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Cat Litter Box Problems? 8 Reasons Cats Snub the Box & What To Do

by | Jun 10, 2020 | Ask Amy Videos, Cat Behavior & Care | 5 comments

Cat litter box problems pose the number one reason cats lose their homes and end up in animal shelters. That’s also the top reason an adopted kitten or cat gets returned. How sad! It’s important to keep in mind ways to prevent litter box problems from the moment you bring home the new kitten.

People want cats to stop peeing on the carpet, pooping outside the litter box, and spraying urine — especially peeing on your bed! But there is no single reason for hit-or-miss potty problems, and therefore, no single “cure” for bad behavior, but you can find out what to do with these common reasons cats snub the box. Note: I added one, in honor of Shadow-Pup!

litter box problems

Too many sharing one potty is a recipe for failure!

Folks generally assume that any litter box issue is due to a behavior problem, but you CANNOT separate health from behavior. The two go together like … like… laps and cats, or kittens and toys. Here are a few of the many reasons cats snub the litter box and develop litter box problems.

Why Cats Have Litter Box Problems

Clueless Kittens. Your new baby does not come pre-programmed knowing what to do. Even if she copy-cat’d her mother’s behavior, a kitten may not know where the facilities are located, or be able to reach them in time. Make it easy for new kittens. For the first week or so, confine her in one room with a nearby litter box (and other kitty equipment) so she learns allegiance to the box. Put her in the box and praise when she’s productive. Learn more about training your kitten to use the litter box at this link.

Clueless Adults. Adult cats certainly know how to “go” but your home is new territory for them. Be sure the adopted cat knows where to find the litter boxes. Find out what type of litter pan and box filler the shelter used, and start out with the same kind (you can transition latter, if need be). If he’s previously been an outdoor cat, he may not recognize the litter pan as the toilet. Give him a clue: add a top-dusting of potting soil or leaves from outside.

Marking Territory.  If you want to stop your cats from spraying, it’s important to understand why they do it. To cats, urine holds more fascinating, important information than my Kindle. Intact felines (both boys and girls) use urine like Match.com to advertise their availability and to cow interlopers from trespassing. Getting your cat spayed or neutered prior to sexual maturity reduces urine marking up to 90+ percent. So don’t wait!

SerenKarma

Seren learned to tolerate Karma, but his pestering led to litter box challenges. Image copr. Amy Shojai, CABC

Other Cats. Having to share potties puts many cats’ tails in a twist. Do YOU want to “go” after someone else? Didn’t think so. ;P Even when properly introduced, some cats want one box for solids and another for liquids. By age 19, Seren was not been happy about the interloper, Karma, and for the first time Seren started going outside the box. She found a spot behind a big chair, hidden from Karma but with two-way access, and left her “deposits” there. So…I got another litter box, cleaned the carpet thoroughly, and installed the new potty where she wanted it.

Rude Dogs. With the new puppy in our lives, Karma-Kat’s comfort means managing Shadow’s access to cat territory, including the litter box. We properly introduced them, and they respect and show interest in each other. The pup, confined to the kitchen, can’t reach Karma’s facilities in the laundry room because of the pet gate barrier. It’s not unusual, though, for dogs to invade or even snack from litter boxes and that prompts kitty to find other places to “go.” And a few dogs want to copy-cat the behavior and the dog uses the cat litter box and hisses off the kitty owner.

Old Cats. As Seren-Kitty grew older, it became more difficult for her to get to the facilities on time. She also suffered from arthritis that made it hard to climb in and out of the litter box. These are not unusual problems for old cats. We offered her a litter box with lower sides, and eventually, provided “puppy pads” for her so she had more opportunity to relieve herself in a hygienic way. She nearly lived to be 22 years old, so Seren deserved every bit of help possible.

Making sure there are enough litter boxes reduces the competition so one top cat doesn’t guard the bathroom and prevent others from accessing it. I recommend the 1+1 rule: one box, per cat, plus one. The stress of other cats also can prompt urine marking, not just to claim territory, but to use self-scent to calm their frazzled kitty nerves.

Smelly Box. Keeping the toilet clean seems to be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how quickly the yucky stuff builds up. Get the cleanup on a schedule. Daily, no exceptions, will reduce the chance of lapses. And “smelly” may also mean “too perfume-y” according to your cat, so beware of strongly scented box fillers, too.

