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Litter Box 101: Preventing and solving litter box problems

Housetraining cats and kittens

Most cats and kittens require little training to use their litter box, as they have an innate desire to dig and bury their waste.  The challenge for owners is to see that the behavior continues!  Once a cat or kitten has developed undesirable toilet habits, the problem can be very difficult to resolve.  Here are some suggestions that will help keep your cat or kitten using his litter box.

Pick a good location for the litter box.  Make sure your cat knows where it is!  It should ideally be placed in a semi-private area, removed from high-traffic zones, but not so isolated that it isn’t cleaned regularly.  Small kittens should be sequestered in a small room with their box for a few days until they have used it consistently.  Avoid placing the box next to kitty’s food and water or near a noisy appliance (such as a washing machine, dryer or furnace) that might suddenly scare him while toileting.  Also, avoid corners and tight areas like closets where kitty might feel trapped, particularly if there are other cats in the home.

Select your litter carefully.  Some cats will use nearly any litter, while others will refuse to use organic, pelletized litters or those containing perfumes or deodorizers.  AHS generally recommends using plain, unscented “clumping” litter for best results.  Once you have found a litter that seems to please your cat, don’t switch to another kind just because it’s on sale:  your cat may reject it and urinate/defecate elsewhere in the house!  A two-inch layer of litter in the box is considered appropriate for most cats.

Keep the litter box clean!  Solid wastes and wet clumps should be scooped out daily.  The entire box should be emptied, washed with warm water and mild soap and refilled at least once a week.  Avoid strong-smelling cleaners that may discourage your cat from using the box.  Finally, adding a layer of litter to a dirty box is no substitute for cleaning the box.

A baby kitten should have a box with low sides he can hop over easily.  When your cat grows larger, you may need to get a larger, deeper box to prevent urinating or defecating over the side.  

Avoid using covered litter boxes, as many cats appear reluctant to use them.  Some react negatively to the concentrated odor (trapped by the cover), some dislike the enclosed space, still others may not fit comfortably inside.  

If you adopt a new cat or kitten, add another box to the household:  many cats will refuse to toilet in a box already containing urine or feces.  AHS generally recommends a box per cat, plus one:  therefore, a household of three cats should contain four litter boxes.

My cat isn’t using his litterbox!

Inappropriate elimination in cats is a very common -- if frustrating-- scenario, and can be caused by many different factors.  Understanding the cause is crucial to proper treatment, so the following factors must be considered before taking action of any kind:

  1. Medical conditions.  Colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, hyperthyroidism, kidney or liver disease, urinary tract infections and diabetes can all contribute to a litter box rejection.  Other medical problems can cause pain to the cat and lead him to avoid his box:  arthritis, constipation, anal sac disease and colitis may be factors.  Have your cat thoroughly checked by a veterinarian to determine if a physical malady is causing the problem.
  2. Stress.  Many people are unaware of how stressful the smallest changes can be to a cat.  While moving, new pets, grief, changes in routine and changes in family dynamics are common causes, cats can also be upset by rearranged/new furniture, new litter box locations (even a few feet away), and different brands of litter, among other causes.  Give your cat plenty of attention, play time, care and reassurance in times of stress to help him adjust.  A product called “Feliway”, available in major pet stores, contains calming pheromones designed to reduce anxiety, which in turn can reduce spraying and inappropriate urination. 
  3. Litter preference.  Most cats prefer a litter with the following three qualities:  it should be a base material the cat doesn’t mind standing on, loose enough for the cat to dig and cover feces/urine, and it should be unscented.  Avoid changing the brand of litter suddenly, as this may cause the cat to avoid the box. 
  4. Litter box location.  Avoid placing the box near the cat’s food and water. Also avoid placing it either in an area that’s too busy (not allowing them privacy) or so isolated that family members may forget to clean it.  Avoid placing it in corners or closets where the cat may be ambushed by another cat.  We recommend a litter box per cat, plus one:  therefore, a 2-cat household should provide 3 boxes.  If you have more than one floor, provide one for every floor.
  5. Litter box cleanliness.  Some cats are extremely particular about litter hygiene.  Some won’t defecate in a box already containing urine.  Still others won’t use a box that was recently used by another cat.  If the box is not clean enough for a cat’s taste, he will usually seek out porous materials at floor level, such as a soft carpet, cushion or a pile of laundry.  Just as we don’t like to use dirty toilets, neither do cats!

Possible solutions to elimination problems

As discussed previously, have your cat checked by a vet to rule out medical conditions.  Some people tell us, “My cat was just at the vet, and they said she’s fine,” but a routine check-up will not typically reveal complex internal problems.  Explain the behavior and ask for a urinalysis, stool check and – especially if the cat is a senior – a blood draw.

If your cat is a senior, try a box with lower sides:  a large box may be too uncomfortable for him to climb in and out.  

Place numerous litter boxes around the house with different substrates:  newspaper, clumping litter, non-clumping litter, sand, sawdust, carpet remnants and no litter at all.  If you find that your cat prefers an unacceptable surface (such as carpet), try to slowly convert the cat back to a litter by adding a little litter each week.  Continue adding more litter until you can remove the carpet remnants from the box.

Try different depths of litter.  If you routinely find excess (clean) litter on the floor beside the box, you’re probably using too much.  Aim for around 2 inches.

Clean soiled areas with an enzyme-based cleaner such as Nature’s Miracle. Regular cleaners will not break down the urine/stool traces, so that the cat may continue to use those spots.  If the carpet or padding is saturated, it may need to be replaced.

Clean the litter boxes at least twice daily and wash the box once a week (soap and warm water only; do not use a strong-smelling disinfectant).  

If the problem is confined to one area (such as a bedroom), close the door to keep the cat out.

Try feeding the cat where he is urinating/defecating, as many cats will not do both in the same place!

Use aluminum foil, upside-down carpet runners (with the plastic spikes on the bottom), double-sided tape, etc. to encourage the cat to avoid areas where she has eliminated before.

Try Feliway and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Do NOT punish!  Physical or verbal punishment will not help, and – since it increases a cat’s stress – will likely make the problem worse.  Contrary to popular belief, litter box problems have nothing to do with spite.  Review the common causes at the front of this flyer if needed.

If needed, confine your cat (especially if newly adopted) to a small, cat-proofed room with bedding, food, water, toys and at least one litter box.  Keep him there until you can be sure he is using his litter box, then gradually allow him access to other areas of the house. 

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