Solving Litter Box Problems

Non-use of the litter box is the number one reason cats are given up to shelters. Here are some ways to identify possible causes and how to re-direct your cat to use the litter box appropriately.


Possible Causes.

Finding the Cause Helps Find Solutions.

There is usually a medical, territorial, or environmental reason cats stop using their box. Determining the cause can help find the right way to fix the issue. The more quickly the problem is addressed, the easier it will be to re-direct your cat to proper litter box usage.

Punishment Isn’t the Answer.

Cats don’t learn from or respond to punishment. Harsh treatment, yelling or using a squirt bottle, will worsen their stress and exacerbate the problem. Never rub your cat’s nose in a mess or try to correct them after the fact.

Rule Out Medical Concerns First.

Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease is common in cats, especially older cats. When litter box issues arise, the first step should ALWAYS be to get them checked out by a veterinarian. Trying to deal with it as a behavioral issue before you know if you’re dealing with a urinary tract infection, crystals or a cat in pain, is a mistake. If it is a medical issue, be sure to complete all treatments as prescribed and consider a prescribed diet change.

Hydration Matters.

Increase water consumption by adding a fountain and consider adding more canned, raw or other high-moisture content food to their diet.

Environment Could Be the Issue.

Cats are quite sensitive to even subtle changes in their environment and may show stress by avoiding the litter box. Ask yourself (and be honest):

  • Is the litter box always clean and maintained daily?
  • Did you change the cat’s diet, litter, box location or box type?
  • Is there a new pet or family member?
  • Are there stray cats outside bothering them?

There are many not so obvious reasons a cat may be stressed. Take a moment to see it from their point of view. Possible stressors include:

New pets. Make introductions slowly, confining the new pet to its own room for the first few days. Rub down a new pet with a towel and place in the other’s environment so they can begin to smell each other without meeting face to face. Gradually introduce pets and slowly increase time spent together. Give each their own zone to retreat to if needed.

Moving. A move to a new house can be very stressful. Confine your cat to a room for a few days to allow them to adjust without feeling overwhelmed. Make sure to include a litter box, food, water, a scratching post, an elevated place to relax and some extra attention during the transition.

Coming Indoors. Bringing an outdoor cat in to become a house pet may require some help to ease the transition to life inside. A scratching post, an elevated place to relax and lots of interaction are key. Interactive toys like wands, lasers, and toys that make noise allow them to use their hunting instincts. If they don’t use the box right away, try mixing in dirt from outside with the litter to provide a familiar scent.

Possible Solutions.

Litter Box.

Make using the litter box a positive experience so they want to keep using it.

Keep It Clean. Scoop litter daily and the box should be washed weekly with mild dish soap and water. Litter should be 2-3 inches deep. Regularly cleaning the litter box can prevent many behavioral litter box problems from the beginning.

Make Sure it’s Big Enough. Cats prefer large litter boxes that are easy to get in, stand up in and turn around in.

Use Litter Your Cat Likes. Cats Prefer fine-grained, unscented litter. Odor isn’t a problem in a clean box. Once you find a litter your cat likes, don’t change. If you need to change litter types, offer the new litter in a new box placed next to the old box with the old litter.

Have Enough Boxes. Have one more box than you have cats. Inappropriate elimination can be prevented by providing multiple litter boxes. In a multi-level home, there should be a box available on each floor. Boxes should also be separate from each other.

Air It Out. 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.

Try a New Litter. Cats may develop an aversion to a litter, even if they’ve been using it for years. Avoid litters that are heavily perfumed. There are litters and powders on the market that have natural attractants to help encourage the cat to use the box. Offer a box of their old litter, as well as a box of the attractant litter, to see which your cat prefers.


Choose a Quiet Location. The box must be easy to access and away from loud noises. Consider using a pet gate raised across the doorway to the room or closet that houses the litter box, so dogs can’t harass a cat when trying to go to the bathroom. Ensure it’s also not in a dead end location where a more aggressive cat could prevent another from getting to the box.

Don’t Put Near the Cat’s Food. No one wants to eat in the bathroom, cats included.

Changing Locations Takes Patience. 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’s easier and more sanitary to clean a box than your carpet.

If you’d like to move the box to a different spot, leave a box in the old location and add one to the new spot. Keep them both clean and accessible. After a period of adjustment, begin cleaning the box in the old location less frequently so the cat more often uses the box you want them to. Cats prefer a clean box. You can also try moving it just a foot or so every few days, until it’s in the new desired location.

Cleaning up Accidents.

Once a cat has urinated in an area, they often go back to the same spot. Use an enzymatic cleaner that gets rid of the smell to discourage them from returning.

Deterrents That Work.

Keep your cat away from the problem area. If it’s just one room, shut the door to that room. Use a repellent spray or citrus scent air freshener – cats tend to dislike citrus scents. You can also use double sided sticky tape on the carpet in the area that has been soiled. If your cat won’t stay out of the area, try placing a food bowl there. They are unlikely to soil the area where they eat.

Reducing Stress Reduces Problems.

Cats’ natural instincts sometimes clash with our expectations for indoor behavior. Undesired behavior could be a reaction to a stressor. Help eliminate problem behaviors by making sure your cat’s basic needs are met.

  • Vertical Personal Space
  • Food and Water Bowls
  • Soft Comfortable Bed
  • Scratching/Climbing Posts
  • Litter Box Accessibility
  • Environmental Enrichment/Toys

See our brochure Indoor Cat Enrichment for more useful tips on creating stress free environments for cats.

Pheromones Calm Stress.

There are also products designed to lower stress. These are available through your veterinarian or over-the-counter. Ask your local PetPeople store about a synthetic pheromone product developed to mimic the natural comforting facial pheromone secreted by cats. Cats rub their faces or scratch their claws to leave this soothing pheromone on surfaces. When cats sense the pheromones in areas around their home, they are less likely to urine mark or scratch those areas. This pheromone comes in a plug-in diffuser or spray and does not affect humans or other pets. Your vet may want to also prescribe medication to reduce anxiety.

Territorial Marking versus Inappropriate Elimination.

Urine spraying or marking is a natural behavior in both male and female cats. A key sign of marking is that it’s done from a standing position and is directed at vertical surfaces like walls or furniture. Inappropriate elimination on the other hand, is usually squatting on the floor or carpet and can be health or stress related. Marking is often associated with un-neutered male cats. Neutering often solves the problem.

A neutered cat marking its territory is often caused by a change in the household. Try to determine the underlying stressor and remove it or treat appropriately. Pheromone based treatments have been shown to greatly reduce territorial marking by lowering stress levels.

In Conclusion.

Cats exhibit inappropriate elimination problems for a variety of reasons. It’s important to first rule out any medical conditions with your veterinarian, then you can work through non-medical causes to find solutions. By practicing good litter box hygiene, addressing changes in the environment and reducing stress, most litter box issues can be readily solved.