“Help! My cat won’t use the litter box and is ‘going’ on my floor!”
Such simple words, but such a complex problem.
If your cat refuses to use the litter box, this is something you should not ignore. For the cat, inappropriate urination or defecation is a cry for help. For you, it’s a frustrating inconvenience. And the longer the problem goes on, the more established it becomes.
So when this happens, you need to act quickly — but in the right way. It’s important to know that punishing your cat only makes things much worse.
This article aims to help you understand the whys and wherefores of the litter box blues, including:
- What to do when your cat won’t use the litter box
- Medical reasons for tray avoidance
- Behavioral reasons for shunning the litter box
- First-aid actions to take
- What not to do
- How to create an enticing and appealing litter box
When Your Cat Refuses to Use the Litter Box, It’s a Cry for Help
When a cat eliminates outside the litter box, you need to think of it as a plea for help.
How so? There are 2 broad reasons for bad litter box habits: health problems and behavioral problems.
Therefore, the first thing that should go through your mind is:
- Question 1: Does my cat have a health problem?
If, after a trip to the veterinarian, the answer is “no,” then ask:
- Question 2: What am I doing wrong?
Your vet is the “go to” person to investigate health issues, and understanding cat behavior sheds light on why healthy cats do what they do where they do it.
So when your cat refuses to use the litter box, the first thing to do is to get the cat examined by your vet. It’s important not to leap to the conclusion that the cat is just being difficult, and instead check out the real likelihood of them having a health problem.
First, Identify the Cat
Many of you have multi-cat households. The more cats you have, the more likely it is for some kitty (or several kitties) to stop using the box.
So confine the cats and act like a pet detective: Say you have 2 cats. You don’t even know if 1 or both are using or not using the box.
- Put Cat 1 in a safe place with litter. If Cat 1 is using the box and the urination continues, you know Cat 2 is a problem urinator.
- If Cat 1 urinates outside the box in the confined space, you know Cat 1 is a problem soiler.
If the house soiling stops after separating and confining the cats to their own areas, you have identified an inter-cat issue and diagnosed a behavioral problem. They may want separate areas, more litter boxes, more space, etc. This problem may not vanish until you find another home for 1 or more of your cats.
Also, try using a nanny-kitty cam. Many people find cat urine in the same place, but they’re not sure who the pee-pee head is. A video camera could help you determine who’s acting outside the box.
4 Health Problems That Can Cause Litter Box Avoidance
Have you ever been “caught short”? That sudden urgent, overwhelming need for the toilet is not pleasant. It happens to cats as well, and more often than you think.
Numerous health problems can make a cat need to squat right then and there, before they reach the litter tray. The key to getting these kitties back on track is to treat their discomfort.
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1. Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD)
FLUTD is a blanket term for a number of problems relating to the bladder. Bladder discomfort caused by FLUTD can trick the cat into thinking they need to pee immediately.
Causes of FLUTD include:
- Crystals in the urine chaffing the bladder lining
- Bladder stones rattling against the bladder wall like a sneaker in a tumble dryer
- Stress-related inflammation of the bladder lining
- Urine infections
2. Upset Stomach
A sudden stomach cramp can override litter box training. Telltale signs of an upset stomach are the cat’s feces being soft, covered in jelly or containing blood.
There are many causes of stomach upset in cats, including a sudden change of diet.
A good starting point is to ensure the cat is dewormed, but the vet will also consider:
- Infections, especially if the cat is fed a raw diet
- Food allergy or intolerance
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Lymphoma affecting the gut
3. Increased Thirst
When a cat drinks more than normal, their bladder fills up more quickly. If they wake from a deep sleep with a stretched bladder, once again, urgency may trump training.
4. Pain and Discomfort
Some cats, especially senior cats, are just too sore to get in and out of the litter box. A cat with arthritis may struggle to climb over the sides of a deep tray and eventually give up trying altogether.
This can also be related to a problem where the cat links pain to the litter box, and therefore avoids the latter.
An example of this is a cat with a painful bladder who learned to blame the litter tray for the pain rather than the act of urination.
