Most cats have a specific preference about where they want to eliminate. By following the suggestions outlined in this handout, you’ll be able to start off on the right foot with your new cat.
Table of Contents
Most people are inclined to place the litterbox in an out-of-the-way spot in order to minimize odor and loose particles of cat litter in the house. Often, the litterbox ends up in the basement, sometimes next to an appliance and/or on a cold cement floor. This type of location can be undesirable from your cat’s point of view for several reasons.
If you have a kitten or an older cat, she may not be able to get down a long flight of stairs in time to get to the litterbox. Since she is new to the household, she may not remember where the litterbox is if it’s located in an area she seldom frequents. Your cat may be startled while using the litterbox if a furnace, washer or dryer suddenly comes on and that may be the last time she’ll risk such a frightening experience! If your cat likes to scratch the surface surrounding her litterbox, she may find a cold cement floor unappealing.
Therefore, you may have to compromise. The litterbox should be kept in a location that affords your cat some privacy, but is also conveniently located. If you place the litterbox in a closet or a bathroom, be sure the door is wedged open from both sides, in order to prevent her from being trapped in or out. Depending on where it’s located, you might consider cutting a hole in a closet door and adding a swinging door. If the litterbox sits on a smooth, slick or cold surface, put a small throw rug underneath the litterbox.
Type of Litter
Research has shown that most cats prefer fine-grained litters, presumably because they have a softer feel. The new scoopable litters usually have finer grains than the typical clay litter. However, high-quality, dustfree, clay litters are relatively small-grained and may be perfectly acceptable to your cat. Potting soil also has a very soft texture, but is not very absorbent. If you suspect your cat has a history of spending time outdoors and is likely to eliminate in your houseplants, you can try mixing some potting soil with your regular litter. Pellet-type litters or those made from citrus peels are not recommended. Once you find a litter your cat likes, don’t change types or brands. Buying the least expensive litter or whatever brand happens to be on sale, could result in your cat not using the litterbox.
Many cats are put off by the odor of scented or deodorant litters. For the same reason, it’s not a good idea to place a room deodorizer or air freshener near the litterbox. A thin layer of baking soda placed on the bottom of the box will help absorb odors without repelling your cat. Odor shouldn’t be a problem if the litterbox is kept clean. If you find the litterbox odor offensive, your cat probably finds it even more offensive and won’t want to eliminate there.
Number of Litterboxes
You should have at least as many litterboxes as you have cats. That way, none of them will ever be prevented from eliminating in the litterbox because it’s already occupied. You might also consider placing them in several locations around the house, so that no one cat can “guard” the litterbox area and prevent the other cats from accessing it. We also recommend that you place at least one litterbox on each level of your house. It’s not possible to designate a personal litterbox for each cat in your household, as cats will use any litterbox that’s available. Occasionally, a cat may refuse to use the litterbox after another cat has used it. In this case, all of the litterboxes will need to be kept extremely clean and additional boxes may be needed.
To Cover or Not To Cover
Some people prefer to use a covered litterbox, however, there are some potential problems with using this type of box. You may want to experiment by offering both types at first, to discover what your cat prefers.
- You may forget to clean the litterbox as frequently as you should because the dirty litter is “out of sight – out of mind.”
- A covered litterbox traps odors inside, so it will need to be cleaned more often than an open one.
- A covered litterbox may not allow a large cat sufficient room to turn around, scratch, dig or position herself in the way she wants.
- A covered litterbox may also make it easier for another cat to lay in wait and “ambush” the user as she exits the box. On the other hand, a covered litterbox may feel more private and may be preferred by timid cats.
Cleaning The Box
To meet the needs of the most discriminating cat, feces should be scooped out of the litterbox daily. How often you change the litter depends on the number of cats you have, the number of litterboxes, and the type of litter you use. Twice a week is a general guideline for clay litter, but depending on the circumstances, you may need to change it every other day or once a week. If you scoop the litter daily, scoopable litter can go two to three weeks before the litter needs to be changed. If you notice an odor or if much of the litter is wet or clumped, it’s time for a change. Don’t use strong smelling chemicals or cleaning products when washing the litterbox, as it may cause your cat to avoid it. Washing with soap and water should be sufficient.
Some cats don’t mind having a liner in the litterbox, while others do. Again, you may want to experiment to see if your cat is bothered by a liner in the box. If you do use a liner, make sure it’s anchored in place, so it can’t easily catch your cat’s claws or be pulled out of place.
Depth Of Litter
Some people think that the more litter they put in the box, the less often they will have to clean it. This is not true. Most cats won’t use litter that’s more than about two inches deep. In fact, some long-haired cats, actually prefer less litter and a smooth, slick surface, such as the bottom of the litterbox. The litterbox needs to be cleaned on a regular basis and adding extra litter is not a way around that chore.
