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Dealing with Litter Box Issues
Written by the Health and Behavioral Department at Sacremento SPCA
Copyright © 2013 Complete PDF Version

At some point or another, most cat owners have to contend with a cat who partially or completely quits
using its litter box. While litter box issues can be difficult to diagnose, most of them are caused by one
more of the following factors:

Issues with the litter box setup
Medical problems
Stress or anxiety in the cat
Territorial marking

Litter Box Setup
  • Multiple Cats Households: You may need at least one litter box per cat in your household.
  • Are higher-status cats are not preventing the lower-status ones from accessing the box. If this is the case you may need to keep them separated to ensure that the lower-status cat can freely access at least one litter box.
  • Are litter boxes easily accessible? You may need at least one per floor in a multistory home.
  • Is the litter box to high up or are there too many obstacles to get to the litter box?
  • Does your cat want “privacy”? Maybe the box is in a place that is too public.
  • Is the box too near your cat’s food or bedding?
  • Is the box large enough for your cat to climb in and instinctively use? (Scratch/bury feces)
  • Is the litter box clean? Cats are very sensitive to odors and may not use a box if it is not clean enough for them, or if the litter has a strong fragrance associated with it.
  • If you use clumping litter, scoop the litter daily and replace occasionally. Clean with mild dishwashing soap and rinse well.  Scrubbing with baking soda will eliminate odors that linger (including soap).
  • Find a type of litter your cat likes and stick with it. Most cats prefer a fine-grained litter.
  • The depth of the litter matters, too. Most cats dislike deep litter, so start with a depth of an inch and adjust from there to find your cat's preference.
  • Clumping litter makes a box easier to keep clean, so you may want to go with that if your cat isokay with it -- just stick with the unscented varieties. Note that kittens under four months old need a non-clumping litter. Kittens can ingest the litter, and clumping litter can cause serious digestive problems.
  • While you may like the convenience and hygienic aspects of litter box covers and liners, the majority of cats don't like either. Covers can trap odors and take away visibility, leaving cats feeling vulnerable, and liners can get caught in cats' claws, an unpleasant sensation that they may want to avoid.
  • If your newly-acquired cat isn't using the litter box, go back through the above list to make sure your setup is ideal. If a cat that has been using the box starts going elsewhere, consider whether something has changed. Did you buy a different brand of litter? Did you fail to rinse the box thoroughly last time you cleaned it? Could your cat have been scared by something? some other areas to see if the cat will start using it again. Better yet, add one or two new boxes in

Medical Problems
Any litter box problems that's not quickly solved by adjusting the litter box setup merits a trip to the veterinarian to look for medical problems, such as urinary tract or anal gland infections. These conditions can make elimination painful, and the cat might associate the pain with the litter box, which leads to them avoiding it.

Stress or Anxiety
If you have ruled out litter box setup and medical problems, consider whether your cat might be under stress. Cats are creatures of habit and anything that disrupts their routines can stress them. If you've just gotten a new cat, they'll certainly be anxious in their new home for a while, and you may find that the problems go away as the cat settles in. Write down/Journal how and when the issue started and when it happens, this way you can narrow down the reasons why it may be happening.

Territorial Marking
A cat may respond to stress by territorial marking, establishing scent markers for itself all over the house in an attempt to make things feel familiar or exercise control. However, sometimes-territorial marking is simply the natural instinctive behavior of cats. Non-neutered males in particular have a tendency to mark, although intact females and altered cats of both sexes do sometimes exhibit this behavior.
Some signs that indicate territorial marking in cats:

  • Primarily urine rather than feces
  • Small amounts of urine rather than large ones.
  •  Urine often (but not necessarily always) deposited on vertical surfaces
  • New objects are a target
  • Objects or locations that have strong scents are a target
  • Marking may happen around doorways or windows where other animals are seen

The best way to deal with territorial marking is to neuter your cat. However, if a non-neutered cat establishes a habit of marking, it may stick to that habit even after neutered, so it's best to get your cat neutered as early as possible.

Now What?
If you've made all the fixes recommended above and your cat is still having litter box issues, they might have simply settled into the habit of going outside the box. You may be able to get them back to better habits using management and training. Try the following:

  • Thoroughly clean all spots you've seen your cat using. Cats use scent to find spots they (or another cat) have used before, and the only way to eliminate scent to where the cat can no longer detect it is to use a good enzymatic cleaner. The handout "Cleaning Pet Stains and Odors" gives detailed information on cleaning stains so your cat can't find them again.
  • Prevent your cat from using undesirable elimination spots. This may mean shutting them out of a room or otherwise discouraging them from using the spot.  If you catch your cat IN THE ACT of eliminating in the wrong place, you can interrupt them with a startling sound such as a hand clap. Use care when doing this with a cat you already know has a stress problem. Also, don't rush your cat to the litter box immediately after the interruption – that can create a negative association with the box.
  • The Feliway product, mentioned as a treatment for cat stress, can also be an effective way to deter your cat from their bad habits. By spraying your cat's favorite out-of-the-box elimination spots with Feliway, you send a "this spot already taken" message to your cat. It's important to use the product according to the instructions because contact with other substances such as detergents and enzyme cleaners can reduce its effectiveness.
  • If your cat is still using the box some or most of the time, reward them with a treat each time yousee them using it.
  • If the above steps fail, you may be able to retrain your cat to use the box by keeping it in a room with the box, restricting its access to alternate elimination spots. Make sure your cat has a comfortable sleeping spot in the room and that the litter box is sufficient distance from the food and water bowls. Be sure the litter box setup follows the guidelines given in this handout and keep the box scrupulously clean.
  •  Never punish your cat after the fact for eliminating in the wrong place. Your cat won't understand what they're being punished for, which can escalate stress and make the problem worse.

For additional information on the topic of litter box training and dealing with litter box problems, try the booklet The Fastidious Feline, by Patricia McConnell PhD.

Complete PDF Version from the Sacramento SCPA Website

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