How Your Veterinarian Can Help
- To get to the bottom of things, the vet will take a detailed history about your cat’s habits, appetite, thirst, weight loss or gain, and activity levels.
- Then the vet will give the cat a physical examination to get further clues.
- In addition, it may be necessary to run blood tests and urinalyses, and possibly an ultrasound scan of the bladder.
The key to getting the cat back on track is to tackle any underlying health problem.
Also, if pain has created a link between the tray and bad things, you may need to rebuild the cat’s confidence in the litter box … which leads us neatly onto behavioral considerations.
3 Behavioral Problems That Can Cause Litter Box Avoidance
When a healthy cat forsakes the litter box, the problem is behavioral. You’ll need to get inside the cat’s mind to understand the message.
Cats are weird. You may never find out why they decided to use your bathroom rug rather than a litter box, but you need to help them out with their neuroses.
Before you think all cats should just use any litter box you provide, treat them as individuals with possible issues. You may be able to solve this problem before your home is ruined.
1. Unneutered Male Cat
Sometimes the explanation is easy. An intact male cat is likely to be spraying — that is, marking their territory in your home — rather than emptying a full bladder.
Part of the answer is to reduce those jangling hormone levels with a neuter procedure.
However, territory marking also happens with desexed animals. This is often because a stray cat has invaded their patch, so the home cat feels the need to send out a stronger message. Part of sorting this one out is to discourage stray cats from visiting, thereby taking the territorial pressure off your guy.
Another example of normal cat behavior is middening, or non-spray marking. This is when the cat leaves a “message” in the form of poop. It is a potent way of advertising to interloper cats that this pitch is taken … so don’t bother stopping here.
Again, just as with spraying, part of the solution lies in discouraging feline visitors so that the rightful occupant doesn’t feel threatened.
3. Litter Box Aversion
The next group of behavioral reasons come under the banner of “litter box aversion” — in other words, the cat has a specific behavioral reason they don’t like using the box.
This can be a difficult group of issues to deal with, because the event that put the cat off the box has already happened and is history. So it can be difficult to identify the cause. However, the answer is to provide an alternative box, substrate or location so that the cat doesn’t have the same mental hangups about going to the toilet.
Here are some examples of how litter box aversion develops:
- The litter box is full of damp, smelly kitty litter or piles of poop. No one likes to use a dirty toilet.
- The box is located beside a washing machine or the cat flap. Your poor kitty got the fright of their life when the washing machine went into the spin cycle or a stray cat popped through the flap.
- The box smells strongly of disinfectant, or there’s a plastic liner that doesn’t feel right when the cat digs the substrate.
- The kitty litter isn’t one your cat is used to or likes.
- The litter box has a lid (making it airless and stuffy) or doesn’t have a lid (leaving your cat feeling vulnerable and exposed). Some cats are hard to please!
- The box itself doesn’t suit the cat because it’s too small (it should be at least 1.5 times the cat’s length) or the sides are too high (making it difficult for the stiff old cat to climb in).
- The cat has to share a box (cats definitely don’t like to share). The general rule is 1 litter box per cat, plus 1 more.
- The litter box is placed near their food or water. (No one likes eating their dinner in the bathroom.)
- There is a row of litter boxes placed side by side. (Privacy, please!)
- The cat feels stressed (a new baby arrives, a new pet comes in, you go back to work … you name it). Pheromones such as Feliway and nutraceuticals such as Zylkene can help a lot if this is the case.
Don’t Discount Separation Anxiety
Many cats develop their first litter box aversion when their humans are away. This could be a separation anxiety issue. Cats hate it when you leave them.
You’ll need to play detective to understand why your cat isn’t happy. For example, if you’re lucky, you’ve noticed that the soiling started after you bought a new cat litter — in which case, go back to the original kitty litter.
Most times, what a cat wants is for things to go back to the way things were. So if there has been a change, change it back.
And if there is an obvious problem, such as the tray being beside the washer, try offering the cat a second tray in a different (quieter and more secure) location. If practical, pop this second tray in the place where the cat soils, which can speed up the retraining. Then, once they are using this second tray, remove the first.
