Is your cat not using the litter box? Cats stop using their litter boxes for a variety of reasons — including issues with the box or litter, dissatisfaction with the placement or number of boxes, changes in the environment inside or outside the house (e.g., a new pet in the house), and undiagnosed medical conditions. You might have to investigate several possibilities before you understand what your cat is trying to tell you, but most issues are easy to remedy to get your cat using the litter box again.
Try to keep in mind that cats don't eliminate outside their litter box to purposefully annoy you. Punishment won't stop or correct the behavior. Because most cases of litter box avoidance are stress-related, punishment only increases the stress (for you and your kitty) and makes it harder to identify the real cause.
Ruling out cat health problems
The first step is to take your kitty to your vet for a thorough physical exam. Several medical conditions can result in a cat not using the litter box, so you'll want to rule these out before looking at other potential causes. The good news is that most medical conditions that cause a cat to suddenly stop using the litter box use can be easily and inexpensively remedied. Some signs that your cat might need an urgent vet visit are straining to urinate, licking his/her genital area excessively, and blood in the urine.
Here’s the next thing to consider: Are all your cats spayed or neutered? Kitties who aren't neutered can be more likely to urinate inappropriately. You can check SPAY USA to see whether there's a clinic or veterinarian in your area that offers low-cost spay/neuter services.
Declawed cats and litter box issues
It is not unusual to see litter box and other behavior issues in cats whose front claws have been removed. Cats deprived of their front claws can develop an aversion to the litter box because their paws remain sensitive or painful from the surgery, so they avoid scratching in their litter and might begin eliminating around the house instead.
If you've adopted a cat who's already declawed, look for products such as aspen or pine wood shavings (commonly used for guinea pigs or mice) or soft paper litter such as Yesterday's News. Shredded paper is another option to try.
Why cats stop using the litter box
Once you've ruled out possible medical conditions as the reason your cat stopped using the litter box, turn your attention to the litter box itself. This is most often the culprit.
Here are some common reasons why a cat is eliminating outside the litter box:
- There aren’t enough litter boxes.
- The cat doesn’t like the type of litter.
- The cat doesn’t like the type of litter box.
- The cat doesn’t like where the box is located.
- The litter box isn’t clean.
Let's break down these reasons even further.
Number of litter boxes
There should be one litter box for each cat in the house, plus one extra (more if you have many cats). Some cats prefer to urinate in one box and defecate in another, so sometimes adding more than one box per cat helps. When you have more than one box, they should not be located next to each other. In multilevel homes, consider placing one box per cat on each floor.
If you've changed brands or types of litter recently, that might be the problem. Many cats have specific preferences about litter. Cats have sensitive noses and are not fond of chemical or perfume scents. Studies have shown that the most appealing type of litter to most cats is unscented clumping litter that’s the consistency of fine sand. It’s best to purchase different types, though, and offer them side by side to let your cat choose; try clay litters, shredded paper, sawdust, wood pellets, or even sand or dirt. If you need to change to another type of litter, do it gradually by adding a little more of the new product each time you change the litter until your kitty is used to the new litter.
Even if you haven’t changed the brand or type of litter, some cats develop an aversion to a litter after many years. Try adding another box with a new type of litter. Some brands even have special herbal and natural attractants to help direct the cat to the litter.
Litter box preferences
Most commercial litter boxes are too small to comfortably accommodate adult cats, so try a large plastic storage box (such as the ones designed to fit under a bed) to see whether a little more room might make a difference. In addition, some cats, especially senior or overweight cats, have difficulty getting into litter boxes with high walls. Also, plastic liners are convenient for us, but some cats don’t like them.
Cats almost always prefer an open litter box without a hood, so try removing the hood if you have one on the box. Enclosed litter boxes trap the smells that cats dislike. Some cats feel the need to stand up straight and tall when they urinate and don't feel comfortable ducking down to fit in a covered box.
Location of litter box
Cats are creatures of habit, so don't move the litter box suddenly. If you have to move a box from an established location, do it gradually (in extreme cases, just a few inches a day) to give your kitty time to adjust.
Locate the boxes in quiet places that offer a little privacy and are away from your cat's food and water stations. Avoid high-traffic zones or noisy areas like laundry rooms. You might have to block off the litter box area with baby gates or pet doors to prevent unwanted intrusions by humans (especially small ones) or other animals.
Avoid placing litter boxes in the corner of a closet or someplace tight, such as between the toilet and bathtub. Your kitty might feel that there's no escape route from such a vulnerable position. Try placing boxes in several different locations. The cat will use the box in the spot that feels the safest.
Because cats are very fastidious, you’ll want to keep the litter boxes as clean as possible to encourage their use. Some cats will only use a box once before it has to be cleaned, so it's important to scoop regularly, particularly in a house with multiple cats.
