Troubleshooting Cat Litter Box Issues

As cat owners, we love our fur babies—their soothing purrs, playful disposition, soft fur, and incontestable cuteness. Although cats are known to be self-sufficient when it comes to cleaning and entertaining themselves, there is one aspect of owning a cat that is solely the owners’ responsibility—maintaining the litter box. Whether you have an indoor kitty that requires a box or an outdoor cat that occasionally does their ‘business’ inside, when you own a cat, a litter box just comes with the territory.

According to American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), there are over 58 million cat owners in the U.S. with some households owning multiple cats. That’s a lot of felines—not to mention all the litter boxes needed to accommodate them. As cat owners, our litter box concerns are limited to what type of box to buy, the location of where the box will be placed, finding the best type of cat litter, and, yes, even the unpleasant task of emptying the box.

But what about our feline pets?

Generally speaking, most cats will instinctively want to bury their urine and feces in a litter box; so, when you show them where the box is, they usually catch on pretty quick. However, there are some cats that might prefer to eliminate in random places from the get-go or others who previously used their litter box but seem to have developed an aversion to it. In either case, when your kitty starts eliminating on your favorite blanket, the new carpet in den, or inside your laundry basket full of freshly cleaned clothes—that’s a ‘tell-tail’ sign you know there is a problem.

With such an abundant population of cats, it’s inevitable that litter box issues will arise; either from the moment you bring your new kitten home or at some point during your cat’s lifetime. Once your fur baby starts to avoid their litter box you’ll want to act quickly because it can develop into a chronic problem if left unchecked.

The good news is that there are a number of things you can do to either eliminate the problem your cat is having, or, in the very least, minimize the issue so it’s manageable.

However, first you have to troubleshoot the problem, before you can solve it.

Troubleshooting Cat Litter Box Issues

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), there are a number of reasons why 10% of the cat population develop elimination problems:

Litter box management

All cats love a clean litter box. As pet owners, it is our responsibility to make certain our cat’s litter box is cleaned frequently and thoroughly. An unclean litter box could be the cause of your cat’s desire to eliminate elsewhere.

Solution: Keep it clean! Schedule a time to scoop out the litter box daily. Fully empty the box once a week; clean with baking soda and warm water. Let dry before refilling with fresh litter.

Inability to use the box

Geriatric cats, along with ones who experience physical limitations might find it difficult to eliminate in a top entry or high-sided litter box.

Solution: Older cats with special needs and kittens may have trouble ‘doing their business’ in some litter boxes. If your cat has difficulty climbing or jumping into the box, try making it more accessible by switching to one with lower sides.

Conflict with multiple cats

If you have multiple cats in the home, litter box issues might simply be due to too many cats using the same box or one who feels the need to control the box—especially if they happen to need it at the same time or don’t get along with each other.

Solution: Provide enough litter boxes for multiple cats. Rule of paw: number of cats plus 1. For instance, if you have 2 felines you’ll need 3 litter boxes.

Aversion to litter box

A litter box that is too small, has a cover, is not deep enough, or has a hood/liner can all make your cat feel uncomfortable and develop a dislike for the box designated for elimination.

Solution: Purchase a large litter box that can easily be entered and at least 1 1/2 times longer than their body. Plastic sweater storage containers make ‘purrfect’ litter boxes. A great tip: placing the container’s lid (top side down) under the box can be used as a floor liner to ‘catch’ any litter that escapes.

Aversion to the litter

Cats are known for having sensitive smell and touch senses. Changing the litter your cat is accustomed to can influence a cat’s reaction to defecating in the new litter.

Solution: Cats seem to prefer litter that has a fine to medium texture, soft on their paws, and clumps well. Unscented litter is always preferable as many cats will develop an aversion to the scented kind. Cats also seem to favor a shallow bed of litter—one to two inches is optimal.

Location/placement of litter box

Just like we humans have our preference as to where we eliminate, cats feel the same way. If the litter box is placed in an area your cat doesn’t like, isn’t private enough for them, or can’t be accessed easily, oftentimes, they will seek out another place to go.

Solution: Place the litter box in an easily accessible location that is a quiet, low traffic area. Be sure to place the litter box far away from your cat’s eating area. Avoid placing the box in areas that generate heat such as a furnace or dryer—hot places tend to magnify the smell.

Household stress

Not only can cats experience stress, they can sense their owner’s stress too! If a cat feels stressed, they may stop using their litter box. Changes in a cat’s routine, a recent move, or adding a new family member/pet to the household can all contribute to litter box problems.

Solution: Identify and eliminate the stress if possible. When changes in the household occur, try to keep your cat’s routine as predictable as possible. Keep their food and water bowl in the same general area, prevent a child or another pet from chasing him or her, etc. While you might not be able to fully eliminate their stress, you can try to minimize it.

Rule Out Medical Conditions

There are a few medical conditions that can also cause elimination and litter box problems. Always consult with your cat’s veterinarian first so you can rule out any medical conditions that might cause inappropriate elimination.

Cats can experience urinary, bladder, or kidney infections that will affect their ability to “make it” to the litter box in time. These infections can also cause your cat discomfort. Once treated, your cat should resume normal litter box usage.

Urinary Tract Infection (UTI): Symptoms include frequent visits to the litter box and only producing a small amount of urine.

Feline Interstitial Cystitis: A neurological disease that inflames a cat’s bladder and induces an urgent need to urinate. Symptoms include: frequent urination, straining to eliminate, painful urination, possible blood in the urine, and licking themselves in the area where they urinate. Feline Interstitial Cystitis is extremely serious and should be treated immediately by a veterinarian.

Kidney Stones or Blockage: Just like humans, cats can develop kidney stones and blockage. Symptoms include: frequent visits to the litter box without much success, meowing or crying when he or she tries to eliminate, and a swollen and tender abdomen.

Behavioral Problems

Urine marking can also become a problem because it involves elimination outside the litter box. Cats that typically exhibit urine marking also eliminate in their litter box, so treatment will require an entirely different approach than common litter box problems. Generally speaking, cats who ‘mark’ will spray a bit of urine on a surface such as a wall, door, or piece of furniture.

In many instances, urine marking can be resolved by simply neutering your cat. Urine marking can also be a sign of anxiety or stress. A consultation with your veterinarian, or an animal behaviorist, can provide you with a recommendation for treatment and/or any potential medications for a behavioral problem your cat may be experiencing.

What Not to Do

  • Never rub your cat’s nose or face in urine or feces
  • Never scold/yell at your cat
  • Never carry or drag your cat to the litter box after eliminating elsewhere
  • Never punish or banish your cat for eliminating ‘out of the box’
  • Never confine your cat in a small space with a litter box for days

Final Thoughts

A happy cat is a healthy cat! Ensuring your feline’s litter box is as cat-friendly as possible is essential to avoiding litter box problems. Paying close attention to your cat’s ‘bathroom’ habits will also help you identify and quickly act before the problem develops in a strong aversion to eliminating where he or she is supposed to.

Litter box issues with cats can range in both their complexity and diversity. Although many of the solutions should help with common problems, no two cats are alike. Therefore, the many treatments available will have to be tailored to a cat’s specific situation.

If your cat’s elimination habits turn into a chronic problem or your cat is in immediate pain, consult your veterinarian. The more common elimination problems can be easily fixed with an extra litter box, more favorable litter, a new convenient box, and… most importantly, a little extra TLC.