Help, My Cat Won’t Use the Litter Box!

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If your cat has started refusing to use the litter box, she is not the only one! This is arguably the biggest problem faced by cat owners everywhere. It means your cat is trying to tell you that something isn’t right. Its up to us as cat lovers to determine what that is!

What you definitely do NOT want to do is punish your cat. This will not make the issue go away, and may even make it worse. If your cat is punished she will learn to fear and avoid you. It can lead to increased stress for your cat, which in turn can lead to an increased problem.

Do take some time to consider each of these possible causes. You may find that there are more than one, and that you will need to address each of them separately. These are the most common reasons why your cat may not be using the litter box.

Medical Problems

The first thing you must do when your cat starts to eliminate away from the litter box is to have your veterinarian examine him or her for any signs of medical problems. There are some very serious medical conditions that can lead to inappropriate elimination, and we want to be sure that this is not happening with your cat before we start looking at other possible causes.

If your cat appears to be straining to urinate, but he is producing only a tiny amount of urine, take him to the veterinarian IMMEDIATELY. This is a very serious and life-threatening condition.

Once your vet has ruled out any medical causes, let’s take a look around your home and around your cat’s daily environment to determine what the other reasons may be.

Litter Box Cleanliness

Be sure to keep your cat’s litter box sparkling clean. Your cat has a natural sense of cleanliness and order, and is upset by a dirty litter box. If the box seems dirty and/or smelly to you, it is even more so to your cat, because a cat’s sense of smell is approximately 40 times stronger than a human’s. Imagine how an unclean litter box smells to him!

There are also other instinctual reasons why a cat may avoid a dirty box. In nature, a predator would find a cat through its sense of smell. Outdoor cats thoroughly cover up their waste after elimination so that any predators in the area will not be able to find them. Even a domestic indoor cat will have their sense of security disrupted if the smell of their own waste is in the air. This may drive your cat to find new places to pee and poop, so that he feels less vulnerable.

Be sure that you clean the litter box at least once a day. Wash the box with mild soap and water when needed, but don’t use strong smelling soaps or cleaners, as these will also irritate your cat’s sense of smell. If your cat is still not using the litter box regularly you may need to do more frequent cleanings, at least until the problem has been resolved.

Type of Litter Box

The actual box that you use can also matter to your cat. If she doesn’t like the size or shape of her box she may refuse to use it. Many cats dislike litter boxes with covers, because they can trap any smells inside the box. Or the cat may feel trapped himself! If your cat is overweight or especially large, the opening may be too small for him to use, or the inside of the covered box may be too small for him to move around in.

If your cat is older or arthritic, or if you have a very small cat or kitten, you should check the height of the entrance to the box. If it is too high and your cat has difficulty getting in and out, this could be another reason for avoidance. Be sure the box is easy for your cat to access. You can install a ramp to the entrance if needed.

Other cats might not like boxes with liners. You should take off the liner if you observe your cat scratching it or trying to pull it off. Giving your cat a choice about the type of box he uses may help the problem. Try using different styles until you find one she likes and will use.

Type of Litter

Many cats show a preference for a particular type of litter. If he has stopped using the little box after you changed the litter you use, your cat is telling you that he liked the old one better. Try changing back to your previous brand, it may be just that simple!

Every type of litter feels different, and some are more pleasant to your cat’s paws. Some litters are sandy, some gravelly, some are more like dirt, and others like shredded paper. What appeals to one cat may not always appeal to another. Another thing to consider is that most cats dislike the smell of scented litter. Although this may be a nice thing for humans, to mask the smell of the cat’s waste, this goes back to the cat’s strong sense of smell, and the fact that the perfume in scented litter smells extremely strong to him.

Since cats evolved from desert animals, the texture of sand is usually acceptable. However, each cat is unique, and you may need to try different types to find one that your furry friend will use. You can try putting several different types of litter in individual boxes to see which one he uses. And if you have a need to change to a new type of litter, do it gradually over time so that your cat can get accustomed to the new smell and texture.

Location of Litter Box

The location of your cat’s litter box is very important to her. She needs first to know where the box is, and also to feel good about the spot. If you have a new cat, or if you have moved the litter box, show your cat where the box is (she will remember!)

Be sure to put your cat’s litter box in an area that is quiet and private, and where she will feel comfortable and safe. Also be sure that it is in a place that is convenient, both for your cat’s use and for cleaning. A spare room that is not frequently used can be ideal. You might also consider putting the box in a closet or porch that is easily accessible. Be sure there is nothing difficult or stressful for your cat about getting to the box (noise, closed doors, etc.) or she may refuse to keep trying. It may take trying a few different spots before you find one that is acceptable to your cat.

Your cat will dislike have her box too close to her food and water. Cats don’t like to “do their business” near the same area where they eat. If this is the case, try moving either the box or the food to another location.

Multiple Cats

Cats are very territorial by nature, and they often dislike sharing their private space, especially with another cat! If you have more than one cat in your family, arguments may arise over the litter box, particularly if the cats must share it. In an ideal situation you would have separate litter boxes for each cat, plus one more just for good measure. If you have one cat that is the “dominant” one, he may leave his own feces uncovered as a way of marking his territory and discouraging other cats from using the box. Your other cat or cats may then feel they should not use the same box.

Do your best to provide separate, personal space for each cat in your household. Along with separate litter boxes, it is best if each cat can claim a little of their own territory. This might be cat trees or window perches, or even as simple as cardboard boxes that each cat can call their own. This way, he or she has a place where they can feel secure, and where they can go to get away from the other cats.

Too Much Change

Sometimes a change in your household can encourage a cat to avoid the litter box. This could be anything from a move, to a new family member, whether it’s a new pet or a new baby. Moving, remodeling the house, or even moving the box to a new location could be especially disruptive to your cat’s sense of daily routine.

If changes like this are happening in your home, make sure that you give your cat lots of love, affection, and treats. This will remind him that he is still safe and secure, and he will be able to adjust to the changes more easily. Keep the litter box particularly clean during this time, and do what you can to minimize the change and disruption for your cat.

Once you have identified the cause or causes that lead your cat away from using the litter box, make sure that you apply these techniques consistently for best result. And always remember to praise your cat each time she does the right thing! Best of luck to you and your feline companions!

I love cats and I believe that every cat and cat lover deserves a happy and harmonious home together. I am always seeking out information about cats and I enjoy sharing it with other people who enjoy them as much as I do. Please visit my blog at http://www.ourcatsplace.com/ for my latest updates! –Beth

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