Litter Box 101
Litter box issues are a common problem, and they are the number one reason why guardians relinquish their cats to shelters. Although litter box issues can be very frustrating, they usually can be solved if you are patient and willing to explore the problem and the various possible solutions.
Medical problems and inappropriate elimination
The first thing to consider when confronted with a litter box issue is whether your cat is trying to communicate physical discomfort. Urinary tract problems (including cystitis, kidney infection, urinary bladder stones, etc.), diabetes, arthritis, and bowel issues are some of the more common medical explanations for litter box problems. Any time a cat begins urinating outside of the litter box, she should be seen by a veterinarian for a physical examination and to rule out medical causes for the change in behavior. Even if there is a logical explanation for the cat not using the box (such as a new animal in the home), there is a possibility that lack of access to the box has caused the cat to hold her urine, which can cause a urinary tract infection. Problems can occur the other way around as well. A cat with a painful, untreated urinary tract infection can begin to associate the pain of urination with the litter box, creating a possible future behavior problem in addition to the existing medical problem. Urinary tract problems do not always show up on the first test, so work closely with your veterinarian when your cat has urinated outside of the box.
Good litter, maintenance, and number of boxes
If your cat defecates or urinates directly next to the litter box, this could be a sign that the litter box is too dirty or your cat finds the litter unappealing. It is important that a cat’s litter box be kept clean. Cats will instinctively avoid eliminating in an area that has too many feces or too much urine. This aversion to dirty boxes is derived from your cat’s natural survival instinct. In the wild, predators seek out prey by tracking urine and feces. A dirty box is a red flag for your cat; it says that predators will soon find her and attack! By scooping the box daily, you ensure that your cat feels comfortable and safe using it. Also, every few weeks litter boxes should be washed with mild soap and rinsed out. Don’t use detergent that is too harsh, as the odor can be off-putting to your cat. A good litter box has about two inches of unscented litter in it. There are a variety of litters available, from clay to crystals to natural, biodegradable matter. Sometimes the solution to a litter box problem is as simple as choosing a new litter. Trial and error is the best way to find a litter that your cat likes. The number of litter boxes in your home can make a difference as well. The optimum number of boxes is one more than the number of cats in the household. Some cats prefer to urinate in one box and defecate in another, so even if you have only one cat, it may be essential for you to have two litter boxes.
Type of litter box
Sometimes the solution to a litter box problem is the type of litter box you’re using. If you have a covered litter box and your cat is hesitant to walk inside it, try removing the cover. Alternatively, your cat might prefer a covered litter box, so if you are using an uncovered box, try replacing it with a covered one. Sometimes, especially with senior cats and kittens, it is difficult for a cat to step over a high-sided box. If you notice your cat is having difficulty getting into the box, purchase a box with lower sides, a cut-out entrance, or a ramp. The size of the box is also important. Bigger cats may be hesitant to use a smaller box where they are less able to move around. Experimentation is the best way to find the box that best suits your cat. And remember, if you have more than one cat, it may be best to have a couple of different types of litter boxes to suit each of your cats’ needs.
Safety instincts and litter box location
Location is one of the most common reasons cats avoid using their litter boxes. Cats feel vulnerable to attack from predators when they eliminate, so instinct tells cats to choose a place to eliminate where they are able to see clearly and escape if a predator should appear. If your cat is not using the litter box, consider its location.
Putting the box out of sight or far away from where the cat spends most of her time are common practices in many homes, but doing so can create an issue for cats who feel vulnerable when they use the litter box. Small bathrooms, closets, basements, pantries, and laundry rooms are all small spaces where a cat can feel trapped, and none are ideal litter box locations. A great location for a litter box is in a fairly quiet room within the part of the home where your cat spends most of her time. Place the box along the wall opposite the door to the room, and make sure there is no furniture blocking the view of the door. This open, safe spot is ideal for a litter box.
If you live in a multilevel home, keep a litter box on each level. If a cat has to make a trip up or downstairs to use the box, there is a greater chance that she will simply urinate or defecate in an area that doesn’t require as much travel, especially as she ages.
Clean up accidents right away
The obvious reason you want to clean up urine and feces is the smell. The smell is unpleasant to people, but another reason to clean up messes right away is that cats are attracted back to areas where they or other cats have urinated. Enzymatic cleaners (available in our ‘Cat’alog and at most pet supply stores) are essential. Wipe up as much urine as you can, and pour (don’t just spray) enzymatic cleaner on the urine stains. After two weeks, if you can still smell the urine, soak the area again. Upholstered furniture and carpet can be cleaned using a carpet cleaning machine (available for rental at most hardware stores). Use a mixture of cold water and enzymatic cleaner. Be sure to turn off the heating element (heat will kill the enzymes) and repeatedly go over the spot with the cleaning mixture until you have removed as much of the urine as possible. Completely rinse with cool water. Enzymatic cleaners can also be used in washing machines for urine-soaked clothes or other machine washable items.
Spraying is a way for cats to mark their territory. Intact (unneutered) males are the biggest culprits, as they spray to claim territory over competing males. But spraying also can be a way for female or neutered male cats to mark their territory if they perceive a threat within their home or space. Urine sprayed on vertical surfaces is always considered urine marking, but both male and female cats also can mark with urine on horizontal surfaces. Horizontal urine marking is often near a door with access to the outside or an area of the home which houses another animal.
Since cats mark territory in ways other than spraying, a good solution to spraying is to encourage your cat to mark her territory in another way, such as scratching. Place a scratching post or mat near the areas your cat frequently sprays. If marking seems to be triggered by seeing other cats outdoors, cover windows and glass doors, so that your cat can’t see outside. You can also try Feliway spray or diffuser. Feliway is a synthetic cat-cheek pheromone, (available through the Tree House ‘Cat’alog) that can be used to encourage a cat to rub her cheeks instead of marking with urine. Please contact our Behavior Hotline at 773-784-5488 ext. 300 for information on how to use Feliway for urine marking.
A note on kittens Very young kittens may not be able to make it to the litter box before urinating or defecating. To prevent accidents while your kitten’s bladder is still developing, it is best to confine young kittens to a small area of your home and to have a litter box nearby. Once your kittens are a little older, they can have the run of the house without your having to worry about accidents. Also, although most kittens will instinctually use a litter box, it is a good idea to encourage and reward litter box use through positive reinforcement. When your young kitten successfully uses the litter box, reward the behavior with petting, treats, and kind words. A kitten who associates rewards with the litter box is more likely to continue appropriate litter box use throughout the entirety of her life.
Declawing and litter box problems
Tree House behavior counselors have found that many declawed cats experience litter box problems. The declaw surgery is the equivalent of the amputation of human fingers at the first joint (for more information on declawing, please turn to Why Cats Need Their Claws). After having this painful surgery, it is not surprising that our feline friends might not be happy about digging around in a pile of sharp gravel when they have to go to the bathroom! Declawed cats often will choose small rugs or other soft materials like clothing or bedding rather than use the litter box. The best way to avoid these litter box problems is to not declaw your cat.
If your cat is already declawed and has a litter box problem, use the softest litter you can find. Avoid litters with large pellets or gravel. Finer materials are much more comfortable to your kitty’s sensitive paws.