contains hazardous materials. Here are a few to watch out for.
Fleas, ticks, and other parasites can lurk in your soil. “For example, feline roundworm eggs can be found in the soil. If ingested through grooming this can lead to infection. Fleas or ticks can hop or crawl on board if the cat is rolling or resting in the dirt,” says Parthasarathy. Get your cat on flea and tick preventive medication to avoid parasites.
Toxins and Poisons
Any type of chemical solution you use on or around your soil—including pesticides, insecticides, and rodenticides—has the potential to make your cat sick. Weed killers for example, often contain glyphosate, which veterinarians say can cause a variety of symptoms in cats, including vomiting, lethargy, anorexia, respiratory issues, and even death. Always use a pet-safe weed killer if your feline likes to explore outdoors. Even seemingly innocuous flowers like tulips, lilies, and daffodils can be toxic for cats.
“Cats are such efficient self-groomers so if there are any contaminants or chemicals in the soil, there’s a risk of ingestion,” says Bennett. If you’re concerned about your cat being exposed to toxins, she says gently wiping her down with a towel before she starts grooming can help.
Even if you’ve done due diligence in cat-proofing your own yard, do you know what’s in your neighbor’s yard if your cat should accidentally wander away? Remnants of glass or pull tabs from cans, for example, can cause injury.
How to Stop Your Cat From Rolling in Dirt
There’s no way to train this behavior out of a cat, says Dr. Liz Stelow, chief of service of clinical behavior service at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at University of California, Davis. “So, it’s all down to management.”
One obvious solution is to keep your cat indoors. “Provide the cat with textured objects they can rub,” offers Krieger. You’ll often find these objects on cat trees or other cat toys.
What to Consider If You Do Let Your Cat Outside
Since a cat rolling in dirt can be exposed to a number of potential dangers like pesticides, parasites, and predators, taking some preventive steps can help reduce these encounters.
For example, consider building a solid cat enclosure or catio. Or invest in a good cat harness and leash. “This gives the owner control to direct the cat away from dangerous areas outside,” says Gibbons. And it goes without saying, always be nearby to supervise.
“Realistically, the best way to change behavior is to prevent access and then teach an alternative behavior,” says Parthasarathy. “If you are with your cat in an enclosed area, or on leash, you can try redirecting their attention with a toy or treat and moving them away from the dirt.”
If your cat does roll around in the dirt, avoid punishment, says Krieger. Instead, “Give them other things to do that satisfy the reasons for rolling in dirt.”
If you suspect fleas or itchiness is the cause of your cat’s rolling, it’s best to schedule a veterinary appointment to help your cat find relief. If the rolling is an attempt to stay cool, provide other options like fresh, cool water and shaded areas, Bennett offers. “But best of all, keep your cat indoors where you can control the climate for comfort.”
Always check with your veterinarian or a certified cat behaviorist if you have questions or are concerned about your cat’s health or behavior.