Dec 01, 2020

Solving Litter Box Problems

If you’re having a hard time persuading your cat to use the litter box, it just may be time to draw a line in the sand. Most cats prefer eliminating on a loose, grainy substance, which is why they quickly learn to use a litter box. But when their preferences include the laundry basket, the bed, or the Persian rug, you may find yourself with a difficult problem. By taking a closer look at your cat’s environment, you should be able to identify factors that have contributed to the problem, and make changes that encourage your cat to head for the litter box once again. The most common reasons why cats don’t use the litter box are an aversion to the box, such as dislike of a covered box, or dissatisfaction with the depth of the litter. Two other common reasons are a preference for a particular type of litter not provided in the box, or a preference for a particular location where there is no box.

Sometimes, the problem is a combination of all these factors. To get to the answer, you’ll need to do a little detective work—and remember, the original source of the problem may not be the reason it’s continuing. For example, your cat may have stopped using the litter box because of a urinary tract infection, and then developed a surface preference for carpet and a location preference for the bedroom closet. If that’s the case, you’ll need to address all three of these factors to resolve the problem.

Cats don’t stop using their litter boxes because they’re upset at their human caregivers and are determined to get revenge for something that “offended” them. Because humans act for these reasons, it’s easy for us to assume that our pets do as well. But animals don’t act out of spite or revenge, so it won’t help to punish your cat or give  her special privileges in the hope that she’ll start using the litter box again.

Medical Problems

It’s common for cats with medical problems to begin eliminating outside of their litter box. For example, a urinary tract infection or crystals in the urine can make urination painful—and both are serious conditions that require medical attention. Cats often associate this pain with the litter box and begin to avoid it. So if your cat has a house-soiling problem, check with your veterinarian first to rule out any medical problems. Cats don’t always act sick, even when they are, and only a trip to the veterinarian for a thorough physical examination can rule out a medical problem.

Cleaning Soiled Areas

Because animals are highly motivated to continue soiling an area that smells like urine or feces—and because cats’ sense of smell is so much stronger than humans’—it’s important to thoroughly and properly clean the soiled areas.

Urine stains will glow in the dark under a fluorescent black light, which can generally be purchased at hardware and pet supply stores. Once located, the stains should be cleaned with an enzymatic cleaner, also available at pet supply stores. Strong smelling household cleaners will do little to eliminate the odor or deter your pet from re-marking the area. Be sure to clean the area thoroughly before steam cleaning to avoid “locking in” the odor.

Aversion to the Litter Box

Your cat may have decided the litter box is an unpleasant place to eliminate if:

  • The box is not clean enough for her.
  • She has experienced painful urination or defecation in the box due to a medical problem.
  • She has been startled by a noise while using the box.
  • She has been “ambushed” while in the box by another cat, a child, a dog, or by you, if you were attempting to catch her for some reason.
  • She associates the box with punishment. (For example, someone punished her for eliminating outside the box, and then placed her in the box.)

What You Can Do:

  • Keep the litter box extremely clean. Scoop at least once a day and change the litter completely every four to five days. If you use scoopable litter, you may not need to change the litter as frequently, depending on the number of cats in the household, the size of the cats, and the number of litter boxes. If you can smell the box, then you can be pretty sure it’s offensive to your cat as well.
  • Add a new box in a different location, and use a different type of litter in the new box. Because your cat has decided that her old litter box is unpleasant, you’ll want to make the new one different enough that she doesn’t simply apply the old, negative associations to the new box.
  • Make sure that the litter box isn’t near an appliance (such as a furnace) that makes noise, or in an area of the home that your cat doesn’t frequent.
  • If ambushing is a problem, create more than one exit from the litter box, so that if the “ambusher” is waiting by one area, your cat always has an escape route. • If you have multiple cats, provide one litter box for each cat, plus one extra box in a different location.

Surface Preferences

All animals develop preferences for a particular surface on which they like to eliminate. These preferences may be established early in life, but they may also change overnight for reasons that we don’t always understand. Your cat may have a surface preference if:

  • She consistently eliminates on a particular texture—for example, soft-textured surfaces such as carpeting, bedding, or clothing, or slick-textured surfaces such as tile, cement, bathtubs, or sinks.
  • She frequently scratches on this same texture after elimination, even if she eliminates in the litter box.
  • She is or was previously an outdoor cat and prefers to eliminate on grass or soil.

What You Can Do:

  • If you recently changed the type or brand of cat litter, go back to providing the litter that your cat had been using.
  • If your cat is eliminating on soft surfaces, try using a high quality, scoopable litter.
  • If your cat is eliminating on slick, smooth surfaces, try putting a very thin layer of litter at one end of the box, leaving the other end bare, and put the box on a hard floor.
  • If your cat has a history of being outdoors, add some soil or sod to the litter box.

© 2002. Adapted from material originally developed by applied animal behaviorists at the Dumb Friends League, Denver, Colorado. All rights reserved.

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