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Success Guide: Evaluating a Cat Not Using the Litter Box – 7 common problems explained

cat not using the litter box

A veterinarian walks you through how to identify and treat the common problems with a cat not using the litter box. Is your cat peeing on the bed, laundry or other inappropriate place? Is your cat pooping outside the litter box? Working out the reason for a cat not using the litter box is difficult and seldom is one single issue.

One fact can be stated firmly right away, the ‘reason’ is not and never will be from spite. Insisting on labeling a stress and anxiety related problem in an animal with a negative human motivation is a disservice to the animal we are responsible for supporting. Such labeling has caused the fracture of many previous happy homes and the loss of many cat lives over time to behavioral euthanasia. If not medical then the underlying issue is always stress and/or anxiety related in the affected cats. You cannot treat mislabeled causes and motivations properly.

Solving the problem is complicated by the fact that the problem is usually a combination of many different factors. People tend to try and fix one thing here or there, or try one tip/trick and then get discouraged when it seems to works for while and then the problem returns in full force. There is a very objective defined way to work through the contributing stress factors involved in a cat not using the litter box properly. Our article series will help walk you through the most common issues involved.

Why have all the attempts to fix your cat not using the litter box failed?

Understanding the common reasons for failure informs how to succeed!

The single most common reason for failing to fix this serious problem is that the humans involved do not get a complete assessment and treatment plan. If no one asks you ALL the questions needed (and there are many many questions that need to be answered) then you will not provide ALL the information needed. The assessment of a cat not using the litter box thus tends to be incomplete more often than not. If the assessment of every contributing factor is incomplete then the treatment plan will obviously also be incomplete. And ultimately, an incomplete assessment and treatment plan will usually fail.

The second most common reason for failure to succeed in treating a cat not using the litter box is waiting too long to provide a complete effort at treatment. A cat not using the litter box properly is one of the MOST common reasons for cats losing their place in a previously loving home. Intervention MUST be done early, quickly, and completely in order to succeed in bringing the problem under control effectively. Waiting too long allows a potential medical or behavioral problem that could be treated to turn into a years long habit that no one can realistically assist.

If you are already at the ‘end of your rope’ or ‘your wit’s end’ in dealing with a cat not using the litter box then you have waited too long and really hampered the chance that you even have the energy to make a complete effort at fixing the problem. I encourage you to seek out the professional help of a behaviorist with feline experience if the problem is severe and long standing in order to give your chance their best chance at success. Cats that are not using the litter box properly do NOT get rehomed very often at all. Act sooner rather than later if this starts up in your home! Early intervention is a key to success.

A behaviorist can conduct a truly complete assessment for your home, AND provide a guided, complete treatment plan that will address ALL the issues specific to your household. Furthermore they will be able to help modify that plan as needed over time with your feedback. Such guidance is time consuming and usually outside the scope of what your regular veterinarian can offer you in a simple short office visit. If you can afford their care, and arrange an appointment then do so. It may save your cat’s life.

Before you spend thousands on repairing floors, and before you allow the valuable bond with your companion cat to be irreversibly broken, seek qualified help for your cat. A search for behaviorists in your area can be performed at DACVB (Diplomates of American College of Veterinary Behavior) or AVSAB (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior). Another useful link to search for certified behavior trainers is in numerous countries is IAABC. Or ask your local veterinarian if they have a recommendation.

The purpose of this information is not to replace a consultation with a behaviorist. The purpose of this information is to inform you and assist their work, as well as to assist if you cannot manage to engage an appointment with one in a timely fashion. So onward in learning about how to identify the contributing problems!

What are the most common reasons for a cat not using the litter box?

There are several issues that are common significant contributors to a cat not using the litter box. The three most common reasons are dislike of the litter or the box, medical elimination problems (article pending), and communal resource stress factors in multi-cat households. There certainly can be other less common issues that can contribute as well. A thorough objective diagnostic approach is needed to help identify ALL the contributing factors.

We have posts on all three of these common problem areas. This article will address the issues related to litter and litter box dislike (aversions) and the corresponding common cat preferences. If you want to correct the issue for your cat, and save your floors, clothes, and bedsheets then you need to read and CAREFULLY consider ALL three of these main issues. The communal resource stress article applies equally well to evaluations needed for fighting cats or cats that are displaying issues with not using the litter box while living in a multi-cat household.

