Cat Not Using Litter Box: Causes of and Solutions for Inappropriate Elimination

Cat Not Using Litter Box: Causes of and Solutions for Inappropriate Elimination

Is your cat not using the litter box? Cats stop using their litter boxes for a variety of reasons, including issues with the box or litter, dissatisfaction with the placement or number of boxes, changes in the environment inside or outside the house, and undiagnosed medical conditions. You may have to investigate several possibilities before you understand what your cat is trying to tell you, but most issues are easy to remedy.

Try to keep in mind that cats don’t eliminate outside their litter box to purposefully annoy you. Punishment won’t stop or correct the behavior. Since most cases of litter box avoidance are stress-related, punishment only increases the stress (for you and your kitty) and makes it harder to identify the real cause.

Ruling out cat health problems

The first step is to take your kitty to your vet for a thorough physical exam. Several medical conditions may result in a cat not using the litter box, so you’ll want to rule these out before looking at other potential causes. The good news is that most medical conditions that cause lapses in litter box use can be easily and inexpensively remedied. Some signs that your cat might need an urgent vet visit are straining to urinate, licking his/her genital area excessively and blood in the urine.

Here’s the next thing to consider: Are all your cats spayed or neutered? Kitties who aren’t neutered may be more likely to urinate inappropriately. You can check SPAY USA’s website to see if there’s a clinic or veterinarian in your area that offers low-cost spay/neuter services.

About declawed cats and litter

It is not unusual to see litter box and other behavior issues in cats whose front claws have been removed. Cats deprived of their front claws may develop an aversion to the litter box because their paws remain sensitive or painful from the surgery, so they avoid scratching in their litter and may begin eliminating around the house instead. Look for products such as aspen or pine wood shavings (commonly used for guinea pigs or mice) or soft paper litter such as Yesterday’s News. Shredded paper is another option for you to try.

Why cats don’t use the litter box

Once you’ve ruled out possible medical conditions as the cause, turn your attention to the litter box itself, since this is most often the culprit. Here are some common reasons why a cat might avoid the litter box:

  • There aren’t enough litter boxes
  • He doesn’t like the type of litter
  • He doesn’t like the type of litter box
  • He doesn’t like where the box is located
  • The litter box isn’t clean

Number of litter boxes: There should be one litter box for each cat in the house, plus one extra (more if you have many cats). Some cats prefer to urinate in one box and defecate in another, so sometimes adding more than one box per cat helps.

Litter preferences: If you’ve changed brands or types of litter recently, that may be the problem. Many cats have specific preferences about litter. Cats have sensitive noses and are not fond of chemical or perfume scents. Studies have shown that the most appealing type of litter to most cats is unscented clumping litter that’s the consistency of fine sand. It’s best to purchase different types, though, and offer them side by side to let your cat choose; try clay litters, shredded paper, sawdust, wood pellets, even sand or dirt. If you need to change to another type of litter, do it gradually by adding a little more of the new product each time you change the litter, until your kitty is used to the new litter.

Litter box preferences: Most commercial litter boxes are too small to comfortably accommodate adult cats, so try a large plastic storage box (such as the ones designed to fit under a bed) and see if a little more room might make a difference. In addition, some cats, especially senior or overweight cats, have difficulty getting into litter boxes with high walls. Covered litter boxes may feel too confining to a stressed cat, so unless your kitty is really shy, try removing the covers. Also, plastic liners are convenient for us, but some cats don’t like them.

Location of litter box: Cats are creatures of habit, so don’t move the litter box suddenly. If you have to move a box from an established location, do it gradually (in extreme cases, just a few inches a day) to give your kitty time to adjust.

Locate the boxes in quiet places that offer a little privacy, away from your cat’s food and water stations. Avoid high traffic zones or noisy areas like laundry rooms. You may have to block off the litter box area with baby gates or pet doors to prevent unwanted intrusions by humans (especially small ones) or other animals.

Avoid placing litter boxes in the corner of a closet or someplace tight, such as between the toilet and bathtub. Your kitty may feel that there’s no escape route from such a vulnerable position. Try placing boxes in several different locations. The cat will use the box in the spot where he or she feels the safest.

