Understanding Problems and Causes
There are three likely reasons that a cat will stop using its litter box: medical, territorial or environmental. Determining which is applicable is important but it is only the first step. Whatever the cause, it is important to treat the problem with some environmental changes to help break the habit.
Some cats may have urinary problems that lead to litter box problems. If you suspect this, see your veterinarian to evaluate your cats’ health. If it is determined that there is a medical explanation for the inappropriate elimination, it would still be beneficial to follow some of the steps outlined for behavioral/environmental concerns. Be certain that the “evidence” of prior accidents is gone, and the habit is broken. Sometimes, if a cat had a painful problem, they may relate the old litter box or litter to the pain and continue to avoid it. A new box or a new type of litter may be more easily accepted.
Spend some time thinking about changes in environment that could be contributing to the problem. Ask yourself whether the litter box was being properly cleaned and maintained? Was a new cat, dog or family member brought in to the household? Did you change the cats diet, litter or litter box? Did you move the litter box? Are there stray cats prowling around outside? There are many not so obvious reasons a cat may be stressed - take a moment to see it from their point of view.
In addition to reviewing potential changes in the environment, use the following steps to try to coax your cat back to his litter box.
The Box Itself
Remember cats are fastidious. They are very clean and appreciate cleanliness in their environment. Thoroughly clean or invest in a new litter box. Old boxes become scratched and the offensive smell can’t be removed. If you opt to try a new box and litter, you may want to set it up in a new location, leaving the old one in place. Be certain that your cat knows it is available. Clean both boxes for a time as necessary. Eventually, clean the box you are eliminating less and the one you want to maintain more often.
If you have a covered box, try removing the hood. While some cats like the privacy, the odors can be trapped inside and may be offensive to the cat.
Cats may develop an aversion to the litter even if they have been using it for years. Try to avoid litters with heavy perfume scents. There are even litters on the market that have special herbal and natural attractants to help direct the cat to the litter. Try a box of their old litter and a box of the attractant litter.
It is advised to have one more litter box than you have cats. Even a household with only one cat should have two boxes. Some cats will not share a litter box, and won’t use one that is regularly used by another cat in the household. When you have more than one box, they should not be located next to each other.
If your cat is consistently eliminating in one area, try putting a box in that spot. Your dining room may not be the ideal place for a litter box, but if the cat insists on going there it is much easier and more sanitary to clean a box than clean your carpet. You may be able to gradually move the box to a more preferred spot. Review our page on “Litter box training” to review some of the basics about litter box location.
Cleaning up accidents
Once a cat has urinated in an area, they will often go back to their new “bathroom”. Do everything possible to eliminate all of the stain and odor with an enzymatic cleaner. Regular cleaners may mask the odor so that we can't smell it, but to a cat's superior sense of smell, the odor will still be discernible, and can prompt a cat to continue to use that area as a bathroom. Enzymatic solutions actually have natural organisms that digest the bacteria that cause stain and odor, making it so that even the pet can’t smell it.
Try to keep your cat away from the problem area. If the cat is inappropriately eliminating only in one room, shut the door to that room. Cats might avoid certain air freshener scents, particularly citrus scents, and avoid the area if one is placed there. Use double sided sticky tape on the carpet in the area that has been soiled.
If your cat won’t resist the area, try placing their food there. They are unlikely to soil the area where they eat.
Stress is the leading cause of litter box problems. It is hard for many of us to sympathize. After all, who wouldn’t want to live the cats’ life of leisure. Cats are worriers, though, and it is important to think of how things we do may affect them.
Cats are territorial. If you have multiple cats, try to give each their own separate “territory” with food, water, scratching post, toys, and a litter box.
Make sure the litterbox is not in a location where a more aggressive cat could interfere with another cat’s ability to get to the box. Find a location where one cat can’t “corner” another (such as at the end of a hallway that has only one escape route.)
Cats naturally climb up to get away from scary things like predators or frightening noises or movements. You’ll notice cats rarely snooze on the floor, rather they are always up on a window ledge or furniture. Provide your cat a tall vertical place to go to help avoid stressors, such as a comfortable window seat or a tall cat tree. The higher the better!
Be certain your cat has toys to play with. Rotate them to keep your cat interested. Hide treats for him to hunt. Leave the TV or radio on. Leave on the Animal Channel or there are even cat sitter movies which cats love to watch.
