Help for the litter leery cat

Posted: Sunday, October 03, 2004


  There can be several reasons why a cat may not like using a litter box. Careful study to identify the cause of the problem can help correct it. Photo by Jenny Neyman

There can be several reasons why a cat may not like using a litter box. Careful study to identify the cause of the problem can help correct it.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

Is your feline friend finicky about using the litter box? Maybe it's time to draw a line in the sand.

Cats tend to have surface and location preferences for where, and on what, they like to eliminate. Most cats prefer eliminating on a loose, sandy substance, which is why they will use a litter box. However, normal elimination behavior can become a problem when a cat's preferences include your bed, the laundry basket, rugs and various other household locations outside the litter box.

There are several reasons why cats do this. They may have an aversion to the box, a preference for a particular surface not provided in the box, a preference for a particular location where there is no box, or a combination of all three.

To stop a cat from eliminating outside the litter box, it's necessary to determine why the behavior began in the first place. A good first step is to bring the cat to the veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical problems.

Cats don't always act sick, even when they are, and hidden medical problems, such as a urinary tract infection or crystals in the urine, may be at the root of the problem. These conditions can make urinating very painful, and cats often will associate this pain with the litter box and begin to avoid it.

Another reason why cats may start eliminating outside their litter box is they have been startled. This may have been triggered from something as seemingly innocuous as a broom being dropped on a hard floor or a household appliance being turned on.

Anything that made a noise loud enough to frighten the cat while it was in the litter box could have been enough for a negative association to be made.

Cats that have been ambushed while in the box, either by another cat, a child, a dog or by you if you were attempting to catch it for some reason, also may have a fear of the litter box.

If this is the case, there are many ways to overcome the cat's fear. Start by getting a new litter box.

Because the cat has decided that the old litter box is unpleasant, make sure the new one is different enough in size and design that the cat can't make any association to the old one.

Place the new box in a different location than the old one and make sure it isn't near an appliance that makes noise or in an area of the house that the cat doesn't frequent.

Sometimes it helps to put the new litter box in the location where the cat has been eliminating. Once the cat has consistently used this box for at least a month, it's usually safe to begin gradually moving it to a more convenient location.

If ambushing is the problem, get at least one litter box per cat and put them in different areas of the house. If you have a two- or three-story home, put litter boxes on different levels of the house.

Also, try to get boxes with more than one opening, or place the box in an area where there's more than one exit from the litter box. This way, if an ambusher is waiting by one area, your cat always has another escape route.

Another problem is if the cat has decided the box is an unpleasant place due to poor hygiene on the part of their human caregivers. If this is the case, keeping the box clean is an important part of correcting the problem. The frequency of cleaning will vary according to how many cats are in the household, how many litter boxes there are and how large the cats are that are using the box or boxes.

Generally, scooping at least once a day and changing the litter completely every four to five days is satisfactory. If you use scoopable litter, you may not need to change the litter as frequently.

If you can smell the box, then you can be sure it's offensive to your cat, as well. Also, although cats may not use a litter box that has an overpowering stench, they may be highly motivated to continue soiling an area that has a slight smell of urine or feces.

This is why it's imperative that you thoroughly clean the soiled areas outside the litter box. It may even be necessary to make these areas aversive to the cat. This can be done by placing citrus-scented cotton balls over the area, or by using one of the myriad of scented pet products on the market for just such a scenario.

Cats also may develop surface preferences that may cause them to favor one location for elimination over another. These preferences typically are established early in life, but they also may change overnight for reasons that are unclear.

A cat that consistently eliminates on a particular texture most likely has developed a surface preference. Examples may include soft-textured surfaces -- such as carpet, bedding or clothing, or slick-textured surfaces -- such as tile, cement, hardwood floors, bathtubs or sinks. Once it's determined which surface a cat prefers, change can be made to the litter box to make it more appealing to the cat.

For a cat eliminating on soft surfaces, using a high quality, scoopable litter, and putting a soft rug under the litter box can help. For a cat eliminating on smooth surfaces, try putting a very thin layer of litter at one end of the box, leaving the other end bare and putting the box on a hard floor.

A cat that has a history of being outdoors may prefer to eliminate on grass or soil. Adding some soil or sod to the litter box may be just the trick needed to get them going back where they're supposed to.

Remember that it may take time to teach a cat the proper place to eliminate again, and there may be a few accidents along the way.

If you catch your cat in the act of eliminating in the house, do something to interrupt the cat, but be careful not to scare it. Immediately take the cat to where the litter box is located and set it on the floor.

Don't force the cat into the box, but rather wait and let the cat wander over to it. Praise the cat after it eliminates in the box. A favorite treat also may be given as a reward.

If the cat takes off in another direction before eliminating, don't be discouraged. The cat may just want a little privacy, so watch from afar until it goes back to the litter box and does the deed, then praise the cat.

Never punish a cat for eliminating outside of the litter box. Animals don't understand punishment after the fact, even if it's only seconds later. If you find a soiled area, it's too late to administer a correction. Do nothing but clean it up thoroughly.

Rubbing a cat's nose in it, taking them to the spot and scolding them, or any other type of punishment will only make them more afraid to eliminate, and possibly afraid of you.

Also, try to remember that no matter how much it may seem so, cats don't stop using their litter boxes because they're trying to get revenge for something that made them angry or upset.

With careful analysis of your cat's environment, specific factors that have contributed to the litter box problem usually can be identified and changed, so that your cat will again use the litter box for elimination.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at

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