Anatomy of a Litter Box Problem

Solving a litter box problem means being patient, diligent, and consistent with your cat. If your cat develops litter box aversion, the original cause can either be medical in nature, or it may be behavioral.

If there's a health issue, it will need to be dealt with first. Either way, some retraining may be required to get your cat back on track. Remember, the original cause may not be what's keeping it going.


Litter Box Problem Basics

A litter box problem can crop up at any time in your cat's life. I get emails all the time from people who say that their cat just stopped using the box for "no reason." Let's get a few things out of the way...

Spite

Inappropriate elimination always has a reason, and it isn't spite. If your cat stops using the box for either urination or bowel movements or both, it's not that she's mad at you or is doing it out of spite. We tend to project our human emotions and motives onto our animals, but it doesn't work that way with cats. Your cat may, however, be stressed, as this is a common cause of behavior issues such as a litter box problem.

Punishment

Punishing your cat for a litter box problem does absolutely no good, as cats don't relate punishment to a prior act, and you may even make the situation worse. In fact, if she had an accident and defecated outside the box (or you thought she did), and you punished her and then put her in the box, well... the box is now a hostile place, and the cycle gets worse.

One of my cats, Frankie, has long hair. As a result, sometimes she gets "cling ons." She'll come out of the box running at high speed and the next thing you know, she's left a present on the floor in the other room. It's not her fault. She used the box. If I had been quick to jump to conclusions, I would have thought that she wasn't using the box. If I had punished her, I might have caused a box problem that actually did not exist until I got involved.


What Cat's Want in a Litter Box

Generally speaking, cats have a preference for texture and location, as well as box cleanliness. Cats usually prefer a quiet, safe, undisturbed area, and a box of adequate size. The box should be clean and not smell bad to your cat's nose. It should not be placed too close to the food and water bowls. The type of litter does matter, as well as whether or not it is scented. Keep in mind that a cat can change its preference for these things at any time. If that's true, it may take some effort to determine what's happening.

Preferences for Surface, Texture and Location

Most cats will have some sort of preference for surface, texture, and location. This preference may not always be what you expect, and it may change over time.

For outdoor cats, sandboxes often become the place of choice for elimination. This is due to the preference that most cats have for eliminating on materials that feel like loose dirt or sand. This is also why initial litter box training often amounts to little more than showing your kitten where the box is. It is also why many cat experts recommend clumping clay litter, rather than any of the alternatives such as Feline Pine, crystals, or recycled newspaper products.

Sometimes cats don't like the location a box is in. Maybe the area is too high traffic, or maybe another pet likes to be in that room. Perhaps there's a particular floor of the house that your cat likes, such as the basement.


Causes of a Cat Litter Box Problem

These problems can have an original cause, as well as multiple continuing causes, making it difficult to solve. Stress can be a huge factor here. Cat's like a routine. Your cat can be stressed by any changes in that routine.

Keep in mind that anything that causes your cat to associate pain or an unpleasant experience with the litter box may cause her to stop using it on a regular basis.

For example, some cats may develop litter box aversion after a bout of constipation or a urinary tract infection. In both of these cases, pain becomes associated with using the litter box. Note that your cat may use the box for defecating but not urinating, or vice versa.

If your cat has been frightened or disturbed while using the box, this may be at fault. Perhaps you, your child, your dog, a neighbor, or maybe even the garbage truck have scared your cat without your knowledge.

If you have a multi-cat or multi-pet household, it might be that the litter box has become a territorial problem. Teddie is Frankie's sister, and has often enjoyed attacking Frankie while she's using the box. Sometimes this involves sneaking up on her, and other times simply walking up and punching her in the face while she's trying to do her business. That's why she is called Teddie Monster. Well, one reason, anyway. Luckily, Frankie can hold her own against Teddie and none of my cats have ever had a problem with inappropriate elimination. A more timid cat might develop a problem, though, so you need to be aware that these things happen.

Litter Box Aversion

The most common reason for a cat litter box problem is what's known as litter box aversion. Box aversion comes in several forms, and may go back to your cat's preferences, which can change at any time. It may have to do with box cleanliness, or the size or placement of the box. It may be that your cat associates pain or a bad experience with the box. It may also be that it is physically difficult to get into and use the box. This is especially true for elderly cats, or those that have an injury or illness.