Cleanliness: Because cats are very fastidious, you’ll want to keep the litter boxes as clean as possible to encourage their use. Some cats will only use a box once before it has to be cleaned, so it’s important to scoop regularly, particularly in a house with multiple cats.

Scrub out the boxes with mild, low fragrance soap at least once a week, and more often with really popular boxes. Don’t use bleach or ammonia-based products; instead, soak your boxes in diluted vinegar water when necessary to remove the odor.

What to do if your cat prefers to eliminate in inappropriate places

If your cat simply prefers to “go” in other areas of the house, there are things you can do to steer him back to preferring the litter box. To start, set up one or more litter boxes that are very appealing and easy to access. Clean the offended area thoroughly using an enzyme cleaner to help eliminate the odor so your cat isn’t tempted to use the same spot again. Then, block off the area or place something there that serves as a deterrent. Cats usually won’t eliminate where there’s food, so try placing a bowl containing a few favorite treats on the cleaned carpet or floor.

You can also make the inappropriate areas as undesirable as possible by covering them with aluminum foil or plastic wrap. Plastic carpet runners placed “teeth” side up are good for covering large areas. Be sure you cover the area generously. If the spot is a foot or two wide, cover it with something at least four to six feet wide. After a few weeks of success, start removing the covering in areas that the cat is not bothering, working slowly toward the trouble spots.

Another option to consider: Install an outdoor cattery, a place where your cat may prefer to eliminate. Catteries come in all sizes and shapes; you’re limited only by your imagination. They can be large open enclosures with shelves and cubbies where cats can relax and play (and you can relax and play with them), small covered enclosures just big enough for a litter box, or something in between. Make sure that you still take litter box preferences, location and cleaning into consideration.

Finally, in some cases it may be worth talking to your veterinarian about using some neutraceuticals and/or behavior-modifying medications. These meds can be helpful tools while trying to train your cat to urinate in an appropriate place and can help reduce the stress your cat feels.

Stop Feline Inappropriate Elimination

Cats who fail to use the litter box once a week are four times more likely to be relinquished.

Feline inappropriate elimination is a common behavioral problem reported to veterinarians, accounting for approximately 50 percent of all behavioral referrals. Unfortunately, not only is FIE a common problem, it is also a leading reason for relinquishment of cats.

It is a cold, hard fact that cats who fail to use the litter box once a week are four times more likely to be relinquished; if they eliminate outside the litter box daily, these odds increase to over 28:1. About 4 percent of cats urinate outside the litter box weekly, and 1 percent eliminate outside the litter box daily.

Nine percent of adult cat owners mention FIE as a problem to their veterinarians, and 10-24 percent of cats will have such a problem in their lifetimes. In most behavior clinics, house soiling constitutes more than 50 percent of referrals, with aggression coming in as a second most common behavior problem, constituting about a third of all referrals.

Cats eliminate outside the litter box for several reasons. Some concern cats’ natural tendencies and others with the circumstances they find themselves in, though often both factors operate together. The four main causes of feline inappropriate eliminationare litter box aversion, urine marking, hormonal issues and medical problems.

Usually, we veterinarians check for medical problems and to appreciate the effect of intact/unneutered status on urine marking. Many deal with these two contributing factors efficiently, leaving house soiling and urine marking as the main conditions brought to a behaviorist’s attention.

Distinguishing between these two conditions can be quite a problem and is key to addressing FIE. In straightforward litter box problems, the cause is usually quite evident after asking some simple questions. Some of the questions should pertain to prior medical issues and factors that may have led to anxiety connected with litter box use.

Litter boxes are used infrequently, if at all, for urination, defecation or both. Urine marking, on the other hand, if not hormonally driven, is almost always associated with territorial stress. In this condition, fairly normal litter box use, coupled with the strategic location of urine marks, helps to distinguish this problem. It is true, however, that in some cases house soiling and urine marking can exist concomitantly.

Litter Box Aversion
Some people think of cats as being just plain fussy—and to some extent they are—but many fail to use a litter box facility where it is improperly set up, unattractive or, in some cases, frankly repugnant to the cat.