Adding an automatic litter box can help enormously, because the litter ALWAYS stays clean. However, it may take some training to teach cats to use this facility. We had a LitterMaid for many years, and Seren loved it!

cat litter box problems

A tiny box can throw off your cat’s litter box aim.

Bad Facilities. Every cat is unique so what works for one may be awful for the next. Bad facilities may include a poor location, type of box, or kind of box filler.

  • Cats want privacy, but don’t want to feel trapped. Avoid placement in corners of rooms, or underneath cabinets, for instance. Locations that have a good lookout (so they can see the other cats coming and escape!) are ideal.
  • Most cats prefer soft, sandy textures easy on the paws for digging. They also like routine. So once you’ve found something they use faithfully, don’t mess with success.
  • Many commercial boxes are too small, and covered boxes contain odors and may make cats feel trapped. Experiment by offering a variety to see what your cat prefers. I like the translucent storage boxes from container stores, because they’re bigger for jumbo-size squatters, and the cat can see other cats approach.

Separation Anxiety. Yes, cats can be lonely and stressed when their routine changes and you work longer hours, for instance. One of the major signs is the cat peeing on your bed. Learn about kitty separation anxiety here.

Dirty Litter Box Accidents

  • Clean soiled areas thoroughly or the scent will draw Sheba (even innocent bystanders!) back to the scene of the crime. Avoid using ammonia-based products, which cats think smells like the ammonia in their own urine.
  • To find hidden urine accidents, invest in a quality “black light” and shine it around after you’ve turned off lights in the suspect areas. Cat urine glows under the black light. Here’s a black light kit designed for finding litter-ary mistakes!
  • If your cats target plastic or rubber-backed bath mats, toss out the mats. The backing hosts various microorganisms designed to keep the carpet stain-resistant, but it smells like urine to cats, and many felines eliminate on these mats because they already smell like a litter box.

Litter Box Problems & Health Issues

When your cat has been faithful to the potty and suddenly develops problems, your veterinarian should be the first call. There are a number of health issues that may underlie the cat’s litter box lapses, including Feline Lower Urinary Tract disorders.

Painful urination or defecation may result in the cat “blaming” the box for the for the discomfort. When kitty hates the box, she’ll look elsewhere for a comfy spot to go–like under your potted palm.

Buy a new box. Plastic holds odor and smelly old boxes offend cats even when you’ve scrubbed them. Cats that “blame” the old box for a scare or discomfort often eagerly embrace a new facility.

The proper diagnosis from your vet is vital in order to treat and often reverse the condition and poor behavior. Some signs of possible health conditions include any one or combination of the following:

  • break in house training
  • dribbling urine
  • straining in the litter box
  • Spending lots of time “posing” with little result
  • bloody urine or urine with a strong ammonia smell
  • crying during elimination
  • excessively licking the genitals
  • Some cats “go” in the sink or bathtub, or squat right in front of you (asking for help?)

So what about your cats? Have you had litter box challenges? Do tell! Watch the Ask Amy video below for another issue and tips.

Learn where you can find professional pet behavior help in this post.

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I love hearing from you, so please share comments and questions. Do you have an ASK AMY question you’d like answered? Do you have a new kitten and need answers? Stay up to date on all the latest just subscribe the blog, “like” me on Facebook, and sign up for Pet Peeves newsletter. Stay up to date with the latest book give aways and appearances related to my September Day pet-centric THRILLERS WITH BITE!

5 Comments

  1. Cathy Keisha

    This is great. Informative yet funny.

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      Thanks! Ya gotta laugh or else sometimes you’d cry. *s*

      Reply
  2. Dylan Peterson

    It’s good to know that vats need privacy while using the litter box. My wife and I would like to get a cat, and we want to make sure that it is comfortable using a litter box so that we don’t have to clean up after it. We’ll be sure to look further into our options for putting the litter box in a private place in the future.

    Reply
  3. Aimable Cats

    A couple of reasons I’ve seen…

    Kitty had a view of the back door when using his box and was surprised by a visitor. I’d say it scared the crap out of him but…

    Parker could not get to the litterbox because of dirty laundry blocking her access, so she peed on the dirty laundry.

    Rico peed in the spilled litter outside the box.

    When the kitty litter froze in the shed, the shed cats stopped using it altogether.

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      Awwww… Excellent additions to the list. Be aware of the “outside” view, or by potential interruptions. Sounds like Parker and Rico did the best they could, LOL! And whew, great reminder about outdoor cat box issues and frozen litter. Thanks for the comments!

      Reply

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