Litter Box Lessons

TEN Reasons Why Kitty May NOT Be Using The Litter Box

When it comes to figuring out why your normally fastidious feline starts doing its business in your Boston fern or on your Berber carpeting, its essential to think inside and outside the box – the litter box, that is.  There are many reasons a cat may develop an aversion to its facilities, but spite is not among them.  They are trying to tell you something.  You just need to determine what that is so peace can be restored. 

“Cats don’t stop using their box for no reason,” says Char Bebiak, feline behaviorist and animal trainer for Ralston Purina.  “Its instinctive behavior for them from the time they’re 4 weeks old.  Its up to you to find out what’s wrong.” 

What’s “wrong” could be physical and it should be your first consideration if something is amiss at the box.  While a medical condition may not be the most common reason for bad litter box behavior, its potentially dangerous nature puts it at the top of our list.

1. Medical Problem

If your cat starts displaying poor litter box habits, you should take it immediately to your veterinarian and have it checked for a urinary tract problem.  It may be associating the box with the pain it feels when it eliminates.  While lower urinary tract problems are more common, also diabetes or renal failure can cause excess urination, resulting in a particularly wet box a cat may wish to avoid.

2. Poor Location

After ruling out health issues, ask yourself the following questions:  Is the box in a high-traffic area where your cat might be disturbed during its potty break?  Is the box easy to access or does kitty have to hunt for it?  Here are a few simple rules with regard to box placement:  Make sure the box isn’t wedged in a corner where the cat feels trapped.  Avoid playing “musical litter boxes” (moving it too much).  And don’t make it hard to find or unpleasant to use.  Also make sure another cat is not “lying in wait” to ambush the cat when it is finished with its business.  The experts add that when selecting a private, accessible, quiet place for your cat’s box, keep in mind the room’s primary use.  If you use a laundry or utility room, don’t put the box near anything that might suddenly make noise and scare the cat, such as water heaters, furnaces or washing machines. 

 3. Unclean Box

The reason for box avoidance could be right under your nose - and kitty’s.  Not only is a cat’s sense of smell hundreds of times sharper than ours, their noses are also 20 times closer to a smell’s source, so they should be the final judge of what’s clean enough.  Cats would like the litter box cleaned every time they use it.  They don’t want to go where they’ve been before.  They want the waste gone and buried.  A box should be cleaned at least once daily.  If a cat smells foulness, he’ll just keep digging to find clean litter. 

 4. Litter Choice

If you’ve recently switched litter brands, your cat may be displaying its displeasure.  Changing litters because a new one was on sale or the store around the corner was out of stock may not seem like a big deal to you, but it could be to your cat.  Some cats prefer unscented clumping litter  - one that does the job without any perfumes or additives to offend a cat’s sensitive nose.  Some cats don’t like liners because they snag their claws on it.  Some cats have extra-sensitive feet and can develop “litter aversion syndrome” from the discomfort of stepping on certain harder compounds.  You need to try litters until you find one your CAT likes, and then stay with it.

5. Box Size

The litter box itself may be the culprit.  Size here does matter.  A small cat or kitten will need a box or pan shallow enough to climb into easily.  Expect your box to grow with your cat.  The small pan that is perfect for your kitten won’t do the job if he grows up to be a 20-pound adult.  Cats need enough “prime real estate” in order to be happy with their boxes.  A litter box is not a “one-size-fits-all” scenario.  Different cats have different tastes and needs.  You may have to try a couple of different kinds of boxes before you find one that works best for you and your cat.

 6. Privacy Issues

Privacy is an issue for some cats.  This could be a problem if the box is located in a high-traffic area.  Cats are “evolutionarily programmed” to follow an elimination ritual to cover their scent to protect them from predators.  This ritual calls for peace and quiet.

 7. Litter Box Count

Multi-cat households may not have enough litter boxes available to satisfy each cat’s need.  In an ideal world, there would be one box for each cat.  The problem is compounded if some cats are particularly territorial or aggressive about usage.  There are even cats that simply will not defecate and urinate in the same box, requiring two boxes for just one cat.  More cats in the household can introduce more litter box problems.  Some cats are able to share one box, whereas others are not.  You will have to experiment with the new addition and immediately address specific litter box needs.

 8. Moving Location

You may think one room is as good as another is; but your cat may think differently.  If the box is moved into a family room where the kids’ play video games or the stereo is usually blaring, our cat’s going to have a difficult time relaxing enough to do its duty.  If you move the box to a room where an appliance makes a sudden noise, the cat could become afraid of the box by association.  Most of your cats’ hearing is tuned in at an ultrasonic level.  If a litter box had originally been placed by a snug, protected interior wall and then is moved against an exterior wall where the cat can hear noises from the outside, this can be upsetting to some cats.

9. Invaded Territory

Cats feel most vulnerable when they sleep, eat and use the litter box.  That is why they like to sleep in elevated places and always keep an eye on what’s going on around them.  If a cat is in the litter box and the household’s more aggressive cat confronts it; it will feel stress and may start to avoid the box.  The same could happen if the box is located near a window where the cat could see outside “intruder” cats approach the house.  The cat figures the strange cat is where its box is located and might decide to avoid the whole situation.

 10. Punishment Strategies

When a cat doesn’t use the box, some people may try to punish them by rubbing their noses in it, or grab the cat and toss it in the box.  The cat will associate the box with punishment and think you are saying “don’t go”.  And again, the cat will then use an unacceptable area to relieve itself.

Accidents Happen

Cats are human after all!  There are times when accidents happen.  Review the above reasons and try to determine what might be happening.  Finding and treating the cause is crucial.  First take your cat to the vet to rule out possible urinary tract infection or worms, which is often the reason for a change in litter box etiquette – it is your cats way of letting you know something is not right. 

Should an accident occur, you will want to both clean the spot and stop the cycle of repeat accidents.  There are many effective enzymatic cleaners on the market, such as Nature’s Miracle, etc.  It is important to get the odor out so the cat won’t be drawn back to the same area.  You can also move food and water bowls or the cat’s bed to the area your cat soiled because a cat does not like to eliminate in the place where it sleeps or eats.  To discourage a repeat performance, you may also want to try an aversion technique.  Motion detector alarms deter cats by emitting a noise when it walks by the area, and the smell of mothballs or citrusy items also repel cats.  Note that some of these techniques may not be suitable if you are dealing with a particularly shy or skittish cat, or a new addition that may just be trying to settle into the household.  After treating the spot, you may also try covering the area with plastic wrap to allow the products to penetrate.  Then place foil or wax paper over the area to keep kitty away; cats don’t like the crinkly feel underfoot.

Please remember, there IS A REASON if your cat is not using the litter box.  It is not being “bad” – it is trying to tell you something.  You just need to figure out what that is so you can resolve it.  Animal communicators can be helpful also.  Like most things in life - it is in the end, resolved by communication.