Solving Litter Box Problems

Cats tend to have surface and location preferences for where, and on what, they like to eliminate. Most cats prefer a loose, sandy substance, which is why they will use a litter box. It’s only when their preferences include the laundry basket, the bed or the Persian rug, that normal elimination behaviour becomes a problem.

With careful analysis of your cat’s environment, specific factors that have contributed to the litter box problem can usually be identified and changed, so that your cat will again use the litter box for elimination.

  • Sickness Before trying anything, take your cat to your veterinarian to be sure she is not ill. Urinary tract infections and other diseases can cause cats to quit using their boxes.
  • Spraying If your veterinarian assures you that your cat is perfectly healthy, start looking at how and where she is choosing to go. If she is urine-marking her territory, it has nothing to do with the litter box. Whether male, or female, spayed, neutered, or intact, any cat at any age can start spraying urine to mark their territory as a way of saying “this area is mine.” Your cat’s message could be aimed at your other cats or the cats in your neighborhood. If your community stray marks your bushes, then your cat may be counteracting with a few squirts on the walls and doors to reinforce her claim inside your house. Unlike when your cat normally squats to urinate, when she sprays she will stand, paddle her back feet, vibrate her tail a bit and spray the urine onto a vertical surfaces, like walls and furniture. If you find puddles or feces outside the litter box, then your cat is not spraying.
  • Spite Whatever caused your cat to avoid her litter box, it is definitely not revenge. Cats, unlike emotional humans, do not act out of spite or revenge. You will not get her to use her box by allowing her special privileges.
  • Stress If your cat’s dislike of the box is the only change in her behaviour, stress is not likely the reason. But if her behaviour has changed in other ways, like her sleeping or eating habits or how she acts around you, she may be stressed. If so, ask your veterinarian to examine your cat and help you identify the specific source of the stress.
  • Litter Box Environment More than likely the problem is with the box or its surroundings. She may no longer like where it is located, how it feels, or she may have been scared while using it. It could also be a combination of these things.

How To Fix the Problem Start by asking yourself:
Have I changed the type of litter? Have I moved the box? Am I not cleaning the box as often? Is it a new kind of box? Am I putting in more or less litter than usual? If you answer “yes” to any of the above, change it back.

If you have returned the box to whatever or wherever it was before you changed it, and your cat is still not using it, she may no longer like the location. Start by moving the box to wherever you are finding the puddles or feces. Once she begins using it at this location, slowly (only a few inches a day) move it to where you would prefer it to be. You may have to compromise. Your cat just may not ever want to go where you want the box to be. Even just moving it across the room may not work, because it is closer or farther from a window, a source of heat, or a peculiar noise or smell. Your cat will definitely prefer it to be as far from her dinner bowl as possible.

If you put the box where she has chosen to go, and she still refuses to use it, then she prefers another type of surface, like carpeting or linoleum, or she has developed an aversion to the box itself. Leave the box in her chosen location and change what you put in it. If your cat is using the carpeting, switch to the softer, sand-like, clumping litters or even potting soil, especially if she has an outdoor history. Place a piece of carpeting around the box so she can scratch it after using the box. If she has chosen the slick kitchen floor, try covering the slick bottom of your box with very little litter.

Your cat may not be using the box because it has been dirty or at least not clean enough for her tastes. Even if you are keeping the box clean now, she may still avoid it because she does not realize that it is clean. In this case, confine your cat and her box to a small area, like a utility room or bathroom, for a few hours around the time she is likely to use it. This can help her learn that the box is clean again, and she may start using it wherever you put it. Litter box aversions can also develop if your cat associates unpleasant experiences with being in the litter box. If, while she was using the box, something “bad” happened to her, she may now avoid the box. For instance, if she was startled or frightened by a noise or another animal, if you captured her while she was in the box to give her a pill, or if using the box was painful because of a medical problem, she may be convinced it is a terrible place to be. If this type of aversion has caused the problem, you may need to start over with a new box in a new location with different litter material so that the things your cat associates with the unpleasant experience no longer exist. To ensure that she is not frightened again, place the box in a quiet, out-of-the-way area where other cats cannot ambush her. And never let anyone bother her while she uses the box, including other pets, children and adults.

Make your litter box attractive by:

  • Keeping it clean
  • Getting a bigger box
  • Adding or removing the cover
  • Decreasing the depth of the litter
  • Using softer, finer litter, like the clumping litters or soft soil
  • Placing the box in a quiet place
  • Placing it where the user cannot be ambushed or disturbed
  • Putting carpet or a rug around the outside so your cat can scratch it after using the box.

Punishment and Confinement
Rewarding or punishing your cat will not convince her to use her box, because neither method solves the problem of why she quit in the first place. For the same reason, confining your cat and her litter box for days in a small area generally does not work either. If you have tried confining your cat, and she uses the box when confined but not when she is loose, the cause of the problem still has not been solved. So you must really think like a cat to figure out what the problem might be. To you, the litter box is the same no matter where it is, but your cat may see things differently. To her the litter box she used while confined did not remind her of the scary experiences, but the box back in its original location did. So fool your cat by starting over with a new box.

Or your cat may use the box when confined because it is more attractive than any other surface or location available at that time. But when she is loose, the box takes a lowly second or third place to her other preferred areas. You must make her box more to her liking using the ideas already mentioned.

Breaking the Habit
To discourage your cat from using the soiled areas, first clean them to remove all the scent. Do not judge the cleanliness by your nose, because your cat’s nose is much more sensitive. Use an enzymatic pet deodorizer from a pet supply store. Make the soiled areas unpleasant to your cat by placing a strong odor, such as perfume or muscle rubs, in the area. Uncomfortable textures can also deter your cat from using that area, like double-sided sticky tape, sandpaper, aluminum foil, or an upside-down carpet runner. You might try temporarily covering the area with a piece of furniture. If you just make the soiled areas unpleasant and do not find out why your cat’s litter box habits changed, then she will just pick a new area to soil. The cause of the problem must be identified and resolved. Just don’t lose patience. Something happened to stop your cat from using her box. Until you can find out why and correct it, nothing will make her use it again. You may have to try six types of litter, nine locations, or cleaning it twice a day, but you will find the right combination. And that warm, rumbling bundle of fur will be more than enough reward.