What if my cat has litter box issues? What can I do?

Inappropriate elimination in cats is the number one reason cats are relinquished to animal shelters. These problems can usually be solved with a little patience and troubleshooting.

Medical Reasons a Cat Doesn’t Use the Litter box

If a cat quits using its litter box, the first thing you want to do is get kitty to the veterinarian to rule out medical issues. The more common ones are urinary tract infection, kidney infection, urinary crystals, bladder stones, diabetes, arthritis, or bowel issues. Your cat could be trying to communicate physical pain to you. Stress can bring on a urinary tract infection. If a urinary tract infection goes untreated, the cat can associate the pain of trying to urinate with the litter box causing a possible future behavioral problem.

If you notice your male cat straining to go in the litter box or excessively licking his genitals, have him checked out by the vet immediately. This could indicate a urinary tract infection or a blockage, which is deadly in male cats. This results in extreme pain which he may associate with the litter box, thus causing him to avoid the litter box. Urinary issues are especially dangerous with male cats. Their urethra is narrow and is easily blocked. This can cause death within hours or irreversible organ damage from excessive toxins in the system. Don’t delay getting the cat to the vet.

Some cats develop microscopic crystals in their urine. These may or may not be associated with a urinary tract infection (cats under 10 years of age that have urinary crystals typically do not have a urinary tract infection). These crystals, which are like very fine sand, irritate the bladder. In male cats, the crystals may plug the urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder, through the penis, to the outside of the body). This is a life-threatening condition, since the cat would be unable to urinate. A urinalysis done via cystocentesis renders the most reliable results (crystals can form outside the body within 30-60 minutes in free-catch samples).

In some cats, larger stones can develop. These are called urinary calculi and the condition is referred to as urolithiasis. Stones may actually form anywhere in the entire urinary tract. The urinary stones in cats can be found in the kidneys, ureters (tiny tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder), bladder, or urethra (the tube from the bladder to the outside of the animal). They can also obstruct the outflow of urine.

Common Reasons a Cat Avoids the Litter Box

  • The box isn’t clean enough. Scoop the litter at least once, preferably twice, a day.
    Location, location, location. The litter box may be next to a noisy appliance, not close enough to be easily accessible or not private enough.
  • The litter box was moved. If you’re going to move the litter box, place a second litter box in the new location. Introduce your cat to the new litter box. Every day move the original litter box a few feet closer to the new one. Once the original box is next to the new one, let the cat use both for a few days. You can then remove the original box, leaving the new one.
    The cat doesn’t like the litter. Once you find a litter the cat likes, stick with it and don’t change.
  • If you have multiple cats, there may not be enough litter boxes. Try adding more boxes. The rule of thumb is have as many boxes as you have cats, then add one.
  • The cat may not like the litter box. There’s not enough room to turn around, scratch or dig. It’s covered, uncovered, or too difficult to get in and out of.
  • There’s too much litter in the box. There should be no more than two inches of litter. Or, there’s not enough litter. Some speculate that if a cat urinates on a hard surface, they prefer less litter, and if they urinate on a soft surface, they prefer more litter.
  • Place a litter box on each level of your home. If the cat is too young, old, or sick, kitty may be having trouble making it down the stairs.
  • Inappropriate elimination outside the box is common for cats that aren’t spayed or neutered.
  • The cat was surprised or ambushed by another cat while attempting to use or leave the litter box.
  • The cat is stressed by a change in environment, a new cat or a move.
  • The cat has been punished for not using the litter box and was then placed in the box, thus associating punishment with the litter box.

Clean up the Mess

Clean the area where the accident occurred. Cats are prone to continue inappropriate elimination in areas that smell of urine and feces. Cats can smell things that we can’t detect, so clean thoroughly. Urine stains will glow under a fluorescent black light. After you’ve located all the stains, clean the area with an enzymatic cleaner made for pet odors. A mixture of half vinegar and half water can also be used. Don’t use pungent smelling household cleaners or ammonia. This will encourage the cat to continue urinating in that area. You may have to clean several times to remove the odor. If the area is carpeted, clean the padding and floor underneath. Clean the area before steam cleaning so as not to lock the odor in.

To make the areas less appealing, try using double-sided tape, covering the area with an upside-down plastic carpet runner, or aluminum foil. You can also try placing water and food bowls in the area; cats don’t want to use the bathroom where they eat and drink.


There are products that can be used to aid when there are problems with inappropriate elimination.

Feliway spray, calming collars, and diffusers are a synthetic form of facial pheromone. Facial pheromone is used by cats to mark their territory as safe and secure. Feliway helps to comfort and reassure cats and helps to prevent or reduce stress and anxiety, thereby reducing or eliminating inappropriate urination.

Dr. Elsey’s Cat Attract Litter was developed by a veterinarian to attract cats to use the litter box. Cat Attract Litter Additive can also be used with your regular litter brand. These products are available through a pet store or online.

If these methods don’t work, talk to your veterinarian about the possibility of prescribing fluoxetine (Prozac) for your cat. This medication has been used safely and effectively in cats to reduce anxiety and reduce or eliminate inappropriate urination.

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