First Step: Medical Exams Are Vital

The very first thing to do to properly evaluate a cat not using the litter box is to set up an appointment for a medical exam and urinalysis. If there has not been a new urinalysis done within the last two months, then medical issues have NOT been ruled out properly. All the behavioral sleuthing and manipulation in the world will not succeed for long if there is ANY untreated inflammation or infection in the bladder or kidneys.

You will absolutely waste your time, money, and efforts in the extreme if medical issues are not cleared up. An old clear medical check from months and years ago is not adequate. Over time, stress can induce a medical problem all by itself. Schedule a medical exam first every time you are dealing with a cat not using the litter box. Read our article on Medical Litter box issues (pending). Behavioral manipulation will NEVER work with a cat fighting painful inflamed bladder. Never. Have them checked every time.

Evaluating Litter Aversions and Preferences

The most common presentation of litter aversions is for the cat to begin using areas other than their litter box as their toilet. It is extremely common for them to choose some soft clean surface such as a bed, couch, pile of clothing, soft bath mat, or carpeted area. These cats usually have a couple of common issues 1) they have either an aversion to their current litter (or the box), 2) or they have a strong preference for a different litter or elimination area, and/or 3) they are stressed in some way.

If you are looking for a short, sweet, quick tip, then here it is = stop reading now and start cleaning the litter box way more frequently than you currently do when dealing with a cat not using the litter box. Why use a dirty bathroom when you can use a nice CLEAN piece of soft cloth or rug that is immediately picked up and cleaned by the helpful people in the home?? In short, chances are YOU hate walking into a dirty public bathroom stall, so stop expecting the cats to be happy about using such a bathroom. If you can only do one thing – choose that. If you want to fix the issue fully, read on.

We will discuss, in depth, how to evaluate the common problems that make the litter or the box aversive or a less preferred place to use. We will also discuss what cats usually prefer. All cats are individuals, so it is up to you to think and evaluate your specific situation and cats if you have to handle this on your own. They may have a weird preference that you can figure out and accommodate, but usually the preference is just for the available litter and/or boxes to be more acceptable to them.

To fully evaluate a cat’s preference, then you need to offer a clean version of what they have used well in the past, and then provide new boxes that try to address some of the seven issues below. Then observe and see if the cat not using the litter box begins to happily pick a new offered version.

Evaluating Litter Aversions and Preferences in a Cat Not Using The Litter Box

Consider each of the following aspects very carefully and address ALL of them to the best of your ability. The usual culprits that make a litter box a low choice preference for a cat are:

1) Cleanliness

This is by far and away the biggest issue. Some cats simply despise walking into a dirty bathroom. The solution = You can clean more often and/or provide more boxes.

There are two very important flash news bulletins in this paragraph. First, it does not matter if YOU think the boxes are clean enough. The cats have to approve. Second, it does not matter if they always ‘used to be’ happy going in a box stacked full of old poop and pee mounds. The past is completely irrelevant to the present. Cats change their minds and their preferences over the months and years of their long lives, just like we do. They have that capability and that right. This is most especially true if you keep adding more and more new cats to the mix!!

The cat’s opinion on the cleanliness and suitability is the only opinion that matters, mainly because they are cats so you are unlikely to change their minds to suit you. If you scoop every other day or less often, then your expectation of what is ‘regularly and adequately cleaned’ is the source of the problem. The solution is = increase the frequency of the cleaning. If you clean every other day, then go to once a day, or if you clean once a day then go to twice a day. With a problem cat not using the litter box in the house, then clean all boxes as frequently as possible, preferably twice daily.

Be aware that pelleted or old style non-clumping clay litters are distasteful to some cats because they hold moisture. Long haired cats in particular get easily irritated by the hair on their feet becoming packed with wet litter, so they will stop using these litters in favor nice, clean, soft and dry flooring, rugs, or clothing.

Sometimes the excessive cleanliness is related to a territorial issue. Some highly territorial cats just simply cannot stand sharing a litter box with ANY other cat. Defecating near the box but not in it is often associated with a either a dislike of sharing or relates to marking the area with these territorial cats.