Your cat may not like the texture of the litter, or the amount of litter in the box. Most recommendations from litter manufacturers are to put anywhere from two to four inches of litter in the box. Some cats want the full four inches, others are OK with it being less.

If it's a covered box, it might be cramped or smell worse than a non-covered box. If your cat develops a preference for a particular type of litter, then changing to a new type of litter would be in order. Maybe your cat has developed a preference for a particular location to do her business, but there's no box there.

Sometimes, the problem is a combination of all of the above. These combination problems can be tricky to figure out. Once your cat develops litter box aversion, and/or a preference for eliminating in a place other than the box, it's difficult to get her to redirect.

In order to resolve the issue, you need to keep an open mind and be patient. The original cause of the problem may not be the reason it's ongoing.

Let's say, for example, that your cat associates the pain of constipation with the litter box, and stops using it. In the process, she decides that she's developed a preference for cement floor and the privacy of the basement. At this point, you'll need to do some retraining in order to address all three of these components.

Medical Problems

It needs to be stressed that your cat may have a medical problem that you do not know about. Cats are very good at hiding pain and discomfort. Constipation and urinary tract problems cause pain. Your cat begins to associate this pain with the litter box and stops using it.

This is why the first step to solving litter box problems is a call to your veterinarian. You must first rule out a medical problem before you can deal with any behavioral points.


Removing Urine and Feces Odor

Once your cat has a box mishap, it's very likely that she'll return to the same place again. Once that area smells like urine or feces, it becomes the new bath room of choice. You'll have to completely clean that area in order to remove that part of the incentive to use it. I recommend using Atmosklear or an enzymatic cleaner designed to remove cat urine odor and/or pet stains.

Remember that your cat can smell what you can't, and you need to completely remove the odor. You should do more than just guess at where the odor is coming from. Fortunately, cat urine glows in the dark under fluorescent black light. You can purchase a black light from pet supply stores and thoroughly clean the area with the enzymatic cleaner or Atmosklear. Do not attempt to use regular scented household cleaners to cover up the odor, and do not steam clean the area until you've first cleaned it thoroughly or you may cause the odor to set in.


Solving a Cat Litter Box Problem

Here is some more detail on some of the possible problems and solutions to litter box problems.

Problem: Aversion to the Litter Box

The following conditions may cause your cat to dislike eliminating in the box

  • She has had a painful experience with defecation or urination due to a health issue. This may not be an issue that you know about, and your cat may seem fine.
  • While attempting to use the box, she was frightened or startled. This could be by noise or movement, and perhaps the box is in a heavily traveled area.
  • She views it as a dirty box. Remember, it's your cat who has to use it. Hooded boxes were made for humans, and your cat's nose is the law here.
  • Your cat has learned to associate punishment with the litter box. If you punish her for eliminating outside the box, for example, and then put her in the box, you'll only reinforce a negative.
  • Another pet, animal, or person has attacked her in some way while using the box. This could even be if you were trying to grab her to take her to the vet or for a car ride.
  • Some other form of stress has become associated with the box.

Solving the Problem

  • Obviously, box cleanliness is extremely important here, even more than usual. Unscented clumping clay litter is often the most recommended by cat experts. It has the feel that cats like with no perfumes or odd odors. You should scoop the litter at least once or even twice a day.
  • Change out the litter for fresh litter completely every few days (normally this should be done every few weeks). When you do, clean the box thoroughly with mild soap and water and use a 1 to 30 bleach solution to sanitize it. Thoroughly rinse and dry the box before putting fresh litter in it.
  • If you use one of those plastic mats that simulate grass blades, get rid of it. Your cat probably does not enjoy walking on that surface and it is not helping.
  • Follow the one plus one rule. There should be one box for every cat in the house, plus one more box. This ensures not only a free box, but also that your cat can use a fresh box the next time she has to go.
  • Add a brand new box in a totally different location from existing boxes. This can be either a different room, or even a different floor of your house. Make sure this new litter box is in an obvious place in an area of the house that your cat normally visits.
  • Try not to remind your cat of the existing box she doesn't like by making sure you use a different brand (type) of litter in the new box. If your existing box is a hooded one, try one that is not hooded, or leave the top off for now. Also, make sure this box is at least as large, or larger than the existing boxes so your cat has plenty of room.
  • Keep the box away from high noise/high traffic areas. Make sure that it is not near air conditioners, washing machines, or other appliances that make noise. Make sure that your cat has multiple escape routes from the box, and that it is difficult for another pet or person to sneak up on her while she's in the box.

