Why has my cat stopped using the litterbox???
Solving Litter Box Issues

Written by Glenda Moore
This article may NOT be copied or distributed.

litterboxKitty not using the litter box is possibly the most common complaint of all cat owners, and probably the one sure way a cat complains about a problem.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution: a cat may be avoiding the litterbox due to a medical ailment, a sanitation problem, wrong litter or litter box, inappropriate location of the litter box, or emotional stress.  This single page cannot guarantee that you can resolve the situation, but hopefully the hints on this page will be of some help to you.

The most common reasons can be summed up as follows:
  • The cat is suffering from a medical problem involving the urinary tract or a bout of geriatric constipation.
  • The owner changed the brand or type of litter.
  • The owner changed the location of the litter box, or replaced the old one with a new litter box.
  • The caretaker does not keep the litter box as clean as the cat wants it to be, or the owner uses too harsh a cleaning product.
  • The location of the litter box is too busy or not private enough for the cat.
  • The home is too large for just one litter box.
  • The cat cannot access the litter box (the door to the room where the litter box is was inadvertently closed).
  • The cat is prevented from using the litter box by another animal in the house.
  • The cat experienced some sort of trauma while in the litter box and now associates elimination in the box with that trauma.
  • There are too many cats and not enough territory or litter boxes.
  • Stray cats can be seen/smelled near the cat's territory.
  • The unaltered male cat has come of age and is marking his territory.
  • The unspayed female is in heat and advertising for suitors.
  • Over time, the cat has developed an aversion to the texture of the litter.
  • The cat was not properly trained to use the litter box in the first place.
  • The cat is stressed by a change in routine or environment, such as a new baby, new furniture, work schedule changes, vacations, overnight guests, or a move.

First and foremost
, you MUST NOT PUNISH the cat for inappropriate elimination behavior.  Hitting him (even gently), squirting water at him when he's urinating in the wrong place, clapping your hands or otherwise scaring him, or picking him up and dropping him into the litterbox will NOT work.  More than likely, punishment will escalate the problem.

To resolve the problem, you need to:

  1. Figure out why he is avoiding the litter box
  2. Reduce the cat's stress / eliminate medical problems
  3. Make the litter box desirable, and 
  4. Make the inappropriate locations undesirable for eliminating

Figure Out Why He is Avoiding the Litter box

Medical Reasons
Before doing anything else, take kitty to the vet to make sure there is no medical problem. Be aware that if a cat is straining at the litter box and is unable to urinate, this is an emergency situation that requires an immediate trip to the vet.  If your cat suffers from urinary disease or is older, ensure that the cat can enter and leave easily, as climbing can become very painful and result in the cat not using the litter box.

Sometimes if a cat hurts when using the litterbox, he will associate the litterbox with the pain and will avoid it, even after the medical problem has been resolved. 

If your cat is male, unneutered, and spraying, this is not a litter box avoidance problem - your cat is marking his territory. He will back up to a wall, raise his tail, then spray urine on the surface.  In the vast majority of cases, neutering the cat will stop the problem.

Sanitary Reasons
Some cats will use the litter box even if it hasn't been cleaned for a week; others will find another place to "go" if the litter box isn't scooped out daily. Some cats will "hold it" and cause themselves physical problems, while others will simply climb into a large potted plant or go on a rug. 

Litter/Litter box Reasons
Be aware when adding a new cat to your household that he may have learned to use a particular kind of litter:  some cats may have learned to like the "gravel" feel of clay litter, others may have learned to use the "sand" type clumpable; while still others may have used shredded newspapers. 

Some cats don't like covered litter boxes; others prefer them. Your cat may have an aversion to the scent or the amount of dust generated by scratching.  You may have cleaned the litterbox with a strong-smelling cleaner that is irritating his nose.

Location Reasons
Usually, a cat is most comfortable if the litter box is out of traffic patterns. If there is a lot of noise or people walking around, he may not be able to relax.

Too, a cat needs to know that he can "escape" - if the litter box is in a location where he can't see other family members approaching (particularly if those members are likely to swat him as he is in or leaving the litter box), he will probably avoid it.

