How to Help Your Cat Use the Litter Box

My cat goes outside his box if he has a UTI.—Kendra Szudlo

It wasn’t my cat but a co-worker’s cat. His female cat was picky about how clean the litter box was.—Tanner Leapaldt

My cat was going to the bathroom under my bed instead of in the litter box.—Ryleigh Lenn

One cat was pooping on the floor by the box. This happened for five months.—Alison Kortefay

We moved and got a kitten all within the same weekend. I think it was too much for my first cat and so he started peeing on my stuff.—Morgan Fahrnbruch

At least 10% of all cats have litter box problems. Of our family’s cats, two have at some point eliminated outside the litter box. Within online cat behavior groups, at least one question a day is about a cat’s litter box problems. Often these frustrated owners are ready to surrender their cat if a solution isn’t found. Indeed, research shows that inappropriate elimination is one of the most common reasons cats are surrendered to shelters. The topic is so important that I decided I should write about it again.

MEDICAL REASONS

Founder of Your Online Vet, Dr. Leigh Davidson, says in her article that there many reasons why a cat might stop using the litter box. She offered the following medical checklist, and says a trip to the veterinarian should occur if an owner answers yes to any of these questions:

  • Is your cat drinking more than usual and urinating more than usual, and occasionally aren’t able to reach the litter box in time?
  • Is your cat dribbling urine throughout the house?
  • Is your cat straining to urinate?
  • Does your cat have trouble getting into the litter tray?
  • Does your cat’s urine have blood in it?
  • Is your cat disorientated or meowing at night?

Cat behavior consultant, Marci Koski, said when she works with clients, she too starts by ruling out medical issues. “I usually recommend that the cat gets checked by a veterinarian for any signs of a urinary tract or bladder infection or for urinary crystals.”

BEHAVIOR REASONS & INTERVENTIONS

What happens if your cat receives a clean bill of health? The next step is to put on your detective hat, start observing behaviors, and begin trying to problem solve. The Humane Society of United States, in its course Cat Behavior and Retention, categorizes behavioral reasons for litter box problems in three ways:

  • Litter box setup
  • Environment
  • Tensions in a multi-cat home

Litter box setup

All cats will have their own preferences, which can affect whether they use their litter box. In addition, according to Koski, “As cats get older, their tolerance level for stress decreases, and having a subpar litter box setup can definitely increase stress levels. One day, your cat might decide he’s had enough.” Koski said when she works with clients to correct litter box issues, her goal is to set up a litter box the cat can’t turn down. The following checklist (which is an expanded version of the one that appeared in my article titled ‘When Your Cat Won’t Use the Litter box’) will help you achieve the goal of the irresistible litter box.

  • Is the litter box clean? Once or twice a day, scoop pee and poop from the box and replace old litter with about an inch of fresh litter. At least once a month, clean the litter box with water. Add a little vinegar or lemon juice to the water to neutralize odors.
  • Is the litter box in the right location? Cats don’t like to soil their sleeping and eating areas. Ideally, you should place litter boxes in a separate room. Don’t place the litter box in high-traffic areas, but also don’t place it too far off the beaten path. Avoid closets, basements, and garages. Koski explained that because cats always like to have an escape route, “They need a litter box location where they can see the room, and where there are no potential ambush points.” Finally, if there’s anything around the litter box that is causing your cat stress, you need to remove those things or relocate the litter box.
  • Is the litter box the right type? Some cats fear covered litter boxes that hinder escape, while others feel more secure in them. Similarly, some cats detest the noise of self-scooping boxes while others aren’t bothered.
  • Is the litter box the right size? Cats need to have room to turn around and give the litter a few kicks. Koski recommended a litter box at least 1.5 times the length of your cat (not including the tail). Also, it’s recommended that the sides be six inches high, but kittens and seniors will need at least one lower side.
  • Do you have enough litter boxes? The rule of thumb is to have at least one more than the number of cats, and to have at least one on each level of your home that your cats inhabit.
  • Is the litter the right type? If your cat perches on the edge of the litter box and runs out without scratching the litter, chances are the texture or smell doesn’t appeal. Cheryl Melton, founder of the online group Helping Cats with Behavioral Issues, suggested going to back to the basics if there’s an issue with litter. Melton said, “Give cats what they naturally crave, sand-like litter that they can dig in—similar to what they’d have in the wild—and work from there to see what else they might like.”
  • Did you change anything in your house around the time your cat stopped using the litter box? It could be as simple as a new mat underneath the litter box. If so, change it back!

Environment

Cats are creatures of habit. Any change to their environment can cause them stress. Eliminating outside the litter box might be their way of voicing their dislike of a situation.

HSUS, in its course Cat Behavior and Retention, offers the following examples to help determine environmental stressors:

  • Urinating near windows and doors: There may be outdoor cats nearby that are creating stress for your indoor cat.
  • Eliminating outside the box when no one is home: This may be a reaction to a stressor that occurs in your absence.
  • Eliminating outside the box at night: There may be other outdoor animals nearby, or your cat may have declining senses.
  • Urinating on clothes, shoes, or bedding: There may be an environmental stressor such as a new baby in the home, and your cat may be meshing her scent with your scent to self-soothe.

Tensions in a multi-cat home

If you find urine on vertical objects or in a horizontal line, and/or you have witnessed your cat spraying, this marking behavior often suggests multi-cat tensions. A territorially insecure cat might squat or spray to claim areas. Conversely, a territorially dominant cat may mark to display victory or confidence, or in response to a threat. Whatever the situation, the cat is stressed, and the home environment needs to be modified. HSUS suggests, “Regardless of whether this cat is high or low status in the household hierarchy, we’re going to recommend the adding of vertical space, ensuring there are more than enough resources so that the cats don’t feel in competition, the providing of lots of interactive play, and giving the cats a reason to like each other utilizing highly valued treats/food.”