There’s really no such thing as “litter-training” a cat in the same way one would house-train a dog. A cat doesn’t need to be taught what to do with a litterbox. The only thing you need to do is provide an acceptable, accessible litterbox, using the suggestions above. It’s not necessary to take your cat to the litterbox and move her paws back and forth in the litter, in fact, we don’t recommend it. This may actually be an unpleasant experience for your cat and is likely to initiate a negative association with the litterbox.
If Problems Develop
If your cat begins to eliminate in areas other than the litterbox, your first call should always be to your veterinarian. Many medical conditions can cause a change in a cat’s litterbox habits. If your veterinarian determines that your cat is healthy, the cause may be behavioral. Most litterbox behavior problems can be resolved by using behavior modification techniques. Punishment is not the answer. For long-standing or complex situations, contact an animal behavior specialist who has experience working with cats.
How to Solve Your Cat Litterbox Problems
One of the most frustrating behaviors for a cat owner is litterbox issues. If only cats could talk to tell us why they weren’t using their litterbox! There are so many reasons cats completely stop or won’t use their litterbox all the time. It can take some detective work to figure out the reason or reasons, and the cure or cures. This blog article will give you a step-by-step process to figure out why and fix the problem. Many cat owners I know and I have personally used these steps to solve litterbox problems with many cats, from young kittens to seniors. Litterbox issues are one of the most common reasons cats are surrendered to shelters, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We describe nine steps below in detail – don’t be overwhelmed! Often it only takes finding the right step to get your cat going back in the litterbox again.
To make these steps easier to understand, I’ll call your litterbox-avoiding cat Kitty.
Cats can be sensitive and effected by your mood. They might not show it in a way you understand, but if you are stressed or unhappy when your are cleaning their litterbox or otherwise, Kitty will pick up on that and that may be why he is avoiding the litterbox. Can you change your mood? Sometimes buying a pretty new litterbox and scented litter makes you feel better, and will help Kitty start using it again. Also, as your Kitty gets back on track, don’t forget to lavishly praise Kitty each time he gets it right, and reward him with his favorite treat if you ever see him using his box.
These steps assume you know litter box math: each cat should have their own litterbox plus one extra, so 1 cat = 2 boxes, 2 cats =3 boxes, 3 cats = 4 boxes.
Step 1. Clean up
Cat urine is one of the most difficult smells on the earth to remove. To add to the challenge, cats have an extraordinary sense of smell, and may continue to go if they can smell their prior mess. But it can be done! Remove, sterilize, and store (or throw out) any items Kitty urinated or defecated on outside the box. If Kitty went on more permanent items like your front door or wall-to-wall carpet, thoroughly clean the entire area, and soak with an enzyme pet cleaner for 24 hours. If you can’t close Kitty out of that room, keep him away from it the entire time you are trying the steps below by covering it with a large cat-proof item, like a plastic tarp.
Step 2. “Brand New”
The easiest and fastest thing you can try is adding another brand new litterbox, with new litter, in a new location. Put a brand new litterbox, as big a one as possible and NOT a covered one, filled with fresh all-new litter, as close as you can to where Kitty was eliminating inappropriately the most. This might be right next to your shower if they were using the bath mat, in your closet, on the couch, under a window or in a doorway.
Monitor Kitty for one full day.
Did that stop Kitty from going outside the box? Great! Keep it there for one full week or as long as it would usually take for your Kitty to go outside his box. If you can keep the litterbox in the new location with that kind of litter, your outside-the-box problem may be solved.
What if the new location is not where you want a litterbox? Gradually – just one foot a day – move it to where you want it. If Kitty’s peeing or pooping outside the box resumes, move it back. If you get up to two adjacent boxes, keep the 2nd box there for one month. After one month, you can take up the 2nd box – but be aware, even some single cats need two boxes.
Step 3. Medical
If the “brand new” solution didn’t fix your problem in one day, you should take Kitty to your vet ASAP to rule out any medical causes. Often cats will stop using their box to communicate they aren’t feeling well or are in pain. Here are the steps most vets will recommend:
1. A urinalysis to check for infection.
2. A urine CULTURE for elevated bacteria.
3. Blood panel or other tests for illnesses.
4. Feline Prozac or Buspar to relieve anxiety-driven litterbox issues.
Step 3. Litterbox preferences
After your vet has ruled out immediate medical causes, and while you’re waiting on the culture to come back, you can start the process of figuring out if it is the litterbox location, type or depth of litter, cleanliness, or style of box. Kitty may have a particular preference!
In the order listed below, try each of these six options for three days each. Add on the next option after three days if the previous step didn’t get Kitty going in his boxes 100%. If you reach a success combo, keep it up! This takes time, but each option or combination of options could be the key to your success.
- Cleanliness: Keep all boxes hospital clean for three days. Dump all litter out daily, scrub with a cat enzyme cleaner (or use a brand new box), replace with 100% clean new litter. Some cats are super clean and don’t want to use a box once it has been used.
- Style: add another new litter box, as big as possible, uncovered, with the lowest sides possible.
