What to Do When Your Cat Refuses to Use the Litter Box

Cats always potty in their kitty bathrooms — except when they don't. Here's some advice.

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The first thing to do is to take her to the vet for a full checkup. By: eviltomthai

We recently received this question from a reader:

“I got two kittens from two different litters from the SPCA in July. One was 2 months old, and the other was 5 months. From day one, there was no problem with potty training. Both cats shared the box. But right before Thanksgiving, the younger cat, as we finally determined, was pooping right next to the box. We’re pretty sure she pees in the box, though. She’s a happy and affectionate cat and gets along very well with her older brother. We have tried soft love to tough love, but nothing is working. Help!” —Glen

Congratulations on your new additions! Like all smart cat people, you wisely adopted two kittens instead of one, so you’re probably enjoying some amusing kitty antics. Aren’t they adorable?

But they’re not so cute when they don’t use their litter boxes. Cat poo is one of the vilest smells on the planet, and nothing tops the ammonia-scented odor of cat pee. When they use their boxes, the smell is contained, but when they don’t use the box? It can take years and multiple cleanings to remove the stench, and even then you can expect the ghost of cat pee to return whenever it rains.

For cats, who prefer things neat and tidy, litter box training isn’t difficult. In fact, some cats seem to be born knowing where to potty! So why is it that your cat won’t poo in the litter box?

Cats Can’t Talk

If your cat starts peeing or pooing outside her box, the first thing you should do is take her to the vet for a full checkup, including blood, urine and fecal exams. Your cat can’t speak human or use a keyboard, so she can have a hard time telling you if something is wrong.

Changes in behavior, especially elimination, can be a strong warning signal that your cat is feeling under the weather. To be safe, make sure there isn’t a medical reason for her new behavior.

Cats are Fussy

Unlike dogs, who enjoy rolling in all sorts of unpleasant things, cats are fussy and fastidious, especially about their bathroom habits. If they don’t like the litter you’re using, they’ll let you know by refusing to potty on it.

If you don’t keep the litter box clean enough for their liking, they won’t use it. If you’ve recently changed the kind of litter you buy, change it back. Scoop at least once a day, preferably twice.

Cats Don’t Like to Share

Even though your cute kittens may have shared everything since you adopted them, they might be at the age when they need their own space.

Your Pretty Princess could be letting you know that her big brother doesn’t keep the bathroom clean enough for her. (For people like Glen who have multi-cat households, read the very good primer from Dr. Deb on keeping the peace in the house.)

So Glen, get another litter box. Although some cat behaviorists recommend two boxes per cat, I have found that one per cat suffices. Let’s hope your kitten’s sibling will stay out!

Cats Love Revenge

If you can’t resolve the problem with any of the above solutions, you probably have a behavioral problem on your hand.

In other words, your cat is ticked off at you and getting her revenge by pooping where she’s not supposed to.

  • Did you serve dinner too late?
  • Work too many hours that day?
  • Have a new baby, adopt a new pet, move the furniture, change the cat litter, change the brand of food you give her?

Any these slights could be the cause of your cat’s naughty behavior. Finding the cause can be tricky, so start by correcting any easy changes. Move the furniture back, return to the former cat litter or food and do anything else — short of giving away the baby — to return your pet’s environment to how it used to be.

The most likely cause, however, is that your cat wants more attention from you. If she feels like you’re ignoring her, she’ll punish you by exacting revenge. Thwart her vengeance by setting aside time during the day to pet her, play with her and give her treats.

Cats Are Mystifying

If you’ve eliminated the possibility of medical, environmental or simple behavioral issues, you’re one lucky dog. If not, welcome to my life.

I adopted my cat Annie when she was only a few weeks old. At the time, I had another female cat and was a dozen years away from becoming a dog person. All that changed after I got married and adopted my first dog, and then my second, and third, and fourth… Although the kitties were safely ensconced in our sunny guest room, which was plenty large for two 16-year-old cats.

But then Lucy, Annie’s longtime companion, died of kidney disease, and I began boarding dogs in earnest. Although I found it annoying, it was no surprise when Annie started to pee on the bed. After going through the checklist, I accepted that the only way she’d stop was for me to get rid of all the dogs, and that wasn’t going to happen.

I wasn’t able to heal the wound, but I found an excellent Band-Aid: a waterproof mattress pad with the sides cut off, spread over the made-up bed. Yeah, it’s not a solution, but it keeps the bed dry and clean.

I wish you luck resolving your kitty’s potty problems. Be sure to report back and let us know how it goes!

 


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16 comments

  1. Toast_particle Reply

    I had a male cat who at the age of 10 suddenly stopped wanting to share his litter box with his female companion. He would straddle the corner of the box and pee just outside it on the floor. I tried all the solutions listed above and more. I finally got creative and bought an under the bed storage box, very large sized, which covered the area he was peeing on. Guess what? He was thrilled with it! He had more room to move around and a deeper amount to dig in. He has long since passed away and we miss him dearly but we still use the storage boxes instead of “traditional” commercial boxes.

  2. April McCabe Morris Reply

    I have 3 Maine Coon cats who are 2 years old. Recently we changed litter type. One cat is not using the box now. I changed the litter back and added new boxes, but the cat is still pooping and peeing outside the box. Any ideas to fix this?