Problem: A Preference for Surface and Texture

Your cat will often have a preference for a particular type of surface or texture on which she likes to eliminate. Your cat may change her preference at any time during her life, without warning. The reasons for this are not always knowable.

The following may indicate that your cat has a surface texture preference for elimination

  • She is/was an outdoor or indoor/outdoor cat, and prefers to eliminate on soil, dirt, or grassy ground.
  • When your cat eliminates outside the box, it is on materials of a particular texture. For example, some cats will prefer carpeting, clothes in the laundry basket, the bed, or something else soft. Other cats will prefer surfaces like tile, bathtubs, or a hard cement floor.
  • Your cat often exhibits scratching behavior on this same type of surface texture after eliminating, even when she eliminates in the litter box.

Solving the Problem

  • If your cat is eliminating on hard or smooth surfaces, such as a tile floor, try putting a relatively thin layer of litter at one end of the box, and leave the other end of the box empty, to expose the bottom. Put the box on a hard floor. Long haired cats often like to use the bottom of the box.
  • If your cat is eliminating on soft surfaces, make sure you're using a high-quality, unscented scoopable litter, like Fresh Step, or Arm and Hammer brand.
  • Have you recently changed litter types and/or brands? Immediately go back to using the old litter. Normally, when changing litter types or brands, it's recommended that you mix the new litter in a little bit at a time over several days or weeks, until you eventually completely replace the old litter. Doing this in any other way may cause problems. Even then, if your cat doesn't like the the new litter, you'll have to revert back.
  • If your cat is or was used to being outdoors at all, try mixing in some soil or sod with the litter in the box. Don't use a hooded box.

Problem: Preference for Location

The following may indicate that your cat has a location preference

  • She does her business in an area or a room where a litter box used to be kept or where there are urine odors from previous soiling.
  • The litter box is located on one floor of the house, but your cat eliminates on a different floor.
  • She always eliminates in hidden or quiet, low traffic location. This could be a closet, a seldom used room, or other protected space.

Solving the problem

  • Put at least one litter box on every floor of your house.
  • Cats do not like to walk on certain surfaces. After thoroughly cleaning the area where she has been eliminating, put tin foil or double-sided tape over the area. Cat's don't generally like the smell of citrus, so you can put citrus air fresheners or cotton balls with a citrus scent around the area as well. Cat's don't generally like to eliminate where they eat and drink, so you can put food and water bowls in the area as well. In the alternative, you can block the area off if it's possible.
  • Or... you can cover most of the floor with tin foil or tape, and leave a path where your cat can walk. Place a new litter box there in that path. When she's been using that box successfully for at least a month, move the box gradually to a better location if needed.

Tips and Reminders for Solving a Litter Box Problem

  • A litter box problem can occur at any time, and for various reasons, sometimes more than one.
  • Litter box aversion can be due to any unpleasant experience that your cat associates with the box.
  • If you happen to see your cat eliminating outside the box, you can try interrupting her by making a noise. Be careful with this, though, as more timid cats may be scared by loud noises, and you might compound the problem. After you interrupt your cat, place her near the litter box and see what she does. If she leaves the area, then let her do her own thing. Never try to force her, but praise her when she does use the box.
  • Your cat will not understand punishment, and will only become fearful and less likely to eliminate when you're around. She's not behaving out of spite.
  • Medical problems, even ones you don't suspect, need to be looked at first. Always consult your veterinarian. Some urinary and bowel problems that can lead to litter box problems may also be life threatening.
  • Multiple issues and causes may be at work here. Your cat can develop a preference for texture and location at any time.
  • You must remove all traces of the odor if you're to solve the problem. Once an animal soils an area, they will often return to it time and time again.

Solving a litter box problem requires patience, combined with time and strategy. Keep working at it until you and your cat can reach an agreement.


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