Cat-owners everywhere have been through it; you’ve invested in an odor-free jug of litter, a fancy litter box that looks like a potted plant, and maybe even a collection of aesthetically-pleasing pooper scoopers to match. But your cat is still not using the litter box.
At least 10% of all cats develop an elimination problem at some point in their lifetime. As frustrating as it can be when your cat opts for your clean, stainless carpet over their litter box, though, it is a fairly common issue— and sometimes has an easy fix. While there are some concrete steps you can take to help eliminate your cat’s elimination problems, there might be a bigger underlying issue to address.
Here are the top six reasons your cat stopped using the litter box (and what you can do to resolve the issue):
1. The litter box is in the wrong place.
If you didn’t have easy access to the bathroom, you’d have problems too. Experts say cats prefer their litter box to be in a location that has multiple escape routes and plenty of privacy. And if it’s too far away— like down in the basement or on a floor above everything else— your cat may not be able to get there in time.
Make sure your cat’s litter box is in a private, accessible space hidden from major foot traffic and separated from their food and water. (No one likes those activities to happen in the same space, right?) If your cat has a fear of the buzzing radiator or activity by the front door, avoid keeping their litter box in those types of places, too.
Move the litter box to a space where your cat feels comfortable and safe that they can easily get to. A spare bedroom, bathroom, or closet are all great options for keeping your cat’s litter box. Consider trying out different locations until you find one your cat feels comfortable with.
2. You’re messier than your cat is.
Cats are some of the cleanest creatures in the world, and if you’re not doing your fair share of the chores, they’ll let you know. Cats not using the litter box can sometimes be a matter of cleanliness. Make sure you clean out the litter box regularly, and don’t put too much litter back into it (about one inch of litter in the bottom of the box is ideal).
Litter boxes should be scooped out daily or at least every other day, according to pet experts. Make sure your cat’s litter box is big enough for them to use comfortably and that it doesn’t have a lid or liner that adds to your cat’s discomfort. If your cat keeps having accidents, make sure to clean them thoroughly so that spot doesn’t become their new favorite place to eliminate.
3. Your cat is stressed out.
Anxiety and bathroom habits go hand in hand for many species… and cats are no exception. Moving homes or even just switching kitty litter brands can be enough to throw your furry friend off his or her game.
Your cat might feel anxious about something you wouldn’t consider stressful. A change in their home environment— whether it’s switching up your daily routine or moving to a brand new place— can feel traumatic for your cat. Any big changes can cause your cat to avoid using their litter box and find other places to go instead.
Cats may also develop a negative association with their litter box if something traumatic happened the last time they used it. If they had a painful elimination issue in the past due to a health problem, for instance— even if they don’t have it anymore— they may start to associate that discomfort with their litter box. You may notice your cat jumping into the litter box and then back out immediately, as they no longer feel comfortable using it.
4. There’s a new cat on the block…
… or, uh, in your home. Having multiple cats under one roof may cause litter box problems. Your cat might be stressed out over a new addition or may be competing with your other cats for litter box space. Make sure you aren’t inadvertently causing litter box crowding; there should be one litter box in your home for each cat you have. (Cats and humans are alike in that way… they don’t like to share a bathroom.)
If you are a multi-cat household, one cat may sometimes guard the litter box to prevent another cat from using it. Even if there isn’t a direct conflict in the litter box, stress between feline friends can be enough of a problem that one or both of your cats sometimes choose to find another place to eliminate.
5. Your cat thinks he owns the place.
Just because your apartment charges “cat rent,” it doesn’t mean your pet should be allowed to relieve himself all over your couch… but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Urine marking is a form of indirect communication by cats or dogs, usually to mark their territory around the house.
Cats who do this will usually use their litter box in addition to going elsewhere around the house and usually spray onto vertical surfaces. The most common areas for urine marking are walls and sides of furniture such as chairs and couches.
Urine marking doesn’t usually happen just because your cat wants to dominate your home, but is a sign that your cat might be communicating with other animals around them. This form of elimination is also used by cats to keep unwanted individuals away (whoever they may be) and helps make their surroundings feel comfortable and familiar.
6. There’s an underlying medical issue.
All jokes aside, cats not using the litter box can be a sign of a more serious concern. Take your cat to the vet right away to ensure there isn’t a health condition at the root of the problem.
Some common medical issues that cause cats to eliminate outside of their litter box include urinary tract infections (UTIs), feline interstitial cystitis (a disease causing inflammation of the bladder), or bladder stones or blockage.
Producing small amounts of urine, meowing or crying during elimination, or going outside of the litter box may all be signs of one of these issues. Take your cat to the vet to ensure your cat is healthy. If a health problem is detected, your veterinarian may prescribe medication for your cat to resolve the issue.
How to Get Your Cat Back to the Box
Whether your cat is avoiding their litter box because of a new environment, new litter, or a health problem, you’ll want to resolve the issue quickly so they don’t grow accustomed to going somewhere they aren’t supposed to go.
Here are some common methods for helping your cat feel comfortable enough to return to the litter box:
- Take your cat to the vet first to rule out any medical issues.
- Keep it clean! Scoop your cat’s litter box at least once a day.
- Move your cat’s litter box to a quiet location. Cats prefer places that are private but easily accessible, where they can see others approaching the litter box and can get away quickly.
- Clean out the litter box once a week with baking soda or unscented soap and completely replace the litter.
- Switch the type of litter. Sometimes, cats will respond positively to the type of litter they used as a kitten. You can also try setting out multiple boxes, each with a different type of litter to see which one your cat prefers. (Sometimes cats prefer litter with a finer texture or unscented litter over the scented kind.)
- Switch to a larger litter box or a litter box with low sides to ensure it is easy for your cat to get in and out of.
- If your home has multiple stories, keep one litter box on each floor.
- If your home has multiple cats, keep one litter box for each cat, plus one extra.
- Thoroughly clean accidents with a cleanser specifically designed to eliminate pet odors.
- Deter your cat from accident-prone spots. Cover these places in double-sided tape, tin foil, or garbage bags to keep your cat from wanting to go there. You can also try using bright lights to deter them from the area. On the flip side of that, try putting litter boxes there to turn accident-prone spots into safe places to go.
- Trim or clean your cat’s fur if it has been matted during elimination. If you have a long-haired cat, trimming her fur near the base of her tail may help resolve elimination issues. Cleaning the area with a warm, wet washcloth might also do the trick.
- Leave treats or toys near your cat’s litter box (but not her food bowl). If your cat has a negative association with the litter box, you may try making the area near her litter box a more pleasant space. Be sure not to give her too much attention while near the litter box, though, as cats prefer going in private.
- Keep your cat’s routine as consistent as possible to eliminate stress. Pheromone sprays or diffusers can also help eliminate stress for your cat.
- Do not attempt to scold or punish your cat for their behavior.
- Never force your cat into the litter box.
- Seek out additional help from a cat behavior specialist if the issue continues.
If you find that your cat is not using the litter box, know that it isn’t a permanent issue. By treating your cat with compassion, understanding, and an eagerness to help, you’ll have your cat back in the litter box in no time.
For more information on cat behavior, health, and other fun facts, checkout more of Furzly’s content here.