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      Unfortunately (or fortunately in my case) I haven’t run into this with my cat. I tend to switch his litter all the time, he gets whatever is on sale. He uses whatever and doesn’t seem to have a preference. But I will see if we can’t get this comment out to some of our readers and try to get you an answer!

      1. April McCabe Morris Reply

        Thank you! We switched from clumping litter, whatever was on sale just like you (they weren’t fussy) to chunky crystal litter. It was a drastic change. Then I tried mixing the two. It seems that only one cat has a problem. Ugh. It’s really a mess

        1. Melissa Smith Reply

          I hear ya. My parents have a cat that consistently goes outside the box too – as I have pet sat for them, I can attest that I feel your pain! It’s scheduled to go out tomorrow so hopefully we get some feedback from FB nation!

    2. Emily Reply

      Rule of thumb is one litterbox per cat + 1 (I.e. 3 cats=4 boxes). If you cat is otherwise acting normal and you returned to the original litter, try confining that cat to a small bathroom with litterbox until cat reliably uses the box. Clean all soiled areas with enzymatic cleaner (I like Nature’s Miracle brand).

  3. DngnRdr Reply

    One of my two cats has the runs (diarrhoea) at the moment – often brought on if they catch/eat a small lizard in the house – and keeps going outside the tray…. he still pees in the tray. I suspect it’s because the diarrhoea makes massive mess in the tray but it’s really annoying.

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      Oof! It might be – nobody likes standing in that kind of icky-ness. This might sound a little weird, but possibly throw down some of those pee pads that they use for dogs for a little bit? I know you don’t want to create a new habit, but if he goes on that instead of the floor, it would be an easier cleanup at least 🙁

  4. HWarrior13 Reply

    My 10 month old cat/kitten (?) has stopped urinating in her litter box. She looks for some sort of fabric to urinate on instead… a towel one of my kids forgot to hang up/put in the laundry hamper, (and the towel she pee’d on was only about 2 feet from the litter box in the laundry
    room, but she didn’t use her box, she pee’d on the towel instead), one of our fabric rugs, a dropped jacket that slipped off the coat rack, etc. We have tried cleaning her box a lot and moving it to a place that’s easier for her to get to, etc. (Although, the litter box was in the laundry room, which is always open, but we thought maybe the washer/dryer suddenly had started scaring her.) She’s has had PERFECT little box habits until about 1 month ago. There have been no big changes over the last few months. Any thoughts on this sudden poor behavior ? And no, we haven’t been scolding her for not using her box. And yes, she uses it to defecate in. Lastly, she is neutered (she was neutered as a baby before we adopted her from the animal shelter.). Her behavior has been PERFECT (or PURRFECT 😉 until about 1 month ago. She is the sweetest, most playful cat/kitten we’ve ever had and love her dearly. Any thoughts on what the issue could and more importantly….HOW DO WE STOP IT? Thanks for your ideas everyone!

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      Hi HWarrior! The first thing that comes to mind is any possible litter brand changes or even if the brand that you normally use has changed it’s formula? Sometimes that can be all it takes to set off a kitty rebellion!

      1. HWarrior13 Reply

        Hey Melissa, that’s EXACTLY what happened! It turns out the little princess didn’t like scented litter, so we changed to unscented and she’s been purrrfect (couldn’t resist) !
        Thanks!

        1. Melissa Smith Reply

          YAY!!!!

  5. Dee Orsbon Reply

    I just got a new kitten. The kitten is 11 weeks old. He is litter trained, however, he will not use the litter box unless I take him to it. I have never had this happen before with any cat I’ve ever owned. How do I fix this problem? He is a very sweet kitten except for this issue. My husband is ready to get rid of him. I don’t know what to do. I have tried toys around the box. When I take him to the bathroom, he goes straight to the box and uses it, yet won’t go to box on his own. Please help me before my husband makes me get rid of him. Yes, I do have an older cat and they get along like best friends.

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      Hi Dee! A couple of thoughts come to mind:

      BFFs or not, sometimes cats get territorial about litterboxes and prevent other cats from using them. Do you have more than one box in the house?

      Did something possibly scare the kitten when he was using the box (it could have been something completely unrelated; like a loud noise while he was using it one time) so he only feels safe when you’re there?

      One final thought: Some cats can be extremely picky about the type of litter used, while others will literally go on dirt if you give it to them. Have you tried changing the type of litter?

      Keep us posted!!

  6. Samantha Claessens Reply

    Hi, so we have two female cats that are both about 2 years old. They’ve always had a rocky relationship and I think that might be part of the problem. One of them has always hated litter boxes and would make a mess beside it if she thought the box was too dirty. When she was about a year old (after she got fixed) she started refusing to use the litter altogether. We thought we had found a solution by putting her outside on a tether to do her business but then she decided that concrete was her favourite bathroom area. We’ve tried setting up multiple litter boxes and using many different litter types but she’s completely uninterested so I think it’s a behavioural problem but I have no idea at this point how to fix it.

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      Hi Samantha! Boy that is frustrating – have you talked about her bathroom habits with her vet? And I know you have probably tried this already, but a more claylike litter? Removing the top of the box? It could be that the other cat is marking the boxes like crazy in an effort to keep them both “hers.” There could have also been something that happened while the reluctant litter box user was in there. The other cat may have scared or attacked her, a loud noise could have scared her, etc.