- Type: Fill new box with a different type of litter – try unscented non-clumping Tidy Cats if you weren’t using that.
- Soil: Replace new box litter with nice rich potting soil.
- Depth: Add more soil to new box and litter to original box make it deeper. Some cats want to dig down first.
Step 4. Location and quantity
Try putting six new litter boxes out in six different locations. You don’t have to buy six new permanent ($$) boxes, you can use the disposable cardboard litter boxes sold in packs at pet supply stores. This is a temporary test to see if something in the two locations you tried previously is scaring or stressing Kitty out so he doesn’t want to go there all the time. If you find Kitty is using one or more boxes and not going outside, after one week remove one he’s using the least. If you’re still okay, then remove one more a week until you are down to the maximum number you can tolerate. If Kitty has an accident, then replace the last one you removed. You may need to combine this with keeping all the boxes super clean for it to work long-term.
Step 5. Stress
After a medical cause, stress and anxiety (territorial or other source) are the most common reasons cats go outside their box. Kitty could be upset over a change in his routine, by someone or something new in the house, or something you can’t figure out! Whatever the cause, you can try these stress relievers:
- Rescue Remedy. Effects are immediate. Put it on Kitty’s paw so he’ll lick it off.
- Feliway plug-ins in every room. Not cheap, but often more effective than spray or collar versions.
- Vet-prescribed kitty Prozac or Buspar.
- Soothing music, like a classical or easy listening radio station left on.
Step 6. When left alone
If he only does it while you are gone, it might be your absence that is causing the stress. Kitty may feel less stressed in a smaller secure space. If you have a comfortable well-ventilated heated/cooled bathroom, laundry room, or other kitty bathroom-proof room, close Kitty in that room with a litter box, food, water and a bed every time you go out. If you don’t have a good room, you can use an extra large dog crate or a kitty habitat – like this awesome 3 level one. Try that for a week every time you go out to give it enough time to see if it helps. You can give Kitty a “treat” of canned food when you close him in there to make it more enjoyable. Use the above four stress relievers as well.
Step 7. Scent and Territory
What are you cleaning with? If the old smell Kitty was trying to cover is not removed, he may continue to go on that spot. Does Kitty go on the door, on the rug by the door, or under a window? It could be anxiety-driven territorial marking. Try blocking off where Kitty can see/hear/smell any other cats or dogs outside.
Cat urine smell out of household items – finding one that works for your surfaces can take many tries. If a pet enzyme cleaner isn’t working, a solution of biological laundry detergent with water, soaking the area for 24 hours, and then flushing it can work. So can strong sunlight. With carpets, often the only solution is to remove them.
After you’ve cleaned all the areas where your cat has gone, gently rub a soft cloth over his cheeks, neck, and bottom, then rub the cloth where he went to the bathroom and leave the cloth there. This spreads the cat’s pheromones and scent onto that surface, and will reduce Kitty from needing to put his scent there himself.
Step 8. Bad memories
Some cats have a painful association with going inside a box, like declawed cats who tried to dig with wounded paws, or cats that had a painful urinary infection. So if all the above fails and Kitty is not using the box at all, or only using it for #2 and not #1, close Kitty in the bathroom, with his food, water, and a new clean litterbox. You may need earplugs if Kitty meows to be let out – you’ll need to be strong and be prepared to keep Kitty in there for up at least a few days for this to work.
Cover the floor with newspaper – every square inch! If Kitty goes in the tub, put the newspaper in there. Most cats will go to the bathroom in one location on the floor. Gradually pick up the newspaper where the cat is not going (one or two sheets removed a day). When you are down to two sheets where Kitty is going regularly, take a sheet that has some urine on it and put it on top of a flat piece of cardboard box, or on a cookie tray. Now there should be newspaper only on top of the box/tray, and none on the floor. If Kitty continues to go on the paper on the box/tray, try a brand new low-sided uncovered litterbox (so it won’t smell anything like litter) in the same spot, and put some urine scented newspaper in it. Then the next day, try putting a handful of a new kind of litter in it, that doesn’t smell anything like their old litter. So if they were using clay litter, try the pine dust or ground up corn litter. Often with baby steps you can have them graduate back up to a real litterbox with litter, but sometimes you may have to stick to newspaper or dirt. It’s better than your _______ (insert where your cat was going before here)!
If at any point during the re-introduction process Kitty reverts to going on the uncovered floor, do not panic. An accident or two may happen. But if it’s more than twice, you should take a few steps back and proceed more slowly. If your Kitty was really traumatized, it can take weeks. But a few weeks in a bathroom, while not fun, is worth the chance of getting your Kitty over his trauma and back to using his litterbox.
Step 9. BONUS STEP FOR SPRAYING CATS! Soak Kitty’s fabric collar in his sprayed urine, let it dry, and put it back Kitty, so everywhere he goes, he will smell his own scent, and will not feel he has to spread it by spraying.
With patience, deductive powers and our suggestions, we hope your Kitty will be using his litterbox very soon.