Addressing Litter Box Problems

Litter box aversion is a headache many cat parents find themselves having to address. The cause for this aversion can be often complicated and difficult to pinpoint, but one thing is certain, litter box issues are usually a cry for help. Read on to learn how to address litter box issues in your home.

Preventing Litter Box Problems

It is easier to set your cat up for success and encourage good litter box habits from the beginning rather than address them after they’ve developed. However, if your cat has already developed an aversion to using their litter box, the following tips can help to create good habits.

Maintain a clean box

Just as we prefer to use a clean bathroom, so do cats! To ensure a clean litter box, you should:

  • Scoop at least once daily, removing all waste.
  • Fully clean at least weekly, disposing of the litter and cleaning the box with a mild, unscented soap or a pet-friendly enzymatic cleaner. Avoid using bleach to clean the litter box as this can deter your cat from using it again.
  • Fully replace litter boxes about every two years. You may want to consider replacing the box sooner if it develops deep scratches or is being used by multiple cats.
Litter box set up
  • Most cats prefer clumping, unscented litter with a soft, sandy texture. For cats younger than six months old, use a litter specifically marked as safe for kittens. Avoid overfilling your litter box–most cats prefer only one to two inches of litter.
  • Most cats prefer to use an uncovered litter box. This enables them to scan the environment for potential threats and easily escape if necessary. Covered litter boxes can tend to trap in odors, which, while good for human noses, is problematic for a cat’s sensitive nose.
  • Make sure your cat’s litter box is big enough for them to comfortably stand and turn around in. An ideal box will be one and a half times the length of the cat and tall enough (if enclosed) for them to stand at full height. Keep the age and condition of your cat in mind when choosing a litter box. For example, geriatric cats, overweight cats or cats with physical limitations will likely be unable to use top-entry boxes or boxes with high sides, leading to accidents if they don’t have more accessible options.
  • For multi-cat households, have one more litter box than the number of cats in the household, as many cats do not like to use a litter box that has already been used by another cat. For single-cat households, try offering an additional box since some cats prefer to defecate and urinate in separate boxes.
  • Place litter boxes in separate locations throughout your house, and choose quiet, clean locations away from your cat’s food and water dishes. Many cats will avoid litterboxes that are out in the open or next to noisy appliances. For multi-level homes, place at least one litter box per level.

Solving Litter Box Problems

Rule out underlying medical issues.

If your cat has a medical issue, it is unlikely this behavior will improve without first addressing their health and acting quickly can help prevent the problem from becoming worse. See more about medical causes of house soiling.

Determine if the problem is urine marking (also known as spraying) or voiding their bladder.

Urine marking is characterized by smaller amounts of pungent-smelling urine deposited on vertical surfaces. Voiding is the complete emptying of the bladder on a horizontal surface. If you suspect your cat is urine marking, read more about urine marking in cats.

Next Steps
  1. Create a log. Keep track of where your cat uses the bathroom, how often, the surface they go on, etc., to help identify the problem. Cats can form a preference for a surface type, a litter type or a location.
  • For cats with a location preference, try placing a litter box in any areas where they frequently have accidents or make those locations less pleasant using deterrents. Deterrents should be left in the soiled locations for at least six weeks after your cat consistently uses the litter box. Deterrents can include:
    • Solid air fresheners (citrus scented)
    • Double-sideded tape
    • Plastic carpet runners with the spiked side up
    • Food and water bowls placed over problem areas.
  1. Clean accidents thoroughly. A black light (UV light) can be used to detect any missed spots. Use an enzymatic cleaner designed to neutralize pet odors. Avoid cleaners with ammonia or bleach in them because they can encourage your cat to urinate in that area again.
  2. Confine your cat in a smaller location. Keep your cat in one small room with an easily cleanable floor (like a bathroom) for several days to a week to encourage good litter box habits. Confinement near a litter box increases the chance that your cat will easily find and use the box. If your cat is experiencing litter box aversion due to anxiety or stress, a smaller area may help them feel more secure and reduce this stress.
  • Have one to two clean litter boxes in this space, as well as fresh food and water, a bed and toys.
  • Remove rugs and clothes from the floor, as cats may be attracted to use the bathroom on soft, absorbent surfaces.
  • Be sure to provide a few comfy hiding spots such as a cardboard box turned on its side or a hard-plastic carrier with the door removed.
  • Make sure to spend time with your cat in this area regularly, especially if your cat is very social.
  • Slowly and gradually expand access to the rest of the house once your cat has been consistently using the litterbox in their confined space. Reduce the space again if accidents resume.
Additional Tips
  • Keep the litter boxes in the same location. Abruptly moving them may confuse a cat. If you need to relocate the litter box, do so gradually by moving just a couple of inches every few days.
  • Avoid changing litter types especially if your cat is not having any litter box issues. If you need to change litter types, do so gradually by mixing in a small amount of the new litter every few days.
  • Introduce new pets into the home gradually. Bringing a new pet home and letting them “work it out” is often a recipe for trouble. Keep new pets separated from resident pets and introduce them slowly, at their pace.
  • Refrain from using plastic liners. While it may make clean up convenient, a cat’s claws can catch in the liners, which cats may find unpleasant.
  • Avoid self-cleaning litter boxes because the sudden noise they make can startle a cat, creating an unpleasant experience.
  • Do not punish your cat for not using the litter box. There is a reason for the problem and punishment may only make the problem worse, especially if it is caused by stress.
  • Do not scold your cat and carry or drag it to the litter box. This will make your cat fear the box and you, and it will only make the problem worse.

Still have questions?

Contact our Behavior Specialists at [email protected] or (212) 876-7700 x4191

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