Litterbox derby

Your cat finishes his business in the litterbox – then takes off at a dead run, racing around like he's on fire. Some people call it "the poo gallop," others "the victory lap," but whether they've named the phenomenon or not, most cat owners have witnessed it. (Often at 3 AM!)

Why do some cats react to a bowel movement with a series of speed trials? We asked a few veterinarians to explain.

Thinking outside the box

Alas, a single definitive answer failed to emerge, so let's address the most important question first: if your cat is acting out the running of the bulls at Pamplona after she goes to the bathroom, should you worry?

Maybe. A few of the vets we asked theorized that "poo gallop" is a reaction to a painful or upsetting bowel movement. Animal behavior consultant Amy D. Shojai says, "Cats associate the litter box with what happens there -- pleasant, uncomfortable, or anything in between. That's why some cats will snub the box after a bout of diarrhea or constipation, because they 'blame' the box/location on the discomfort." Sprinting away from the box could be the cat wanting to put "as much distance as possible" between herself and a bad toileting experience.

Valarie V. Tynes, a DVM and veterinary behaviorist, agrees that, if your cat only does this after going Number Two, there may be "some type of pain or discomfort associated with the act of defecation." If your feline seems to be "in distress, versus playing," suggests Florida vet Melissa Adamson, get her checked out by a vet to make sure the running isn't a symptom of a digestive or other medical problem, like impacted anal sacs, or a ribbon your cat ate when you weren't looking.

And keep an eye on overweight and/or longhaired cats, who may have more difficulty keeping the back room tidy, Lynnfield, MA vet Diana Watkins says. Longhaired cats may try to "outrun" feces or litter caught in their fur, "as if to rid themselves of their pursuing offender." A cat with unwanted passengers in the back seat, Watkins says, "will gallop along, then stop suddenly and furiously lick in the area of the rear end." Any cat can occasionally ingest a long human hair by mistake, and this hair could have trouble making its way out. Catching your little Olympian, and giving the hindquarters a quick inspection and brushing, might take care of it – but if you see a rash or other skin irritation in that area, call your vet.

If the mad-dash behavior is paired with diarrhea that's lasted longer than a day or two, or if the cat is vomiting, not eating, or acting otherwise listless, again: get the vet clinic on the phone just in case.

Call the vet, or call of the wild?

Maybe, though, it's not medical. Maybe your cat doesn't care for the brand or type of litter you use, or the specific litterbox set-up, Tynes theorizes; the big rush could mean that "they don't like the box, and are in a hurry to get away from it because they feel it is unsafe or somehow unpleasant." Similarly, a post-bowel-movement steeplechase could signal territory issues in a multi-cat household. Shojai posits that, if "another cat 'owns' the facilities," then "the potty duty has to be done surreptitiously and then [the cat will] run like mad to keep from being punished by the King Cat." DVM Cathy Alinovi has a comparable theory – "underlying, background stress" in the cat's environment may prompt a fight-or-flight response immediately after a movement.

Or maybe it just smells horrible, Shojai suggests, "and they want to get away." (We can't say we've never run away from the litterbox after a feline "drops a bomb," so we certainly don't blame them for doing it.)

If you think your cat's disdain for clay litter, or a bathroom-traffic issue, is behind the litterbox derby at your house, experiment with a new litter material; add or subtract a litter-box cover; or add a box elsewhere in the house. (If you think it's the smell, there's not much you can do except light a match.)

But if the 'Chariots of Fire' routine doesn't bother you, and if it doesn't really seem to bother the cat? You may have to accept it as just one of those kooky things cats do. Adamson hasn't seen her own cats take a "victory lap," but her small dog does do it: "I often joke that it's after lightening the load that these animals feel light as a feather, and therefore like to run around in joy." Shojai thinks that's eminently possible, remarking that "a comfortable bowel movement could offer such wonderful relief and feeling of 'light-on-their-paws' exuberance that the kitty must celebrate with a mad dash about the house!"

And Watkins wonders if perhaps the act of digging around in the litter brings the cat back to her collective-unconscious past: "I imagine the innate 'cat behavior' of scratching reminds the cat of other natural instincts, such as chasing prey." Scratching may lead to the release of endorphins, which in turn "causes the cat to act innately 'cat-like' and race about wildly."

Do your cats take "victory laps"? Is it the brand of litter, the stench, or a total mystery? Do you have your own name for this behavior? Gallop over to the comments and let us know.

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