Litterbox Problems: Inappropriate Elimination or Not Using the Litter Box

When a cat is not using their cat box, the most important first step is to have them evaluated by a veterinarian. Stress is often the main cause of inappropriate elimination, and this may lead to medical problems. Stiff joints may make accessing the litter box (getting in and out) difficult. Other causes include chronic kidney disease, urinary tract infections, marking behavior, and other social factors.

If your cat is not using his litter box and you've seen a veterinarian to rule out any medical cause for the behavior, then please give me a call. This is an extremely difficult problem to live with, but there are solutions. We can work together so everyone in your family can enjoy a happy, stress-free life together.

Some additional information:

Never punish a cat for not using the box. Cats do not stop using their box because they are “acting out,” “mad at you,” “trying to get back at you.” There is always a reason why they are choosing not to use their box, and a solution can be found using a positive approach.

If there is no medical reason for your cat to not use the litter box, it is important to thoroughly evaluate the litter box environment. Cats have a very sensitive sense of smell. They may avoid their box if it is not cleaned daily, the litter is overly perfumed, or if there is a cover on the box intensifying the smell. Stress can also cause a cat to avoid their box in an effort to find a place that feels more safe and comfortable for them. Some possible stressors are:

  • Being ambushed while using the box by another cat or dog
  • Too many cats using the same box/not enough boxes in the house
  • The box is too small (ideal size is 1.5 times the length of the cat from nose to base of tail)
  • Disruptions to the routine such as moving the box, moving to a new house, adding or moving furniture in the house, or changing the type of litter used
  • Boredom can cause stress, so it may be helpful to increase the number of play sessions every day

A cat may avoid the box if it is located too close to where he eats, plays or sleeps because it goes against his natural instincts to eliminate near those areas. Cats need to feel like they have a safe exit strategy from their litter 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. It is best to have a cat box on every floor of your home. The ideal total number of boxes is the number of cats you have plus one.

Cats outside the house that are marking the house or vegetation in the yard may make the cat inside feel like they have to scent mark their house to define their territory. Marking around windows and doors can suggest the cat feels an outside threat. There may also be territory disputes within the house if there is more than one cat. Marking in stairways, hallways, and doorways leading into rooms usually indicate stressors originating from within the house. Spaying or neutering will reduce the cat’s need to mark their territory.

Cats may mark items that change in temperature such as stoves, toasters, or electronic equipment. They may also mark items that come into the house with a new scent such as suitcases, backpacks, and shoes.   

A black light can show you the shape of the urine stain. A long vertical streak on a wall will indicate territorial marking. A pool of urine on the floor usually indicates the cat is finding a new place to eliminate because they don’t like something about their box.

Always clean an area that has been inappropriately used for elimination with an enzymatic cleaner to remove the scent. Do not use ammonia-based cleaners because they smell like urine to a cat.

Never use the litter box site as place for administering medications, allow children to trap a cat in the area, or locate it near a noisy appliance because the cat may associate the box with a bad experience. By providing a clean, safe, and comfortable place for you cat to eliminate, he will be rewarded for using it by having positive experiences.