Whether or not cats are stressed because of environmental changes or tensions in a multi-cat home, Koski emphasized the importance of play. She said, “Play is a great way to provide physical and mental stimulation, reduce boredom, provide an outlet for excess energy, build confidence by encouraging natural predatory behaviors, and improve the human-cat bond. I recommend daily play sessions with your cat using an interactive wand toy with various lures to replicate prey items. Try to get your cat to engage by staring, stalking, chasing, and grabbing their prey!”

CAUTIONS

In addition to trying to problem-solve why your cat might have stopped using the litter box, Dr. Davidson stresses that cat urine contamination in the home must be dealt with as soon as possible so that your cat doesn’t become a repeat offender. She explains, “Cat urine contains urea that converts into ammonia as well as a type of pheromone 3-mercapto-3-methylbutan-1-ol (MMB), a compound that gives cat urine its typical odor. When cat urine dries, both the stains and smell become near impossible to remove, but they’re important to remove to prevent your cat using the floor as its toilet again.”

Start by finding the spots where your cat has urinated by using a blacklight (ultraviolet light) to highlight the stains. Next, clean and treat the spots with an odor-neutralizing product. Davidson notes, “Ordinary household cleaners won’t do the job properly as they can’t break down the chemical bonds in uric acid. You need to purchase special enzymatic cleaners. They target uric acid and remove the lingering smell.” After treating the soiled areas, visually change the most damaged by adding whatever furniture that would be suitable in those locations.

Even after you’ve disinfected your home, you may find that you’ll need to retrain your cat to use the litter box. If your cat sniffs around a forbidden area, redirect your cat gently but firmly towards the litter box. If your cat successfully uses it, reward with playtime and/or treats.

At no point should you punish your cat. Punishment can scare your cat into using the bathroom in secret, erode the bond between the two of you, and cause your cat to fear you. The latter could lead to aggressive behavior. HSUS states that punishing a cat can also cause a vicious cycle: “The cat gets more stressed and is less likely to use the litter box (or more likely to scratch furniture or bully the other cat) and then the owners get more upset and so the cycle continues. If the cat does pee again inappropriately, just take a deep breath and clean it up. There’s a good chance the issue can be resolved, but the cat has to feel comfortable in the home.”

Should you feel at your limit, it might be beneficial for you and your cat to take a break from one another and from the situation. Do this by confining your cat to a single room or a kennel. Either option will give you the time you need to calm down, after which you’ll be more likely to remember why you love your cat and to think clearly about what your cat might be trying to tell you through inappropriate elimination.

Should you decide to confine your cat to a single room, you can find the process described at PetFinder. Basically, provide bedding, water, and food on one end of the room, and a freshly cleaned litter box at the other end. A regular feeding schedule is also encouraged so your cat will develop a corresponding bathroom schedule. After your cat’s been successfully using only the litter box for at least a week, allow him access to other rooms one at a time. The best time to let him roam is right after he’s used the box. When your cat reliably returns to the litter box, begin to cut back on the supervision.

Should you decide to confine your cat to a kennel, check out Melton’s article: “Kenneling for Retraining Purposes.” Melton successful used kenneling to help a scared and depressed cat named Trixie. “I literally was loading her up in a crate to take her to the vet to euthanize her, because her issues were so extreme that I couldn’t do it anymore. Then I thought of a crate, like when people crate their dogs. It saved her life. She blossomed in her crate and soon started coming out more and more. She lived a good long life after that. Trixie is the very cat that started me on helping cats now like I try to do.

CONCLUSION

Given that at least 10% of all cats have litter box problems, chances are good that many of my readers have personally experienced this problem. Sometimes the solutions will be medical. When my first cat peed in my suitcases, I took her to the vet who diagnosed Lucy with a urinary tract infection and treated her with medication. Sometimes the solutions will be behavioral. When another of our cats eliminated inappropriately, the reason turned out to be an environmental stressor, and all she needed was time to adjust to our new house.

Of course, not all the situations will have simple solutions. When Lucy began missing the litter box, I took her to the vet who diagnosed her with chronic kidney failure, for which there is no cure. We lost Lucy just weeks later. Koski shared a story about one of her clients: “I had one client who knew that one of her four cats were urinating outside of the litter boxes that they’d set up.  When I used a black-light to find urine spots, it was far worse than my client imagined. There was urine in EVERY room of the house, all over the carpets and stairs.  It seemed like this cat was going everywhere EXCEPT the litter boxes! But this was because all of the litter boxes were in one corner of the garage, right next to the food and water for all the cats.  Among other things, I recommended that the food and water stations be moved indoors and separated so that the cats could eat a reasonable distance from each other. I also recommended that the litter boxes be separated and put into different areas of the house.” Within a week or two of the client implementing the changes, the cat was using the litter boxes consistently.

Melton says that the best way to handle any problems with our cats is to be proactive and get to know our cats long before any problems arise: “We really need to learn our cat.  Not just get a cat, bring it home, play a bit, scoop the box, put down the food/water, we need to invest in their lives to learn their way of communicating with us so that we can catch issues as soon as possible and reach out for help. That way, we can provide the very best life we can for them.”

This information is available as a checklist. Click here to download.

It’s their way of communicating to you that something may be wrong. A trip to the vet may be necessary.—Kendra Szudlo

By my co-worker making sure he scooped consistently, his cat is now using the boxes instead of his bed.—Tanner Leapaldt

Bought a second box and this problem is no longer happening.—Alison Kortefay

We tried scooping both boxes more often, but he continued to pee outside the litter box on my stuff. He doesn’t pee anywhere else in the house as long as we keep him out of our room. That has what worked for us.—Morgan Fahrnbruch

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