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Litter Box Problems
Solving the Mystery Behind This Common Kitty Complaint


Most cats will instinctively use their litter box with no complaints. They have a natural drive to bury their urine and feces, which is why, once you show them where their litter box is located, most cats will go there to eliminate every time.

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If you’ve been finding this is not the case, and your kitty has been leaving surprises on your bed, in your laundry basket or around their box instead of in it, he may be one of the 10 percent of cats that develop litter box problems.

Litter box problems can take on many forms, including using the litter box to urinate but not poop (or vice versa) or using the box only occasionally. And there are just as many causes of this problem as there are manifestations.

Common Causes of Cat Litter Box Problems

Solving your kitty’s litter box problem will take some detective work on your end, but one of the first potential causes you should rule out is a possible medical issue.

If your cat has suddenly stopped using the litter box, shows signs of pain during urination, or has been going in and out of the litter box, trying to go but unable to, it could be a urinary tract infection or blockage. You should get your cat to your vet immediately to rule out these potentially very serious medical issues.

If your cat has a clean bill of health, that’s good news! It’s then back to the drawing board to find out what’s causing the problem. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • The box is not clean enough

  • The box is too deep, too shallow, too big or small, has a hood (or no hood)

  • Your cat doesn’t like the type of litter you’re using (it could be too hard or soft, have an unpleasant scent, be too deep, etc.)

  • She doesn’t want to share the box with other cat members of the household

  • She associates the box with something scary or painful (even using the box while having a urinary tract infection can later cause your cat to associate the box with the pain)

  • The box is not in the right location (it could be in a loud area, a hard-to-reach area, somewhere your cat does not feel safe, etc.)

  • Stress, such as a change to your daily routine, a new family member or pet, can interfere with your cat’s use of her litter box

  • If you have a multi-cat household (as 56 percent of cat owners do), there can also be issues with one cat controlling access to the litter box, to the extent that the other cat(s) can’t use it.

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Preventing Litter Box Problems Before They Begin

Once your cat develops a litter box problem it can be difficult to break, so ideally take the following steps to make your cat’s litter box as welcoming a place as possible:

1. Keep the Box Clean

Cats like clean litter boxes, so scoop the litter at least once day, and rinse the litter box out with baking soda or unscented dish soap once a week.

Generally, you should replace the litter in the box once to twice a week, although this guideline varies from up to every other day to once every three weeks depending on your circumstances.

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This all natural spray contains a light and refreshing blend of antiseptic lemon and lavender-that completely neutralizes the potent ammonia scent of your cat box. You will get 3 to 5 times the life out of your litter, and your cat will likely never know the difference!

2. Use the Correct Amount and Type of Litter

Most cats like between one to two inches of litter. Any more and he may refuse to use it. Further, most cats prefer clumping, unscented litter with a medium to fine texture. Look for a natural variety that is made without chemicals and synthetic fragrances.

If you’re not sure which litter your cat prefers, add a different type to different litter boxes to determine which one she uses most.

3. Choose a Proper Location

Start by placing the box in a quiet area, but not a “cornered” one. Your cat will want to be away from high-traffic areas, but in a spot they can easily get away from if necessary. The box should also be easy to access, in an area that is not closed off by doors (or other pets using the area, such as near a dog bowl). Also keep it away from your cat’s food and water bowl.

4. Provide the Right Type of Box and the Right Number

The general guideline is that you should have one litter box for each cat, plus one extra. So if you have two cats you should have at least three litter boxes. Put at least one box on each level of the house, so your cats will have access to them at all times.

Also experiment with different size and shape boxes. Most cats prefer large boxes without hoods or liners, but you can experiment to see what your cat prefers. You can even try an automatic, self-cleaning box, as long as your cat seems to like it.

Tips for Solving Litter Box Problems

If you’ve addressed the above tips and your cat is still eliminating outside of the box, try these tips next:

  • Make sure you’ve cleaned up all accidents thoroughly using an enzymatic cleanser that will neutralize pet odors.

  • If your cat has taken to soiling in a certain spot, such as in your living room, put the litter box in that spot to encourage her to use it. After it has been there for at least one month, you can start gradually moving it to your preferred location. Do this slowly, no more than one inch per day, for best results!

  • If there is a spot that is unacceptable for your cat to eliminate in, and you can’t or don’t want to put a litter box there, try making the spot less appealing. Put your cat’s food or water bowls there (most cats don’t like to eliminate where they’re fed) or try citrus-scented cotton balls, motion-activated lights, double-sided sticky tape, or tin foil in the area to discourage your cat from going back.

If you think your cat has a negative association with the litter box (from being scared while in it, for instance), you can try playing with your cat in the area to create a new, positive association. Do not try to place your cat in the box, however, as this will likely backfire and make your cat more afraid.

In the event of a multi-cat problem, in which one seems stressed or unable to use the box due to other cats, make sure you’ve sufficiently spread out the boxes so that the anxious cat has one in a location she spends the majority of her time.

If you are still having trouble resolving your cat’s litter box troubles, do not give up. A Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist in your area can help you to make the necessary changes to your cat’s litter box dilemma.

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Recommended Reading

Dental Care for Pets: Do You Need to Brush Your Dog’s Teeth, Too?

Pet Obesity is Now the Leading Cause of Preventable Death in Dogs and Cats

How to Keep Your Dog’s Ears Clean and Healthy


ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist

The Humane Society of the United States November 23, 2009

The Humane Society of the United States October 30, 2009

U.S. Pet Ownership Statistics December 30, 2009

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