Many cats, while they may appear aloof, experience stress from being left alone for long periods of time. They need to be confident that you will be returning to feed and care for them. Be certain that you are giving your cat some attention every day. Play with him, pet him, or let him sit on your lap. If your cat likes other animals, consider adopting a companion kitty. The extra exercise and playtime can be beneficial for your cat.
Feliway is a synthetic Pheromone developed to mimic the natural comforting facial Pheromone secreted by cats. A mother cat secretes this Pheromone to calm her young, and cats rub their face or scratch their claws to leave this Pheromone on surfaces. These pheromones have a soothing effect on the cat. When cats sense the facial Pheromone in areas around their home, they are less likely to urine mark or scratch those areas.
Feliway is a product developed as a spray or plug-in diffuser to help spread this comforting scent and calm the cat. It is odorless and will not affect humans or other domestic pets, besides cats. Feliway is a helpful tool to comfort cats adapting to new places, people or stressful environments.
What Causes Stress?
Bringing a new cat or kitten into the family is exciting for you but can be stressful for cats already in the home. Make introductions slowly, confining the new cat to its own room for the first few weeks. Use Feliway in both areas to calm the cats down and help with the adjustment. They will be sniffing around under doors (remember their keen sense of smell). Gradually introduce cats and slowly increase time spent together. Expect conflict when they meet for the first few weeks.
Be certain that everyone has their own zones they can retreat to, and things should settle down after a few weeks. One idea to speed the adjustment period is to intentionally share the scents of the cats with each other while they are still separated. You can do this by rubbing a towel over the cats’ fur and face and then putting that towel near the food bowl of the other cat. Do this for both of the cats. Give equal and adequate attention to everyone.
Moving to a new home can be traumatic for cats who are creatures of habit and generally don’t like change. To help your cat adjust to the new environment, confine it to one room for a couple of weeks. This will allow it to become adjusted without being overwhelmed. Make sure the room has all of the comforts of home including a litter box, food, water, scratching post, an elevated place to relax, and toys. Use Feliway in the room to help calm the cat in this stressful situation. Give your cat some extra TLC during the transition.
Adopting an outdoor cat that is accustomed to hunting and stalking outdoors may need special help adjusting to life inside. Be certain that your cat has an elevated spot from which to view the world. Make certain you spend some time playing games with him, particularly using interactive toys that allow him to use his hunting instincts. Lasers and wand toys are excellent. You may want to mix some dirt from outside with the litter. Feliway may also help create a calming environment and reduce stress.
Territorial Marking or inappropriate elimination?
Urine spraying or marking is one of the ways in which cats mark their territory. It is a natural behavior in both male and female cats, and is a form of communication. Marking is usually done from a standing position and will be directed at vertical surfaces, such as a wall or piece of furniture, whereas inappropriate elimination is usually squatting on a floor or carpet.
Marking is often a behavior associated with un-neutered male cats, and neutering does often solve the problem. If, however, it is a neutered male or female cat marking its territory it is often caused by a change in the household. Try to determine an underlying cause such as a new home, a new cat, a new puppy, or some other stress factor that could be contributing. Try to treat the underlying cause if you can determine it.
Feliway has been shown to greatly reduce territorial marking. It helps lessen the cats desire to spray or mark by creating a calm soothing environment for your cat. Follow the instructions on the package, spraying the problem areas often over the course of a month.
There are a variety of reasons cats end up with inappropriate elimination problems. It is important to involve your veterinarian to rule out medical concerns first and make sure your cat is healthy. Next by addressing environmental considerations and stress factors, most litter box problems can be solved!
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If your cat is not using its litter box, then you and your cat are both going to be unhappy. Typically, when a cat does not use its litter box there is a medical, territorial or environmental reason for this. It is best to try to determine the cause of the inappropriate elimination, and correct the underlying condition.
Non-use of the litter box is the number one reason that cats are given up to shelters. Having some basic knowledge about cat behavior and litter boxes can help alleviate problems quickly. If your cat eliminates outside of its litter box over a period of time, it may develop a preference for the new location. The more quickly that the problem is alleviated, the less difficult it will be to break the cycle, and the quicker the return to a peaceful co-existence with your feline family.
If your cat is not doing what you want him to, don’t respond with punishment. Cats do not have the pack instinct that dogs and humans do. They will not learn from or respond appropriately to punishment. Harsh treatment, yelling or using a squirt bottle will contribute to the cat’s stress and may worsen the situation. Hopefully, you will find advice on this page to help you resolve your problem. And, as always, our associates are happy to discuss options with you and provide additional recommendations.