Solving Litter Box Dilemmas

by | Cat Care |

CatDetective work may be needed if your cat has suddenly started eliminating outside of her litter box. Complicating the matter, is that sometimes the reason the cat started house soiling (for example, a painful urinary tract infection), may not be the same reason they are continuing. For example, your cat may have stopped using the box because of painful urination, and then while soiling outside the box, developed a surface preference for ceramic tiles and a location preference for the hall closet. To help you get to the bottom of your cat’s undesirable bathroom habits, ask yourself the questions below. Make sure you tackle the problem immediately, as new behaviours can quickly become established habits and difficult to replace.

1. Does your cat have a medical problem? 
If your cat has experienced painful urination or defecation in the box due to a medical problem, such as crystals or a urinary tract infection, he may associate the box with pain and avoid it. This may continue after the health problem is treated. Read below for possible solutions that may apply, including tips on dealing with surface and location preferences. 

2. Does your cat have an aversion to his litter box?

Reasons your cat may decide it’s unpleasant to eliminate in her box include :

  • The box is not clean enough
  • You’ve used strong smelling chemicals or cleaning products to clean the box
  • You’ve switched to a scented or deodorant litter, or placed an air freshener near the box
  • The litter is two or more inches deep
  • She was startled by a noise while using the box
  • She associates the box with punishment (e.g. someone yelled at her and then placed her in it)
  • She has been spooked or “ambushed” while in the box by another pet or family member
  • You’ve recently changed the litter brand/type
  • The box has a lid or cover

Try to build new positive associations with the litter box by:

  • Scooping the box a minimum of once daily and changing the litter twice a week (more if it’s scoopable litter) instead of just topping up the litter
  • Using soap and water to clean the box
  • Switching to a non-scented or deodorized litter and move any air fresheners away from the box. (Note: To help absorb odours you can place a thin layer of baking soda along the box’s bottom – however, if you find the box smelly it’s likely your cat will too)
  • Ensuring the box is far from appliances or areas where sudden loud noises are common
  • Buying a new box, using a different type of litter, and placing it in a new area of the home
  • Moving the box to an area where the cat has more than one exit point (if the cat was previously “ambushed” when using the box and is leery of being cornered)
  • Returning to your regular litter brand/type (research has shown most cats prefer fine- grained litters)
  • Switching from a closed box to an open box (due to their highly sensitive sense of smell, many cats dislike covered boxes where odours are trapped inside)

3. Is your cat neutered or spayed? 
An intact cat not using a litter box can be very difficult to train – the behavior may be hormonally influenced. Cats should be spayed or neutered between two and six months of age – however, it can be done at a later date if you haven’t done it already. Sexually mature cats use feces and urine to advertise for a mate and mark territory.

4. Was your cat a stray or feral cat? 
If your cat was born outside, the mother may have chosen the grass, earth or leaves as the toilet. As a result, your recently homed stray or feral cat may need to be actively trained to recognize a box filled with clay litter as a toilet. To help your cat make the transition, begin by placing their surface preference (e.g. sod or soil) in the litter box and gradually make the switch by changing the proportion of sod or soil to clay over a period of several weeks. Also, be sure to clean the litter box out daily as stray and feral cats are use to a wide selection of clean areas from which to choose.

5. Is your cat actually box trained? 
If you move the box and your cat continues to eliminate where the box used to be, your cat might be trained to use the space, not the actual box. If you need to change the location of the box, move the box a few inches a day until it reaches the new location. You may also wish to actively show the location of the box to your cat when he wakes up, after he’s eaten, and other times he typically “goes,” particularly if you’ve moved into a new house. Even better, you could isolate him in one room for a few days, ideally where the litter box will be kept, and when he’s reliable using the box, slowly let him have greater run of the house.

6. Does your cat have a location preference? 
Your cat may have a location preference if, as above, she eliminates in an area where a litter box was previously kept; or if she always eliminates in quiet and protected places, such as in a closet or under a desk; or if she eliminates on a different level of the house from where the litter box is located. To help your cat improve her habits you can make the area where she was eliminating unappealing to her by covering it with aluminum foil, upside down carpet runner or by placing 
citrus-scented cotton balls over the area. As well you may want to put a litter box on every level of your house. Alternatively, you could put a litter box where your cat has been eliminating and then when she’s used the box consistently for a month, begin moving it closer to its new location at one inch per day. Many cats are turned off the litter box if it’s placed in undesirable areas, such as a cold hard basement floor. Try moving the litter box to a more “attractive” area that affords some privacy, such as in a bathroom or closet (wedge the door open on both sides so the cat can’t get trapped).

7. Does your cat have a surface preference? 
Cats develop preferences for particular surfaces on which to eliminate. Often these preferences are established early in life, other times these preferences may change at a later date. Your cat may have a surface preference if he was previously an outdoor cat and prefers eliminating on grass or soil; consistently eliminates on a particular surface, such as soft-textured surfaces like blankets, clothes or bedding, or smooth surfaces like cement, sinks, and tiles; or he frequently scratches on this same texture after elimination, even if he first eliminated in the box. 
To help your cat adjust to traditional litter : 
Slick smooth surface lovers: Try putting a thin layer of litter at one end of the box, leaving the other end bare, and put the box on a hard floor. 
Soft surface lovers : 
Try using a high quality scoopable litter and put a soft rug under the litter box. 
Soil or sod lovers : 
Try adding some soil or sod to the litter box and gradually make the switch by changing the proportion of sod or soil, to clay litter over a period of several weeks.