Another flash news bulletin = tolerating sharing a box in the past does not mean it remains bearable over time for those cats that hate sharing. The solution for this is to increase the number of boxes, or consider a installing a pet door that will function based on a collar or microchip. These make it possible to set up a room or even a large condo box that could be accessed by a single specific cat.

A side bar of the cleanliness factor to consider is sometimes they get really tired of the smell that an old box keeps in the plastic. The solution to that is new boxes or cleaning the box itself really well if that has not been done recently.

2) Number of boxes

The MINIMUM number of boxes recommended for a multi-cat household is one box per cat plus one. Recall the mention of territorial cats that hate to share in the previous point. Increasing the number of boxes per cat can assist this problem. More boxes also tends to assist greatly in making sure that cats looking for a ‘perfectly’ clean box to use can find one easily when needed. It is not uncommon for multi-cat households to need to keep two boxes available per cat. If you are dealing with a problem cat not using the litter box then the recommendation would definitely be two boxes per cat.

Once again, it is completely irrelevant if they always shared less boxes without a problem in the past, or a single cat always used one just fine before. Today is not yesterday. Preferences change, houses change, family dynamics change, stress fluctuates. If a cat is not using the litter box, then you better get on board with exploring what changes will make that start happening again!

Does having multiple litter boxes not appeal to you? There is ONE sure fire solution to that. In all seriousness do not accumulate multiple cats. I guarantee you that forcing them to use too few boxes filled with waste is definitely NOT appealing to them, and will result in your house becoming their litter box. If you cannot do the time then don’t do the crime. If you do not want multiple boxes and cannot clean them frequently then do not get multiple cats.

3) Litter box placement/accessibility

Are the boxes all lined up together in one room? This is THE most common error with multiple litter boxes provided for multiple cats.

Multiple boxes all located right together in one room actually only count as one large box. If there is ANY resource guarding going on (more detail on that in our communal resource stress cat post) then they may not be able to freely access any of those boxes stuck together in the single room. They may get “box blocked” by a bully or predatory cat. When dealing with a cat not using the litter box, you must evaluate if all available boxes are EASILY ACCESSIBLE without inter-cat drama.

Assess if all the boxes are in quiet areas where the cats are unlikely to be disturbed by people/toddlers/dogs walking in on them. Make sure no loud sudden noises are prone to go off nearby and startle the cats in the middle of trying to get their bathroom mojo going on, such as an air con unit, washing machine, etc.

Evaluating box accessibility also includes assessing physical accessibility. Make sure every box is not located on only one floor of a multilevel house which requires the cat to navigate stairs. That could be a problem for elderly cats with arthritis (which is generally EVERY elderly cat). Evaluate whether the only boxes are at one end of a large house which again can be problematic for older cats. No one of any age, human or feline, wants to run a marathon every time they need to pee.

Assess whether the available boxes are located behind a bottleneck (such as a long narrow hall, or stair case). Bottlenecked pathways can easily be blocked by a territorial cat, a predatory play stalking cat/dog or toddlers prepared to leap in a cat’s face every time they want to go to the bathroom. Think about the pathways available to the cats in your home and the layout of their litter boxes.

4) Size of box

Most small cats prefer large boxes. Most large cats (> 10 pounds) need something even bigger to not feel cramped trying to posture to use the bathroom. If you are dealing with a cat not using the litter box then go with at least one larger box and see if things improve. You may need to consider repurposing a large flat storage box for some cats’ comfort and preference.

In the size category is also the need to make sure the box is appropriate to the age and physical capabilities of the cat. Older cats are super subtle about their pain, most people have ZERO idea their cat is hurting, because cats do not limp as a rule. Arthritis and other orthopedic pain can cause difficulties in turning tightly in a small box, squatting down to toilet posture, leaping into a tub, or lifting old joints high to climb into a tall opening on the average box.

If your cat is >11 years old and suddenly develops a litter box use issue when they have never had one before, then you need have them examined by a veterinarian ASAP. There are likely medical problems brewing or arthritic pain involved. Specifically ask about a proper orthopedic pain exam and a pain med trial to see if it helps with an old cat not using the litter box. Make accommodations if you need to such as large storage containers that you cut a very low cut entrance, or adding boxes where stairs are not necessary for easy access.