Scrub out the boxes with mild, low-fragrance soap at least once a week — and more often with really popular boxes. Don't use bleach or ammonia-based products; instead, soak your boxes in diluted vinegar water when necessary to remove the odor.
Also, old boxes become scratched and the offensive smell can’t be removed, so you might want to invest in a new litter box. If you opt to try a new box and litter, you might want to set it up in a new location, leaving the old one in place. Be certain that your cat knows it is available. Clean both boxes for a time as necessary. Eventually, clean the box you are eliminating less and the one you want to maintain more often and then get rid of the old box.
How to get your cat to use the litter box again
There are several things you can do to get your cat to use the litter box again after they've suddenly stopped. To start, set up one or more litter boxes that are very appealing and easy to access.
Also, be sure to clean soiled areas outside the box thoroughly using an enzymatic cleaner to help eliminate the odor, so your cat isn't tempted to use the same spot again. Regular cleaners might mask the odor so that we can't smell it, but the odor will still be discernible to your cat and can prompt them to continue to use that area as a bathroom. Enzymatic cleaners contain natural organisms that digest the bacteria that cause stain and odor, making it so that even the pet can’t smell it.
Then, block off the area where your cat is eliminating outside the box, or place something there that serves as a deterrent. For example, if the cat is inappropriately eliminating only in one room, shut the door to that room. Cats usually won't eliminate where there's food, so try placing a bowl containing a few favorite treats on the area (after it's been cleaned).
You can also make the inappropriate elimination areas as undesirable as possible by covering them with aluminum foil, double-sided sticky tape, or plastic wrap. Plastic carpet runners placed "teeth" side up are good for covering large areas. Be sure you cover the area generously. If the spot is a foot or two wide, cover it with something at least four to six feet wide. After a few weeks of success, start removing the covering in areas that the cat is not bothering, working slowly toward the trouble spots.
Another option to consider: Install an outdoor cattery, a place where your cat might prefer to eliminate. Catteries come in all sizes and shapes; you're limited only by your imagination. They can be large open enclosures with shelves and cubbies where cats can relax and play (and you can relax and play with them), small covered enclosures just big enough for a litter box, or something in between. Make sure that you still take litter box preferences, location, and cleaning into consideration.
Finally, in some cases it might be worth talking to your veterinarian about using some neutraceuticals and/or behavior-modifying medications. These meds can be helpful tools while trying to teach your cat to eliminate in the litter box and can help reduce the stress your cat feels.
Other suggestions to help avoid litter box issues
Here are some other things that can help satisfy your cats’ natural instincts and reduce litter box problems:
- Each cat needs something to identify as their own: a big bed, a pod, or shelves up high, for example. These things give them more territory to “own” all over the house and therefore more territorial confidence. If they don’t have anything to call their own, they might respond by eliminating inappropriately.
- Cover windows from which they might be seeing other cats outdoors or something else that’s causing them stress.
- Playing with wand toys helps cats lose defensiveness and realize they can share space. It also tires out the bullies. Many times, litter box issues arise when a cat feels bullied or insecure about territory.
- Play hard with your cats! Make that wand toy seem like an actual bird and get your cats out of breath, panting and unable to play anymore. If cats are naturally exhausted after playtime, they won’t be patrolling the boundaries, peeing, scratching, or worrying as much about their territory. That territorial instinct won’t be as sharp.
- Open up a vertical world for your cats, so they don’t fight over territory. Install shelving that they can jump up on. Having many sunny lounging spots around the house is also a good strategy.
- Corrugated cardboard objects are scent-soakers. Get a bunch of them so that each cat can rub on them, scratch and claw them, and mark them with their scent. Put them at room entrances to make it a neutral territory.
- Purchase Feliway, a synthetic pheromone developed to mimic the natural comforting facial pheromone secreted by cats. A mother cat secretes this pheromone to calm her young, and cats rub their faces or scratch their claws to leave this pheromone on surfaces. When cats sense the pheromone’s presence in areas around their home, they are less likely to urinate on or scratch those areas.
- Inappropriate elimination is sometimes due to separation anxiety. Designate a certain blanket as the one that you put on your lap or shoulders when you watch TV or read. Then leave the blanket in a place where the cat likes to hang out when you leave the house.
Resources on feline behavior
Cat behavior can be quite complex. If you'd like to know more, the following books can be very helpful:
- Starting from Scratch: How to Correct Behavior Problems in Your Adult Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett
- Your Outta Control Cat by Christine Church
If you've tried everything and are still unable to determine the cause of your cat's behavior, consider consulting a cat behaviorist. Here’s how:
- To learn more about finding a certified behaviorist, talk to your vet or try Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists.
- Look up members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Veterinarians who are board-certified in behavior have undergone extensive training and education in animal behavior.
- You can find a behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.