Clinical features of simple litter box problems are as follows:

  • Elimination is always on horizontal surfaces
  • Carpets and rugs are often targeted
  • Frequently only two to three locations are used
  • The litter box is used little, if at all
  • The litter box may be used for defecation but not urination or vice-versa

One helpful piece of information can sometimes be obtained by asking about a cat’s behavior around the litter box. Does the cat spend any length of time in the box? Does he hover around it and look somewhat tentative? Does he balance on the side of the box, and scratch in the litter? In the most extreme form of litter box aversion, the cat will approach the box, sniff at it—somewhat disdainfully—and then walk away.

A slight improvement over this situation is the cat showing some interest and perhaps putting two feet into the litter, but then shying away. The next stage of attractiveness might be the cat getting in the litter box but appearing somewhat uncomfortable in there and spending very little time in the litter, possibly balancing on the sides of the box.

Even after successful use of the litter, the cat may hot-foot it out of the box and scratch on the walls or carpet near the box. All these signs or any combination of them mean that the cat is uncomfortable with the facilities.

Appropriate litter box behavior involves the cat approaching the box enthusiastically, jumping into it willingly, spending time investigating, choosing just the right area, digging a hole, turning around, eliminating, and then inspecting his handy work before covering up the urine or feces. The cat then skips lightly out of the box.

Reasons for cats not wanting to use their litter boxes are sometimes obvious, like a filthy box that’s scooped infrequently or having the box positioned next to a furnace or other noise maker. That said, elementary matters like this have often been addressed before a case of FIE is presented to a behaviorist, so we are left with somewhat more subtle issues to research and address.

Common owner errors include providing too few boxes, locating boxes in undesirable locations, using a type of litter that the cat does not appreciate, keeping the litter too shallow, a box that not cleaned often enough, one that is cleaned with harsh chemicals, and the use of liners, hoods and plastic underlay.

Any one or more of these can cause an issue. The correct number of litter boxes is one more than the number of cats in the house. Especially if there’s a problem, I advise providing at least one box per floor of the house. Position boxes away from scary machinery, such as washing machines and fans, and should be located in warm, comfortable areas, not cold, damp, drafty cellars.

Making it Comfy
Most cats prefer litter that is that which most closely approximates sand. This is because the cat’s wild ancestor, the African wild cat, lived in a sandy environment, and sand is a natural substrate for elimination. Litter depth should be at least 4 inches, and that depth should be maintained during subsequent scoopings. Cats prefer non-hooded boxes, so if there’s an issue, it is helpful to remove hoods that are, once again, designed only for the owner’s preference, not the cat’s.

A variety of non-hooded litter boxes will work, but they should be the right size—about 1 1/2 times the length of the cat—and sufficiently wide so the cat can turn around easily.

Litter box hygiene is important. When there is a problem, even scoopable clumping litter should be replaced every two to four weeks and the box washed out under warm running water. Owners should scoop the box at least once a day, and boxes themselves might need to be replaced at the beginning of treatment because the plastic can retain the scent of chemicals.

If litter box hygiene is not maintained, we have what I refer to as the “Port-o-Potty Syndrome” where the cat, though keen to use the box, is driven away because the litter box smells repugnant. After two weeks of use, scoopable litter that looks clean can begin to smell.

One way that scoopable litter can be kept fresher is with the use of the Zero Odor litter spray. During the first two weeks of scooping fresh litter, this may not be a necessary measure, but after two weeks even scoopable litter begins to have a detectable odor that can be nixed with this spray.

Another method of making the litter more attractive is to use real pheromones, such as felinine, a sulfur-containing amino acids that is present in cat urine. Small amounts of this compound will attract the cat back to the litter box. Unfortunately, it is hard to come by.

An opposite treatment is to make soiled areas unattractive. Though unlikely to be successful on its own, it can be a helpful complementary measure.

The use of repellant spays such as Boundary or Silver Foil may be used to render an area unattractive or off limits, as can citrus-scented air fresheners, feeding meals on the target area, and various other aversive strategies like using Ssscaat compressed air spray.

Use the best litter, preferably the unscented, scoopable variety;  have the right depth of litter (4 inches); clean boxes in sufficient number; and boxes that are conveniently located, easy to access, open to the air and uncomplicated by liners, hoods and plastic underlay. That usually does the trick.