How to Create the Perfect Litter Box
If you can’t identify and correct the cause of the poor litter box behavior, then try to create a perfectly inviting litter tray. This isn’t as hard as it sounds with these suggestions.
Cats don’t like to share. The rule of thumb, again, is 1 litter box or tray per cat, plus 1 spare.
Yes, that’s correct: a 5-cat household needs at least 6 trays, and more would be better.
Location Is Everything
Remember what I said about privacy? In a multi-cat household, don’t line the trays up in a neat row. Instead, put them at different locations around the home. Not only does this provide privacy, but it also prevents one cat from hogging all the other trays.
Look for spots that are quiet, where the cat won’t be disturbed. Put the boxes where your cat (not you) want them.
One hint is to try situating a tray in the corner of a room. This way the cat knows they can’t be approached from 2 sides while in the vulnerable act of going to the toilet. This helps them feel more confident about that particular tray.
Cats may not want to travel to the basement to urinate. You want the box out of sight and smell, but they may not. Again, put a few boxes around the house as well as nearby night lights.
No Food or Water Nearby
Putting the food, water and tray in the same place may be convenient for you, but to a cat it’s like being expected to eat your Sunday lunch while on the toilet. Don’t go there.
Cats like to turn and scratch around in the tray.
For the ultimate bathroom experience, opt for a tray that is at least 1.5 times as long as the cat. These can be hard to find, so improvise with an oil drip tray (it makes a great litter box). Other ideas for larger boxes include concrete mixing trays and under-the-bed storage containers.
Speaking of size, keep those stiff elderly cats in mind. They may find it tricky to clamber into a high-sided tray. Either look for a suitable container with lower sides or rig up a set of shallow steps to make it easier for your cat to climb in and out.
Many cats have a strong preference for what type of litter that feels good under their paws. Try to stick with a litter your cat knows and likes.
- Keep in mind that highly perfumed litters appeal to people but are an affront to a cat’s sensitive sense of smell.
- Also, provide plenty of your cat’s preferred litter. A depth of at least 2 inches is ideal.
- If your does not like litter, try putting some soil in the box instead. Most cats are suckers for soil and find it to be the equivalent of super-soft quilted toilet paper. You can always start with soil, and as the cat learns good habits, slowly transition to a traditional kitty litter.
- And of course, last but not least, please keep the litter clean with daily (or twice daily) scooping.
So there we have it, a quick guide to what you need to know when your cat refuses to use the litter box.
Anything that destroys your cat’s private time can lead to bad habits. And if you remember just one thing from reading this article, know that it’s important to visit the veterinarian to get medical problems ruled out before labeling the cat as behaving badly.
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- Barnette, Catherine, DVM. “Lymphoma in Cats.” VCA Hospitals. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/lymphoma-in-cats.
- “Lymphoma.” Cornell Feline Health Center at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. 2016. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/lymphoma.
- “Increased Thirst and Drinking.” International Cat Care. Sept. 5, 2018. https://icatcare.org/advice/increased-thirst-and-drinking/.
- “Feline House-Soiling: Useful Information for Cat Owners.” American Association of Feline Practitioners and International Society of Feline Medicine. 2014. https://catfriendly.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/HouseSoiling-WebView-1.pdf.
- Krieger, Marilyn. “What You Need to Know About Cats and Marking.” Catster. July 11, 2014. https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/cat-behavior-tips-marking-spraying-head-butt-bunt-middening-litter-box-scratching.
- “Litter Box Problems.” American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/common-cat-behavior-issues/litter-box-problems.
- Neilson, Jacqueline C., DVM, DACVB. “The Latest Scoop on Litter.” dvm360. March 1, 2009. https://www.dvm360.com/view/latest-scoop-litter.
- Pierson, Lisa A., DVM. “The Litter Box From Your Cat’s Point of View.” CatInfo.org. November 2016. https://catinfo.org/the-litter-box-from-your-cats-point-of-view/.