Cats are fastidious creatures, and nowhere is that more evident than in their litter box habits. When your cat won’t use the litter box -- and at least 10% of all cats develop an elimination problem -- the cause could be anything from an unclean box to an illness.
Before you try some easy strategies to get them back in the litter box, have them checked out by a veterinarian to rule out a health problem. If you’ve just introduced a new cat to your household, make sure the litter box is as cat-friendly as possible to prevent a problem in the future.
WebMD looked at common litter box problems and solutions. Here’s what we found:
Reasons cats won’t use the litter box
These common litter box problems could be repelling your cat:
- An unclean litter box
- Too few litter boxes for the cats in the household
- A cramped litter box
- A litter box with a hood or liner
- A litter box with sides that are high
- Too much litter in the box
- An uncomfortable location that doesn’t allow for privacy and multiple escape routes
- A change in the kind of litter your use
- Negative associations. Your cat may have been upset while using the box. They may also connect the box with painful elimination, even if their health is back to normal
- Stressors like moving, adding new animals or family members to the household
- A conflict with another cat in the household
- A new preference for eliminating on certain surfaces or textures like carpet, potting soil, or bedding
Medical conditions and litter box problems
Your cat may have a medical condition that makes urinating too painful -- in or out of the litter box. Common medical conditions which may affect litter box use include:
- Urinary tract infection (UTI). If your cat frequently enters their litter box but produces small amounts of urine, they may have a UTI.
- Feline interstitial cystitis. Feline interstitial cystitis is a complex disease that causes inflammation of the bladder. It can cause a cat to eliminate outside the litter box because of the urgency to urinate.
- Bladder stones or blockage. If your cat has bladder stones or a blockage, they may frequently enter their litter box. They may also experience pain and mew or cry when they try to eliminate. Their abdomen may be tender to the touch.
When kitty eliminates outside the litter box
If your veterinarian has ruled out a health problem, you can make a few changes to see if you can steer your cat back to the litter box:
- Scoop and change your cat’s litter at least once a day.
- Thoroughly rinse out the box with baking soda or unscented soap once a week.
- Use less litter. Cats like a shallow bed of litter -- no more than two inches deep.
- Use a larger litter box.
- Use clumping, unscented litter of a medium to fine texture or the litter they used as a kitten. You could try putting a few clean boxes side by side, each with a different type of litter, to see which one your cat prefers.
- Don’t use box liners or lids.
- Try a self-cleaning box, which is generally cleaner than a traditional litter box.
- Move the litter box to a quiet, low-light location where your cat is able to see anyone approaching and can escape quickly. The litter box should be out of sight of their food and water dishes.
- Add a few litter boxes in different locations, all of which have multiple escape routes. Make sure that children or other animals don’t have access to the boxes.
- If your cat is old or arthritic, use a litter box with low sides so they can climb in easily.
- Provide a litter box for each of your cats, plus one extra. If you live in a multi-storey residence, place a box on each level.
Multiple cats and litter box problems
If you have several cats and can’t figure out which isn’t using the litter box, you can ask your veterinarian for fluorescein, a harmless dye that makes urine glow blue under ultraviolet light for 24 hours. You’ll need a UV light to shine into the litter box to see which cat is using the box. The dye must be given (usually in food) to each cat, one at a time.
An easier way to determine which cat isn’t using the box is to temporarily confine your cats, one at a time, with a box nearby. Do this only for a few days, and try to use a room without carpet or a laundry pile. If you’re using the bathroom, block off the bathtub or keep an inch of water in it to discourage kitty from using it to eliminate.
Surface or location preference and litter box problems
If your cat has developed a preference for eliminating on another surface or location, make that area less appealing. You can add bright lights or motion sensors to the area, or place tin foil, upside-down carpet runners, or double-sided sticky tape on the preferred surface to repel your cat.
What not to do if your cat has a litter box problem
Getting kitty to eliminate in the box is about patience, not punishment. Here are a few no-nos in retraining your cat:
- Do not rub their nose in urine or feces.
- Do not scold them and carry or drag them to the litter box.
- Do not confine them to a small room with the litter box, without first trying other methods for resolving their elimination problem.
- Do not place the litter box near the place where pets eat or drink.
- Do not give them treats to entice them to use the litter box. Cats don’t want to be disturbed while they are eliminating. However, you can place toys and treats near the box to help them overcome their aversion to the box.
- Clean up accidents with an enzymatic cleanser rather than an ammonia-based cleanser. Then, cover the area with foil or plastic sheeting and block it off for a few weeks to give the neutralizer time to work.
Last-ditch efforts to combat litter box problems
If kitty doesn’t do their thing in the litter box, despite your efforts to make it as cat-friendly as possible, you may want to contact an animal behaviorist or consult with your veterinarian.