Jan 28 2009

Understanding why your cat won’t use the litter box — and what you can do about it

If you are struggling to get your cat to use the litter box, don’t give up hope. Litter box problems are very common, and with patience and consistency, you can help your cat embrace good litter box behaviors.  To help you get your cat “back in the box,” here are some guidelines and tips adapted from the Humane Society of the United States.

Look at things from your cat’s point of view
Most cats prefer eliminating on a loose, grainy substance, which is why they quickly learn to use a litter box. By taking a closer look at your cat’s environment, you should be able to identify factors that have contributed to the problem, and make simple changes that encourage your cat to use the litter box.

There are four common reasons why cats don’t use the litter box:

  • Aversion to the type of box, such as dislike of a covered box.
  • Dissatisfaction with the depth of the litter.
  • Preference for a particular type of litter.
  • Preference for a particular location in the home.

However, the problem may be a combination of multiple factors. To get to the answer, you’ll need to do a little detective work—and remember, the original source of the problem may not be the reason it’s continuing.

For example, your cat may have stopped using the litter box because of a urinary tract infection, and then developed a surface preference for carpet and a location preference for the bedroom closet. If this is the case, you will need to address all three factors to resolve the problem.

Make sure there isn’t a medical problem
If your cat has a house-soiling problem, check with your veterinarian first to rule out any medical problems. Cats don’t always act sick, even when they are, and only a trip to the veterinarian for a thorough physical examination can rule out a medical problem.

It’s common for cats with medical problems to begin eliminating outside of their litter box. For example, a urinary tract infection or crystals in the urine can make urination painful—and both are serious conditions that require medical attention. Cats often associate this pain with the litter box and begin to avoid it.

Clean soiled areas thoroughly
Animals are highly motivated to continue soiling an area that smells like urine or feces, and your cat’s sense of smell is so much stronger than yours, so it’s important to thoroughly and properly clean any soiled areas.

Urine stains will glow in the dark under a fluorescent black light, which you can purchase at a hardware and pet supply store. Stains should be cleaned with an enzymatic cleaner. Strong smelling household cleaners will do little to eliminate the odor or deter your pet from re-marking the area. Be sure to clean the area thoroughly before steam cleaning to avoid “locking in” the odor.

In addition to cleaning thoroughly, you can take steps to make the area where your cat has been eliminating outside the box less appealing. Try covering the area with upside-down carpet runner or aluminum foil, place citrus-scented cotton balls over the area, or put water bowls in the area (because cats often don’t like to eliminate near where they eat or drink).

Use praise, not punishment
Never punish your cat for eliminating outside of the litter box. By the time you find the soiled area, it’s too late to administer a correction.

If you catch your cat in the act of eliminating outside the litter box, do something to interrupt her, such as making a startling noise – but be careful not to scare her. Immediately take her to the litter box and set her on the floor nearby. If she wanders over to the litter box, wait and praise her after she eliminates in the box. If she takes off in another direction, she may want privacy. Watch from a distance until she goes back to the litter box and eliminates, then praise her when she does.

More tips for encouraging good litter box behavior:

  • Keep the litter box extremely clean. If you can smell the box, then you can be pretty sure it’s offensive to your cat as well.
  • Add a new box in a different location, and use a different type of litter in the new box.
  • Make sure that the litter box isn’t near an appliance (such as a furnace) that makes noise.
  • If “ambushing” by another pet or a child is a problem, create more than one exit from the litter box to give your cat an escape route.
  • If you have multiple cats, provide one litter box for each cat, plus one extra box in a different location.
  • If you recently changed the type or brand of cat litter, go back to providing the litter that your cat had been using.
  • If your cat is eliminating on soft surfaces, try using a high-quality scoopable litter.
  • If your cat is eliminating on slick, smooth surfaces, try putting a very thin layer of litter at one end of the box, leaving the other end bare, and put the box on a hard floor.
  • If your cat has a history of being outdoors, add some soil or sod to the litter box.
  • Put at least one litter box on every level of your home (remember, a properly cleaned litter box does not smell).

This information adapted from the HSUS fact sheet Solving Litter Box Problems.

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