Litter box avoidance is one of the most common cat behavior problems, and unfortunately it’s one of the hardest problems to live with. What can you do?
See the Vet
The first thing that should be done is have the cat thoroughly evaluated by a veterinarian. Medical causes must be ruled out because box avoidance can often be caused by something like a painful urinary tract infection, and once treated, the cat will go back to using his box normally.
If there is no medical reason why kitty is not using his litter box, then it’s important to look at the environment where he lives.
Why is Kitty Avoiding the Litter Box?
- The cat box is not kept clean. Cats have a very sensitive sense of smell and if their box is dirty or the litter is heavily perfumed, it will create a negative experience for him each time he uses it.
- Your feline is stressed or feeling insecure in his territory. This may cause him to want to “mark” his space, basically saying “this is mine.”
- The cat box is too close to where he eats and/or sleeps. Most cats prefer to eliminate in locations at the edge of their territory, away from feeding and sleeping areas.
- Your litter box is in a space that is a dead end. Cats need to feel like they have a safe exit strategy from their cat box so they don’t feel trapped during a time when they are vulnerable. Putting a box in an area where there is more than one exit route will make a cat feel more comfortable using it. Lots of people like to put their cat box in the tub in the bathroom behind the shower curtain – this is the ultimate dead end where they have no sight lines to see who’s coming and they could be easily trapped or ambushed.
- Too few cat boxes. In a multi-cat household, the ideal number of boxes is the number of cats plus one. In a multi-level house, each floor should have its own litter box.
- Too small of a cat box. Give your kitty a generously-sized box if you can. A good rule of thumb is the length of your cat (nose to base of tail) plus a half, but the bigger the better.
- Wrong type of litter. Some cats have distinct preferences on type of litter used.
- Wrong depth of litter. Cats have an instinctual need to dig a hole that is the right depth for their preference. Too much and too little litter can be reasons cats are not comfortable using that box.
- You suddenly moved it to a new location and he’s not comfortable with the change.
- He’s older and his joints are stiffer, and it’s getting harder for him to get in and out of the box.
Cleaning Up the Mess
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when tackling your feline’s “present”. Find every place your cat has eliminated outside his box (you may need to use a blacklight flashlight to truly find them all) and thoroughly clean it with an enzyme cleaner. Never use ammonia-based cleaners to clean up after your cat because they smell like urine to a cat, which may entice kitty to re-mark the spot.
Although cat poop is smellier than urine, it’s easier to clean off the floor. Wearing gloves, remove the #2 with a paper towel; use a disposable spoon if the stool is loose. Treat area with enzyme cleaner according to its directions. Note that pregnant women should not handle cat feces as they may contain toxoplasmosis, a parasite that is harmful to babies in utero.
Help Your Cat Use the Litter Box
- Where you see patterns where he has gone more than once, put a litter box there and see if you can encourage him to use the box instead of the floor or whatever the inappropriate surface he’s using. Once he is using the box consistently, you can gradually move it to a new location.
- Experiment with different litters and different depths of litter. It can be a good idea to set up a few boxes with different varieties to see if he shows a preference. Let him choose what he likes best.
Things You Should NEVER Do
- Never punish your cat for not using his litter box. Cats do not stop using their box because they are “mad at you,” “acting out,” or “trying to get back at you.”
- Never use the litter box location to administer medications, allow a child to trap a cat in the area, or locate it near noisy appliances like your washing machine.
In summary, do whatever you can to make the litter box experience for your cat awesome! Give him a nice big litter box. Keep it clean—try to scoop it at least twice a day—and buy an unscented, clumping litter that he enjoys using. When you make your cat’s box awesome it will pay you back immeasurably down the road when you don’t have problems with him avoiding it. PLUS you get the added benefit of keeping up with how often he goes, and details like how much he goes and what the consistency of his feces looks like. This is all good information about his health, and it may give you clues well before you start seeing any signs of illness.
Creating a healthy, comfortable litter box environment is one of the most important things you will ever do for your cat.
By Ami Somers, Cat Behaviorist – FBST Companion Animal Sciences Institute