I see many patients who have decided, for some reason, to stop using the litter box consistently. It is a common issue, and can be the result of many medical or non-medical reasons. It is a frustrating behavioral problem cat owners face. It is also one of the most common reasons cats are given up to shelters, abandoned or forced outside to live. This post is intended to discuss non-medical causes. Medical issues will be discussed on another day.images

What many cat owners do not understand is that their cat is not acting out of spite when he/she does not use the litter box. Mismanagement of the litter boxes, or normal feline behavior patterns may be the cause.

What to do when your cats begins to urinate or defecate out of the litter box:

The first thing to do is to have your cat examined by your veterinarian. Numerous medical issues can cause this, and often are the reason. Particularly important to go are  if you see bloody urine, frequent urges to urinate, excessive urination, excessive thirst, loose bowels or diarrhea and difficulty or pain when moving bowels. If cats are unable to urinate, they need immediate veterinary care. Obstructions are life-threatening.

Proper litter box management can deter inappropriate urination and defecation

So if your vet has found nothing medically wrong, you now need to critically examine your litter box management system, and modify as necessary.

Adequate numbers of litter boxes must be provided, especially in multi-cat households. There should be at least one litter box available for each cat in the house plus one extra litter box. Many cats prefer not to share their litter boxes with housemates and inadequate numbers of boxes can result in inappropriate urination.

Litter boxes must be kept very clean. This usually means removing solid waste at least once daily.  For some cats, scooping several times daily may be necessary.  Scoopable litters tend to make this task easier and many cats also prefer the texture of scoopable cat litter.

Place cat litter boxes in various areas of the home.  There should be at least one litter box on each floor of a multi-level home.  They should be in low-traffic areas that are calm and quiet. They should be easily accessible for the cat and care should be taken that the cat is not disturbed or frightened when using the box.  This means small children and other pets,(such as dogs) should be kept away from the box area, particularly when in use.  Ideally boxes should not be placed near washing machines and dryers, as they can be loud.

Select boxes that allow the cat to get in and out easily.  For older cats with mobility issues and very young kittens, this may mean choosing litter boxes with low sides easily climbed over. They should also be big enough to allow the cat to stand and turn in them easily without being cramped or hanging over the edge.  Cats tend to prefer larger boxes to smaller ones.

Choose the right litter DownloadedFile-1

Use non-scented cat litters.  Those with heavy scents may be more pleasant for us, but some cats object strongly to the scents and will avoid litter boxes filled with these.


DownloadedFile-3Some cats have texture preferences regarding their litter.  In general, scoopable litters most closely resemble sand and many cats prefer them.  However, this is not true of all cats.   Experiment with different types of litters if your cat is avoiding the litter box.  Try different types of scoopable and non-scoopable litters.


DownloadedFile-4 Try litter substitutes as well, such as Yesterday’s News, a pelleted form of recycled paper.  Fill several boxes with different types of litte rnad place them next to each other.  Observe to see which is used most often.


Try very hard not to switch litters once you have determined your cat’s preference. This could result in inappropriate elimination.

Other environmental modifications that can prevent problems

Stress has been shown to cause urinary tract disease. Most cat owners do not recognize that an indoor lifestyle is generally stressful for a cat.  This is true in single-cat households, but is even more of an issue in multi-cat households.  Fortunately, there are some very simple things you can do to reduce the stress.

– Provide plenty of perches for all cats in the household.  They enjoy being on a raised surface and may feel safer when they are not forced to nap on the ground.  They also enjoy examining their environment from their elevated perches.

– Provide plenty of hiding spaces for all cats in the household.  It should be a quiet,secure area your cat may retreat to if he/she feels threatened or wants to be alone.  Places that block the view of other cats are also helpful in eliminating aggression between cats.  These may be cardboard boxes, carriers left open and lined with a blanket or towel, or cat beds.

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– Provide food and water at various locations, if possible, throughout your home if you have more than one cat.  This eliminates competition for these resources and avoids fighting and stress from a perceived lack of access to adequate food and water stations.

– Provide interactive toys which provide mental stimulation for your cat.  Cats have a natural tendency to prey on small animals and appropriate cat toys can simulate that behavior and help keep them entertained.  Toys with feathers can be used to imitate birds, while toys that can be pulled along the ground can imitate mice and other rodents.  Laser pointers can imitate bugs.  Food puzzles can be used to provide mental stimulation and exercise for indoor cats.  Just be certain not to leave your cat untended with toys that contain strings or small pieces, which can be swallowed. Place the toy in safe locations where your cat cannot access them if unsupervised. Not all cats will like all toys. Try different ones out.

Urine marking, spraying and other territorial behaviors

Urine marking is a term used to describe the act of urinating outside of the litter box in an effort by your cat to mark his or her territory, and to tell other cats to stay away.  Urine spraying is a specific type of urine marking behavior which involves urinating onto a vertical surface, such as a wall or piece of furniture.

Both male and female cats are capable of urine marking.  Neutering or spaying is often helpful in controlling urine marking and spraying behaviors.  However, it should be noted that s small percentage that are neutered or spayed will still mark or spray, especially if the behavior has been occurring for a time before surgery.  Thus, neutering or spaying does not guarantee that a cat will never mark or spray, but is is effective in the majority of cases (probably as many as 85-90% in the literature.)

Pet parents need to understand that cats which spray or mark are performing what is, to them, a perfectly natural behavior.  Your cats does not understand that this behavior is wrong, and they are not doing it to annoy you.  They should never be punished for these types of behaviors.  Punishment will only make the cat apprehensive and may actually end up making the problem worse!

Feliway DownloadedFile

Feliway is a calming pheromone which is produced naturally by all cats.  Being a pheromone, the cat’s olfactory system will detect the chemical, but you will not be able to smell the product.  It can be effective in controlling inappropriate elimination in cats and preventing spraying and marking of urine.

Feliway is sold as a diffuser which is plugged into an electrical outlet in your home.  It is also available as a spray, which can be used around litter boxes, near doors and windows and in other areas of the house.

I hope you found this helpful.

Dr. Dawn
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