Litter Box Issues In Cats

by | Jul 25, 2021

Inappropriate elimination is a common behavior problem in cats. In fact, the problem is prevalent in about 10% of cats. This may come as a surprise because cats are as fastidious as they come. The problem can actually be fueled by their fussiness, but it could also be caused by an underlying health issue.

Litter box issues in cats can be manifested in several ways. A cat may:

  • Stop using the litter box
  • Only use the box for urination or defecation
  • Eliminate both in and out of the litter box
  • Engage in spray marking or urine marking

What Are The Causes Of Litter Box Issues In Cats?

Before trying some measures to address the issue and get your cat back to using the litter box, there is a need to identify what is causing the behavior.

The first step would be to have your pet checked by your veterinarian to make sure that the problem is not caused by an underlying health issue that interferes with your cat’s normal urination and/or defecation.

Common medical conditions that cause inappropriate elimination in cats include:

  • Urinary tract infection (UTI). Affected cats experience pain when they pee. There is also an increase in the frequency and urgency of urination. Cats with UTI may stop using the litter box because of these experiences, more so if the litter box is associated with pain and discomfort.
  • Some health issues like Kidney Disease, Thyroid Disease, and Diabetes Mellitus often cause an increase in a cat’s water intake which eventually leads to more frequent urination.
  • Digestive problems may cause painful defecation, an increase in the frequency and urgency of elimination, or a decrease in a cat’s control over elimination.
  • Age-Related Conditions. Arthritis and cognitive dysfunction (feline Alzheimer’s disease) are just some age-related issues that can influence a cat’s ability to get to the litter box before doing her business.

If your pet is given a clean bill of health by your veterinarian, the next step would be to address it as a behavior problem. Here are some predisposing factors that you should take into consideration:

Aversion to the Litter Box

A cat with an aversion to the litter box will steer clear of the box and does her business somewhere else. The cat may have issues with the litter box, the litter, the location of the litter box, or all three.

If your cat has an aversion to the litter box, she may do her thing on various types of surfaces, from carpets to beds to floors to clothes to bathroom tiles. She may continue to use the litter box now and then, depending on how much she wants to avoid the box.

Your cat may hate the size or design of the litter box. It must be spacious enough to allow your cat to perform pre-and post-elimination behaviors and eliminate without hanging over the edge of the box.

Kittens and senior cats like to do their business inside a litter box with low sides because it’s easier for them to get in and out. Cat parents prefer covered boxes to contain odor and stray litter. But cats may feel restricted when using the covered box and also the odor inside may be too much for them.

Location of the Litter Box

Like real estate, the location of the litter box is very important for cats. They want to do their thing in private, away from any disturbance or potential threats.

The Number of Litter Boxes

If there are several cats in the household, there is competition for available resources, such as food, vertical spaces, scratching posts, toys, and even the litter box. When the number of litter boxes is not enough, subordinate or submissive cats may be forced to eliminate somewhere else.

Surface Preference

Some cats prefer to eliminate on certain surfaces. When they find a surface they like, they usually keep coming back to the spot. A cat that finds it pleasing to eliminate on clothing or carpets may be unlikely to do it on hard floors.

Urine Spraying or Spray Marking

Urine spraying in cats is a form of marking behavior. The cat deposits small quantities of urine around a certain spot or object. A cat’s urine contains pheromones that are unique to her. The signature scent in a cat’s urine will let other cats know of the cat’s presence. It is also a way to establish and mark territory, or a way to attract potential mates.

Spray marking varies from urination as the cat usually sprays urine on vertical surfaces, like walls or the foot of a chair. They don’t squat as they do to urinate. A spraying cat will back up to the vertical target, lift her tail, quiver, and spray urine in several spots. She does all these while standing.

The behavior is common among intact male cats (unneutered) and to a lesser extent in intact females (unspayed). But it’s also displayed in about 10% of neutered males and 5% of spayed females.

Spray marking is also likely to occur in multi-cat households. A cat may engage in the behavior when there is a perceived threat to her territory, such as the arrival of a new cat in the household or when there are strange cats nearby. Cats may also spray in response to a new smell or out of frustration.

How To Stop Litter Box Problems

When the underlying cause of your pet’s behavior has been identified, you should address it immediately. With time, the behavior can become deeply rooted which can make it more difficult to get rid of.

If there are several cats in your home, you should identify the culprit. You can do this by separating them or using a non-toxic stain that can be detected in the cat’s urine. You can ask your veterinarian about this special stain that is given by mouth.

If there are urine puddles in your home, you have to distinguish whether it’s spraying or simple urination. If you can’t keep a close eye on your cat at all times, you can set up a video camera for the purpose.

The provision of a suitable litter box environment promotes optimal well-being and potentially urinary tract health in cats (McGowan et al 2017). Here are some quick tips to remember when addressing litter box issues in cats:

Choose an Appropriate Box

  • Choose a box with low sides for kittens, senior cats, and cats suffering from mobility problems.
  • Large and obese cats need bigger litter boxes. The results of a study that evaluated the response of healthy housebound domestic cats to the simultaneous provision of 2 litter boxes of differing sizes indicate that most cats show a definite preference for a larger litter box than is typically available to them in homes and that other factors such as box cleanliness and location may have a compounding influence on this choice.
  • Most cats prefer a litter box with no cover. A cover keeps the odor inside the litter box which can be overwhelming to the cat. Also, it prevents the cat from having a 360-degree view of her surroundings while she is doing her thing.
  • If you have several cats in your home, make sure there are enough litter boxes for everyone. The magic number is equivalent to the total number of cats in the house plus one. So if you have 5 cats, the minimum number of litter boxes should be 5 + 1= 6.

Choose an Appropriate Litter

  • Cats have an extremely keen sense of smell and a scented litter may be too strong for them. Most cats like litter that’s unscented and has a fine texture. Place about 1-2 inches of litter inside the litter box.
  • Choose an appropriate location for the litter box. Place the litter box in areas where there is less household traffic, away from their feeding area. The box should always be easily accessible.
  • If you have a multi-story house, make sure that multiple litter boxes are available upstairs and downstairs. This is particularly important if your cat has mobility issues and has trouble climbing stairs.

Keep the Litter Box Clean

  • Scooping of feces and clumps should be done daily. Top with fresh, clean litter as needed.
  • The litter box should be cleaned thoroughly at least once a week. The more cats using the litter box, the more often cleaning the box needs to be done. Dispose of the old litter properly before scrubbing the box with a gentle, unscented detergent. Dry the box thoroughly before placing in a new layer of clean litter.
  • Old litter boxes must be replaced. Cracks on their surfaces are favorable breeding grounds for pathogens. Waste can also be deposited deep in the cracks thus undesirable odors are retained even when you think you have thoroughly cleaned the box.

Litter box issues in cats are a common and frustrating problem that many cat parents have to deal with at one time or another. Unfortunately, if not resolved, feline house soiling is one of the most common reasons cats are turned over to animal shelters.

Addressing the problem can be quite difficult and challenging. Eliminating the behavior depends to a large extent on early intervention, identifying the cause of the behavior, and the time and effort that cat owners devote to solving the problem. Working closely with your veterinarian in addressing your cat’s behavior issue is also highly recommended.


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