If you’ve ever faced the challenge of a cat not using its litter box, you’re not alone. At least 10% of cats have litter box problems. These are one of the most common reasons cats are surrendered to shelters. To spare your cat this fate, there are a couple of things you can do. The first step is to take your cat to the vet. If your cat receives a clean bill of health, the next step is try behavioral intervention.
It is my general opinion that cats don’t stop using the litter box out of spite or anger towards you. They usually have a problem that they need help with.—Dr. Megan Ehlers, Ehlers Animal Care
According to Dr. Jody Jones-Skibinski of Cotner Pet Care, refusal to use a litter box should be considered a medical condition until proven otherwise. Dr. Megan Ehlers of Ehlers Animal Care agrees, saying that by inappropriately urinating or defecating, a cat might be conveying that something about their health is off. Dr. Jen Hiebner of Pitts Veterinary Hospital wrote that the right time to call a vet about bathroom issues is “ANYTIME!” She advised that early intervention is vital.
What medical problems could cause a cat to stop using the litter box? Dr. Hiebner cited urinary issues such as infections, stones, or inflammation of the bladder. “Any of these can cause an increase in urinary frequency as well as pain and can cause the cat to seek more convenient places to urinate.” Dr. Jones-Skibinski offered the hypothetical example of Betty, a cat that was caught urinating outside the litter box. “A bladder infection was the final diagnosis. The infection caused the bladder to become more and more painful as it stretched to hold urine, until Betty couldn’t hold it anymore and urinated wherever she was to remove the pain.”
All three vets I consulted also advised that arthritis or general pain can be another reason that cats stop using the litter box. Unfortunately, pain is often overlooked in cats because they don’t always show obvious signs of discomfort. If your cat starts eating less, sleep more, or otherwise change its routines, you should take your cat to the vet. These symptoms may indicate an illness, which could also cause anxiety, depression, or other forms of stress, and lead to inappropriate urination.
A likely culprit in older cats is kidney disease which is a leading cause of death in cats. Knowing the risk factors and early signs is the best way to catch the disease while it can still be managed. Kidney failure is always on my radar, because my first cat died from it.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Dr. Hiebner advises cat owners to encourage their cats’ intake of water, which can help prevent many medical causes of bathroom issues. This can be done by keeping fresh water available, using water fountains, and restricting cats to canned food. Dr. Hiebner added that “Prescription foods are available to neutralize urine pH, decrease crystals, and can even contain supplements to help reduce stress in your cat.”
Stress can be reduced with Feliway (a calming hormone diffuser or spray), Zylkene (a milk protein that helps calm the brain), homeopathics (holistic approach to medicine) or even prescription stress medications. Arthritis or other medical issues can be treated both medically and homeopathically. Medications can be given in pill form, mixed with food, by injection or made into liquids or even transdermals which can be applied to the skin. Veterinarians have multiple options to help your feline friend be healthy and happy.—Dr. Jen Hiebner, Pitts Veterinarian Hospital
Underlying many of these issues is stress. Despite the happy appearance of your cat, life can be scary. Seeing a cat outside, adding new family members, or simply moving the furniture can be enough to stress your cat. Stress can cause a negative association with the litter box.—Dr. Jen Hiebner, Pitts Veterinarian Hospital
If no medical problems are found to explain your cat’s litter box issues, don’t give up hope. Behavioral issues can be treated. Below are ways to encourage cats to use a litter box.
Kittens: Contrary to widespread belief, kittens aren’t born knowing how to use a litter box. In the case of orphaned kittens, they may randomly choose a spot for their bathroom needs, and this could be your carpet or clothes. To prevent these accidents, you’ll need to place the kitten in a litter box after naps, meals, and play. You can further help your kitten by taking her front paws and showing her how to scratch the litter. My husband and I had to do this for a feral kitten that we rescued. If you show a kitten how to use the litter box a few times, she should catch on. Normally, by the time kittens are four-weeks-old, they’ll have been taught what and where the bathroom is by their moms. Even so, one of the first things you should do when you bring home a new kitten is to show it where the litter boxes are.
Strays: The same steps apply to a stray cat, except you might need to start with the material he most likely used outside, such as soil, sand, leaves, or grass. Make the switch by slowly changing the amount of old litter to new litter over several weeks. A stray cat will have had many sites to choose from; a negative experience could drive him to seek out a more secluded spot that will be less desirable to you such as the back of a closet. Make the litter box a desirable place by playing with him before putting down food, and after he’s eaten call him. Even if he doesn’t use the litter box, further encourage him by heaping on the praise for hopping into the litter box. The more positive his experience with the litter box, the more likelihood he’ll want to use it.
Occasional Litter Box Users: What about a cat who only sometimes misses the litter box? First, never punish her when she’s near the litter box. You’ll be teaching her that the litter box is a bad place, and she’ll be more likely to avoid it in the future. Second, clean and treat all soiled areas with an odor-neutralizing product. Third, if possible, visually change the most often soiled areas by adding a lampstand, an end table, or whatever would be suitable in those locations. Finally, if your cat sniffs around a forbidden area, redirect her gently but firmly towards the litter box.
Always Missing the Litter Box: If your cat stops using the litter box entirely, put on your problem-solving hat by asking yourself the following questions:
- Is the litter box clean? At least once a day, scoop pee and poop from the box and replace old litter with about an inch of fresh litter. No less than once a month, clean the litter box with water. A little vinegar or lemon juice added to the water will help neutralize odors.
- Is the litter box in the right location? Cats don’t like to soil the areas close to where they sleep or eat, so don’t put the litter box near these. They also prefer quiet and calm spots. Dr. Hiebner pointed out that if the boxes are in a utility room or basement, there may be noises that will cause your cat to avoid the area. If you have more than one cat, make sure the litter box isn’t in a location where one cat can corner the other. Cats should always have an escape route. If you have a dog that hangs around when your cat is using the litter box, Pet Coach suggests using a baby gate to block its access to that room. Place the gate a few inches off the floor so that only your cat can get under it or place the gate close to the floor and put a stool on both sides to help your cat jump over it. Finally, all three vets I consulted said that if there’s anything around the litter box that is causing your cat obvious stress, you either need to remove those things or relocate the litter box, as this might be reason enough for your cat to avoid 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. 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.
- Is the litter the right type? Most cats prefer unscented, clumping litter. However, cats can be choosy about litter, so you should experiment with several types.
- 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!
If your cat is still occasionally or regularly missing the litter box, you might need to retrain him. Start by limiting your cat to a single room, preferably one with non-porous floors. Petfinder recommends a bathroom, which offers him privacy but also ensures he won’t be alone for prolonged periods of time. Provide him with 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 he’s been successfully using only the litter box for at least a week, if possible, 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 on his own, begin to cut back on the supervision. Do not rush this process; instead focus on building a solid foundation to set your cat up for success. Dr. Hiebner recommended also trying “Feliway” which is a calming hormone diffuser or spray that makes a cat feel more secure or “Cat Attract” which is an herbal additive designed to attract cats to the litter box.
Changing a behavior problem related to the litter box may take patience. The cause has to be found, changes need to be made, and then finally determining the response to the adjustments.–Dr. Jody Jones-Skibinski , Cotner Pet Care
The above article is based on research, personal experience, and consultation with vets. My deepest gratitude goes to Dr. Ehler, Dr. Hiebner, and Dr. Jones-Skibinski who offered their expert advice on bathroom issues and cats.