Emotional Reasons
This is much harder to diagnose and resolve.  Some cats adapt to change without problems, while others have a very difficult time and show it by eliminating inappropriately. If your cat  is now eliminating somewhere inappropriate, ask yourself some questions: 

  • Have you added a new member of the family (human, feline, canine, etc.), or has one left?  Cats have a "pecking order" and the addition of a new cat can mean conflict if both are struggling to be "top cat."
  • Is there a great deal of stress in your life, and you're showing it? 
  • Was kitty scared while in the litterbox, or possibly even just while in that room - a loud noise in the house or outside, or did something happen to him while he was using the litterbox? 
  • Have you recently remodeled a room, with workmen and other strangers coming and going through his "territory"? 
  • Did you recently move to a new home or apartment? 
  • Did you recently move the litterbox to a different location?
  • Is kitty recovering from an illness?
  • Is there a new cat in the neighborhood that your cat can see/smell?

Reduce the Cat's Stress / Eliminate Medical Problems

Eliminate any Medical Problems
Before doing anything else, take kitty to the vet to make sure there is no medical problem - urinary tract infections, etc.  Be sure to use all the antibiotics that are prescribed, and be watchful that the problem doesn't recur. 

Reduce or Eliminate the Stress
Help your cat de-stress by spending quality time each day with him - he's part of the family. He'll enjoy playing with you or being petted just as much as you will.  Particularly if you have added a new member to the household, make sure he gets lots of attention.

Cats like things to be done the same way and at the same time.  Establish a daily routine if at all possible, so the cat knows when you'll be home, when his litter box will be changed, when playtime is, and when bedtime is.

Introduce new animals and people slowly - don't just toss a new cat in the door and presume things will go smoothly.  Some animals need to spend a day or a week somewhat isolated to get used to the smells and sounds and activity going on elsewhere.

Some products are available to help your cat deal with stress: Feliway or flower essences.  We've had very good success with a new plug-in called Comfort Zone from the makers of Feliway.

Make the Litter box Desirable

If your cat has associated the litter box with fear or pain, getting a completely different litter box, changing the type of litter used, and/or moving the litter box to a new location may remove the association for the cat. 

Look at the location from your cat's viewpoint, and make sure the box is in a place where he will feel safe and comfortable.  Consider putting the litter box in the bathroom, a mud or laundry room, or in the basement.  If it must be in a location where there is traffic, consider placing some potted plants in front of it for concealment. 

If you have a covered litterbox, experiment with removing the lid and see how the cat responds. 

Switch to an unscented, low-dust litter.  Get a new litter box, and clean it only with soap and water, not Lysol or PineSol, etc.

Make sure the litterbox is cleaned out to your cat's own personal comfort level.

Before bringing kitty home, try to find out what he type of litter he is used to using and make sure that is available to him.  You may be able to gradually change the litter to a different type if you want, over a period of time.

Place the (new) litter box near the inappropriate location.  Give the cat a few days to a week to get used to any new location.  Don't move the litter box more than a couple of feet at a time.

Make the Inappropriate Locations Undesirable for Eliminating

Clean the area thoroughly with an enzymatic cleaner such as Nature's Miracle or Simple Solution.  Remember that your cat's nose is much better than yours, so you must make sure he can't smell any urine or waste.  Don't use ammonia to clean the areas.

If the cat has been eliminating or urinating on the floor, cover the area with aluminum foil and tape it down, or use a strip of plastic carpet protector, the kind with little plastic teeth to hold it in place.  Because these feel differently than the original flooring, the cat usually will not venture onto it.  If this doesn't work, you can try turning the carpet protector upside down.  Then follow the instructions above about locating the litterbox nearby.

If he has been eliminating or urinating on your bed or sofa, make these "play" or "petting" areas.  You may (or may not) find it necessary to place a litter box near the bed or sofa.

If the cat has been scratching and eliminating in a potted plant, replace the dirt, since it will still smell like a used litterbox to the cat.  Then go to your nearby craft store and buy some plastic needlepoint canvas.  Cut it to size, leaving an opening for the plant's stem, and place it on top of the dirt.  You can also put a lemon-scented air freshener near the base of the plant.

See related articles:  Choosing the Litter Box, Choosing the Litter Box Filler and How to Build a Cats' Bathroom

For more detailed information about cat behavior - or to help you solve specific behavior problems you may be having with your cat, I strongly recommend reading any or all of these books - they are all very well written, very informative and interesting:

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