8. Is your cat in a multi-cat household? 
In multi-cat households make sure you have as many litter boxes as you have cats, plus one, and place them in several locations around the house (and at all levels), so that no one cat can prevent another cat from gaining access. Some cats may refuse to use a litter box after another cat has used it. Consider if the cat that housesoils is an outcast among your other cats. Cats have changeable social hierarchies that include subordinate and dominant roles. Outcasts spend a great deal of their time hiding or on the highest spots they have access to – rarely touching the floor. While other cats may fight with them regularly, they rarely ever fight back. The kindest recourse for your outcast cat may be to find her a new home where she may fit with a smaller or different group. The structure depends on the characters and personalities of the cats involved – and roles may change and reverse depending on the group. The entry of a new cat to the household can create stress and be a factor in inappropriate elimination.

9. Is your cat under stress? 
Cats enjoy and thrive on the predictability of daily routines. Any changes in their environment, or ongoing stressors, may cause them to become anxious and urinate or defecate outside of the box or spray (see more information below regarding spraying). Events that may be stressful to your pet include a new family member (partner, baby); redecorating; personal crisis; a dinner party (noisy strangers throughout the house); going on a holiday (left alone, change in caregiver); or a repairman coming into your house (trespasser). Try to understand what stresses your cat and try to minimize it. For example, if you’re having people over place him in quiet room. Also, work on changing your cat’s emotional response to the stressor through desensitization and/or socialization. For example, if visitors stress him, have various friends come over and feed him for a week so he starts looking forward to visitors entering the house. If you’re planning a vacation, have the cat sitter visit a few times before your departure date and leave your suitcase out when you’re not leaving the house.

10. Is your cat spraying or marking? 
If you find urine stains at cat-nose level on vertical surfaces such as drapes, walls or furniture, it is likely your cat is not urinating outside of his box, but spraying. While it’s not certain if spraying asserts status, lays claim to territory, or offers sexual availability – it is clear that it has nothing to do with needing to “relieve” oneself – and that stress and/or overcrowding in multi-cat households are often at the root. 

The marked site may provide clues to where the trouble lies. For example, a marked suitcase can indicate stress over an upcoming vacation, the owner’s absence and/or a stay at a boarding kennel. Spraying near windows or doors can be attributed to the stress of an indoor cat that spots an outside trespasser on his or her property. 

Once you’ve determined the cause remove it from her environment or cut off access to it. If outside “trespassers” are the problem, install shades or visual barriers to prevent your cat from seeing on his property, or install a motion detector that sets off a garden hose or flashing lights to deter cats from visiting your property. To change your cat’s response to emotional triggers like your suitcase, couple high-value treats with the presence of the stressors. For example, feed him on or near your suitcase to foster pleasant connotations. 

It’s important to note that males tend to spray more frequently than females, and unneutered males almost always spray. Very often neutering will stop the behavior.

Pointers on retraining your cat

As soon as your cat stops using his litter box and health problems are ruled out, try to determine the cause by asking yourself the questions above. To help with retraining, a program of confinement and supervised freedom is often recommended. Start by keeping your cat confined to a small room, such as the bathroom, where the cat has fewer opportunities to make mistakes but is also not isolated for extended periods of time (since it’s an essential room everyone visits). Make sure you spend three or four 20-minute sessions during the day to visit, feed, talk, play and groom your cat. Place a cat bed, toys and dishes in the corner farthest from the litter box. In some cases, the cat may need to start in a cattery cage or dog crate to ensure he has no opportunity for a mistake. Place the cat bed at one end and the litter box at the other. Remove the bed if it is urinated on. Feed the cat two meals daily and leave the food for approximately 20 minutes. Keep a journal of when your cat uses the litter box. 

After your cat has used the litter box reliably in his confined space for two weeks, start to allow him access to other rooms in the house, ideally one room at a time. At first he should only be out when you are around the house to supervise and help ensure he doesn’t make a mistake. The best time to let him roam at this stage is after he’s just used his box. Once you observe the cat reliably returning to his litter box under supervised freedom, you can reduce the supervision. Take it slow and be consistent. When you see your cat using the box, praise and/or give a treat immediately after. If you catch your cat in the act outside of his litter box, do something to interrupt him like making a startling noise, but be careful not to scare him. Quickly take him to the litter box and set him nearby. If he goes over to the litter box and eliminates, praise him. If instead, he wanders away, he may want privacy. Keep watch from a distance and praise when he uses it. 

Never punish your cat for eliminating outside the box. If you find a soiled area, simply clean it up as described below. Compassion, consistency, patience and persistence will be rewarded in time. For long-term or complex situations contact an animal behaviour specialist who is experienced working with cats. If environmental and behavioral modification do not resolve the problem, pharmacological intervention may be necessary. Speak with your veterinarian. 

NOTE: Remove pet odours completely 
A proper and thorough cleaning of areas where your cat has soiled indoors is critical to help encourage them to use their litter box. Soiled areas flash like washroom signs. To check for old urine stains you can use a fluorescent black light (available at many hardware stores), which will cause urine marks to glow. Clean the stains with an enzyme neutralizing cleaner, available at pet stores. Strong smelling household cleaners are not effective at eliminating the smell. Steam cleaning will only lock in the odour if the soiled area is not cleaned thoroughly beforehand.