5) Scented litters

Some cats really hate them. Cats are very scent aware just like dogs. They smell things far more profoundly from smaller amounts than we do. If we can smell the litter from our height, well then think about it more closely. They are shorter, lower to the ground AND scratching in that scented litter. They may be overpowered by the ‘not so helpful to them’ scents.

The same goes for odors from used cat boxes, it may smell ok to you, but YOU are not down there in it, up close and personal with a very acute sense of smell. Always test an unscented clumping litter as a choice on offer to see if it makes a difference or not for a cat not using the litter box. The next choices generally preferred by cats are the baking soda or charcoal added litters as they do not tend to be objectionable to most cats. In general, all other “fresh scents” that you can easily whiff from above or across the room should be avoided when dealing with a cat not using the litter box.

6) Texture of litter

Cats are extremely sensitive to and interested in textures. We humans have all these grand ideas about what sort of litter WE want to use – biodegradable, washable, refurbished, renewable resourced, organic, non-GMO, high definition, technicolor, nano-particle, on sale, bulk delivered litter maybe be the best thing since sliced bread in our minds. And that is all totally irrelevant when there is a cat not using the litter box.

ONLY the cat’s opinion matters. They may dislike the feel of firm pelleted litters on their soft pads. They may prefer the soft sandy type. They may prefer the consistent dry nature of the soft clumping litters. Let the cat choose and stop trying to force them to deal with what YOU prefer. Making the cat happy is the key to elimination occurring inside the litter box rather than all over your house.

7) Depth of litter

This can be an issue with a cat not using the litter box. Many people fail to consider this one at all. Some cats like their litter deep so they can build a giant pyramid of soft sand. Some cats hate walking in deep shifting sand and prefer a very shallow litter (elderly cats can start having problems with this as arthritis worsens over time). Don’t forget to check out their preferred litter depths when all else fails, especially if they seem fond of using a flat clean surface to stand on after you have offered different types of softer litter to use. Depth may be their issue.

These basic 7 points represent the most common issues with the litter or litter box itself not being acceptable in some way to a cat not using the litter box.

Discouraging the Wrong Locations

You can try making the preferred areas less desirable – use plastic carpet runners turned upside down, put down tin foil, garden scat mats, or use PetSafe SSScat Spray motion activated units, or citronella sprays as deterrents in targeted areas. BUT, notice the capital BUT = you better make super darn sure that litter box situation is PERFECT first for a cat not using the litter box.

No amount of aversive changes to the floor or bed or whatever is going to help if they have a serious hate on for their litter, despise their box or cannot get to it or into it easily!!! Aversive deterrents alone are guaranteed to be a total fail if you have not fixed the problems that cause the cat not using the litter box provided to them in the first place.

Final Comments

Once in a blue moon, a cat has a true hard wired preference for some surface type (like soft material or a flat hard surface) despite a perfect litter box that is ideal in all the above listed ways. If so, then remove the available alternative preference if you can. For instance, put clothes in a hamper that they cannot access. Seems simple, and people often exclaim but I want them to use their litter box. I understand. It is your choice – do you want to go through all the above management steps plus the rest in other articles to try and force it…. or is it easier to pick up the clothes consistently? You decide.

One final comment on true hard wired substrate preference cats (which again is not at all common). For these cats if all else fails, and the cat seems to have a clear substrate preference for something other than any litter, then try and replicate what they like. Recreate their preference in some way that is easy enough to clean and saves your flooring and furniture. Make an alternative type box for them based on where, how, and what they are choose to go on. It takes experimentation.

For instance, set out a tray with puppy pads or human bed incontinence pads in them. Or just an empty clean large flat plastic pan. If they liked going outside then try some soil, or sand, or a piece of turf grass, or a piece of artificial grass. If they spray vertical surfaces (the wall) – then provide a box that has tall sides (turn a rectangular plastic tub up on its end and secure it that way in the area they are marking that way, make sure to provide them enough room to back up and stand flat footed in their preferred area.

Make use of what you know they seem to like IF and when all else fails. This should be a final Hail Mary attempt to save a situation with a cat not using the litter box.

Hope this has been a helpful to guide to working through all the common elements involved in assessing a cat not using the litter box!