Troubleshooting Litterbox Issues

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A cat sits in front of her litterbox

Don’t get discouraged! It may take some troubleshooting, but you will be able to find a solution that works for you and your cat.

It can be frustrating when a cat won’t use her litter box, but don’t give up! Usually this litter box problem is a sign of something else, and it’ll just take a little detective work to figure out what your cat is trying to tell you.

Start with these steps:

Get a veterinary exam to rule out a medical cause. Litter box issues can be a cat’s way of letting you know something is wrong. Cats can suffer from urinary tract infections (UTI), bladder infections, emergency urinary blockages, arthritis, musculoskeletal pain, and other conditions that may affect their litter box habits.

Consider your cat’s spay or neuter status. If your cat isn’t spayed or neutered, what you think is peeing outside the litter box may actually be spraying and marking. These behaviors are strongly associated with mating, and usually stop after your cat is spayed or neutered.

Litter Box Problem Prevention, Solutions and Explanations

Once you’ve ruled out a medical issue or mating behaviors, it’s time to look at other reasons why your cat may be eliminating (pooping and peeing) outside the litter box.

Here are some solutions that will make life better for your cat and you. We’ve included an explanation for each so you know what your cat may be thinking.

Be patient and try the following solutions until you find what works for your cat.

Solution: Create a calming environment for your cat by establishing a strict routine for feeding and play. Try using pheromone sprays like Feliway® and Rescue Remedy® or special treats such as Composure Soft Chews. These can be found at many pet stores or online.

Explanation: If your cat is generally stressed, she may be communicating that through the change in her litter box behavior. Maybe you’ve moved, or you have a new baby, or a new cat. Changing their environment or routine can stress cats, and sometimes that stress can even lead to a medical issue like a UTI. Reducing that stress as much as possible may solve the issue.

Solution: Keep the litter box cleaner. Try scooping the box more times per day and be sure to completely clean the boxes every week.

Explanation: Cats don’t want to step in a dirty litter box. Some are more sensitive to an unclean environment than others.

Solution: Provide litter boxes that are shallow so your cat can climb in easier.

Explanation: If it’s too hard for your cat to get in the litter box, she may go elsewhere. This is especially true for small kittens, older cats, and special-needs cats.

Solution: Use a bigger litter box and/or uncover it if it’s covered. Place it in an area where the cat can see her surroundings and has multiple escape routes.

Explanation: Your cat might feel cramped or trapped in her litter box, which makes her feel unsafe. Or she may just not fit in the box at all! When in doubt, go bigger.

Solution: If you have an uncovered litter box, try a covered one.

Explanation: While some cats feel safer with an open litter box, others feel more protected when it’s covered.

Solution: If there’s a thin layer of litter in the box, put in more. If there’s a thick layer of litter, put in less.

Explanation: Your cat may think there is too much or too little litter in the box for their comfort.

Solution: Make sure the litter box is in a quiet location away from foot traffic, or put another litter box in such an area. If you know your cat feels comfortable in a specific space or room, place it there.

Explanation: The litter box may feel like it’s unsafe or lacks privacy. Cats want to go in areas where they feel protected and away from commotion.

Solution: Put the litter box in a place where dogs or kids can’t access it. Then everyone will be safe!

Explanation: Cats may be stressed by the presence of others near their litter, especially very active or loud children and dogs.

Solution: If you have multiple cats, make sure you have one litter box per cat plus one other. Set them all in different locations so the cats have options.

Explanation: Cats are territorial and may be too stressed to use the litter box if they’re competing with another cat. Sometimes, cats will even chase each other away from the box or wait outside of it to jump on a cat who emerges.

Solution: If you live in a multi-story home, have a litter box on every floor.

Explanation: Cats can have occasional accidents if they don’t have a litter box nearby when they need to go. This is especially true of kittens, older cats, and special-needs cats.

Solution: Try a different brand of litter. Use unscented litter if you haven’t been, because cats dislike strong smells. Keep trying different litters until you find the right one. You can even try setting multiple boxes, all with different litters in them.

Litter types include:

  • Shredded paper
  • Pellet style
  • Pine
  • Corn
  • Clay
  • Sand
  • Clumping
  • “Attraction” scent

Explanation: If your cat doesn’t like the type of litter you’re using, try another variety. For clues, pay attention to where your cat is eliminating outside the box. If your cat is going on a smooth surface, try keeping the box empty. If she’s going on carpet, try putting towels in the box.

Solution: Clean up any accidents outside the box with enzymatic cleansers specially designed to eliminate pet odors, which you can find at most pet stores.

Explanation: If your cat is still smelling her elimination in an area she’s not supposed to go, she’ll keep thinking it’s a bathroom.

Solution: Move the litter box to the area your cat is eliminating. If you can’t, make the area less appealing as a bathroom by laying upside-down carpet runners, sticky tape, or crinkly foil in that spot.

Explanation: Your cat has decided she wants to go in a certain spot and really doesn’t want to stop. After all, cats really like routine.

Solution: Help your cat associate the litter box with something positive. Get a new box, and change the box’s location.

Explanation: Your cat may associate using the litter box with a stressful experience, whether it was a scary noise while she was in the box or a past medical issue that made it painful to eliminate. You’ll have to try and give her new, positive associations with the litter box.

Is Your Cat Still Not Using the Litter Box?

Consider consulting a cat behaviorist. A professional may be able to pinpoint the cause by observing your cat’s behavior. You can also learn more about cat behavior with our Cat Behavior webinar series.

As a last resort, you may consider behavior-modifying medication. Ask your veterinarian about these options and possible side effects.

DO NOT:

  • Rub the cat’s nose in her own waste. This will never work and will only serve to stress your cat.
  • Place the cat by force in the litter box. It could cause your cat to develop a negative association with the box.
  • Yell at the cat. This will only cause fear, not solve the issue.

And don’t get discouraged! It may take some troubleshooting, but you will be able to find a solution that works for you and your cat.

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