Defecation outside the litter box is almost always a litter box problem. Typically defecation is close to the box, in its immediate vicinity, and the litter is used little if at all for this function. Treatment is the same as for urine marking and success is almost guaranteed.

Medical Conditions
Whether the problem is urination or defecation outside the litter box or both, there can be a medical cause associated with it, either one that is ongoing or previously existed.

The most obvious medical causes of inappropriate elimination are cystitis or some other bladder condition, renal problems, diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes), diarrhea or constipation or painful on elimination for any reason. Diagnosing and addressing the relevant medical conditions is imperative. Some cats with medical issues gravitate toward using a bathtub or sink instead of the litter box, and some veterinary specialists believe that is a key sign of former or ongoing medical complications.

Finally, some pariah cats may have difficulty in reaching the litter box that is guarded by a bullying cat who effectively ambushes it. Needless to say, all these issues have to be addressed at the source, but in resolving them, even for a simple litter box problem of this causation, anti-anxiety medicine can sometimes be helpful.

Urine Marking
Urine marking is a completely separate issue and with a different clinical appearance. One of the cardinal ways of diagnosing it is by paying attention to the location of elimination incidents. They are always interesting and informative.

It used to be said that urine marking occurred on vertical surfaces only. Certainly when urination is on a vertical surface, the problem is one of urine marking. If a cat is seen backing up to a vertical surface, treading, tail quivering and urinating a fine stream, the problem is urine marking in the form of spraying.

Unfortunately, some cats urine mark on horizontal surfaces, too, so simply applying the vertical location rule is not always diagnostic. The most important aspect of urine marking is its strategic significance. As such, the locations of urination are often many and varied, though the list of urine-marked areas is often quite typical.

Because urine marking is often triggered by interactions with other animals, especially other cats—either other indoor cats or cats outside the home—urine marks will be directed to signal territorial ownership of these key locations.

If, for example, urine marking is directed at window sills, blinds or baseboards under the window, then urine marking is a response to a perceived threat from outside cats or possibly even wild animals. If urine marking is directed toward furniture or inside doors, then issues with other cats in the house may be to blame.

Urine marking on people’s property—whether it is their clothes, bed, computer keyboard, briefcase or place that a person sat—means that there is some anxiety concerning the people in the house. Cats urine mark on shopping bags because they are new and on heating registers because they deliver a plume of odors from some other location.

It is not always clear why cats urinate on appliances, but one theory is that they represent a super-normal stimulus because of the warmth they generate. When dealing with urine marking, make sure you know who the true offender is. In multi-cat households, this is best determined by either separation, the use of an innocuous fluorescin dye given by mouth which will stain the urine fluorescent green.

Ideal treatment of urine marking is to identify and address the source of stress. If the stressor can be avoided that is the best solution, though sometimes issues between cats can be addressed by desensitization. Often urine marking is not resolvable by behavioral means alone, however, and pharmacological treatment with an anti-depressant like Prozac has been shown to be highly effective. Another medication that can be of some value is the mild anti-anxiety drug buspirone, which offers some advantages, though it is hard to administer.

Detection & Clean-Up
Whether the cause of feline inappropriate elimination is a litter box problem or urine or fecal marking, appropriate detection and thorough clean-up is absolutely imperative. Urine marks, hitherto undetected, can be found using a black light, and it is important to treat each one.

Litter box problems are easy to recognize and easy to address. The success rate after treatment should be close to 100 percent without the use of medications in almost all cases.

Urine marking is a tougher problem and usually requires the use of medications, such as Prozac and buspirone. With these pharmacological tools, urine marking also can be addressed in most of cases with a 90-100 percent reduction in marking incidents over the course of a month or so. In all cases medical problems must be ruled out before treatment is initiated. Also, it is as well to consider in neutered male cats refractory to medical treatment, the faint possibility of the cat having a retained testicle (i.e. only one was removed at the time of the neuter surgery). A retained testicle can be diagnosed by blood testosterone assay, preferably following an HCG challenge.

If all these measures are addressed in the right combination for any of the problems leading to FIE, a solution can usually be found, saving the cat from what would otherwise have been almost inevitable relinquishment.

An author and researcher, Dr. Dodman is a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and founder of Tufts’ Animal Behavior Clinic.

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