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My Cat Won't Use The Litter Box

Updated on December 24, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.


The Problem Of Inappropriate Elimination

The burning question foremost in a cat owner's mind is: Why do they pee and poop outside of the litter box? The short answer is: who knows? But every cat owner knows that it happens, maybe rarely or maybe it’s a chronic problem.

There could be any number of reasons why cats decline to use the litter box and one probably has to try many things before (if ever) solving the problem.

In professional circles it’s known as inappropriate elimination but in lay circles, where that term is viewed as an understatement, it’s known as a frustrating, aggravating nightmare that can result in expensive new flooring and a strained cat/owner relationship, sometimes to the point of relinquishment.

I hope anyone considering relinquishing their cat because of inappropriate elimination decides against it. I would urge you to keep trying because you both deserve it.

Remember how things were before the relationship became strained? Please set as a goal returning to that chapter.

It’s common to think that your cat’s toilet behavior is a test of wills; that she’s getting back at you for some transgression on your part. That’s wrong on two levels.

One is that cats are not known to be capable of such complex emotions as revenge, spite, etc.

The other is that cats are merely domesticated, which is a long way from being civilized. It's we, the civilized and hapless cat owner, who observe bathroom etiquette.

Out of modesty, we do such things behind closed doors and as anonymously as possible. Your cat, on the other hand, unfettered by rules of modesty and civilized behavior, is simply relieving itself, as nature requires.

Also, they often, and randomly, engage in behavior that’s mystifying to us. Most cat owners could write a book about their cat's crazy behaviors.

Take redirected aggression, for example. I had an indoor cat that went ballistic when another cat came into the yard. She’d loudly vocalize the most horrendous sounds and jump and claw against the slider, and if I approached her, she’d bite me, and she meant it.

Who knows, maybe they engage in redirected elimination (my term, as far as I know) and, being frustrated at something unrelated, forget their litter box training.

Maybe the litter box isn't part of Mom's curriculum
Maybe the litter box isn't part of Mom's curriculum | Source

That having been said, the first step is to have your cat examined by a veterinarian to check for a urinary tract problem or other health issues.

Most cat owners secretly hope that’s what it is because the issue can usually be treated and cured, and the problem goes away. If only it were that easy.

More often than not, it’s a behavioral or environmental problem, and you’ll probably try many things before you discover and correct the root of the problem. I can give you a bunch of suggestions and some food for thought; others may be able to expand upon that.

Is your cat obese or elderly? If so, maybe she has difficulty climbing into the litter box, and a box with lower sides would work.

How many cats and litter boxes do you have? Vets and behaviorists usually recommend you have a litter box for each cat, plus one. Thus if you have 3 cats, you should have 4 litter boxes.

And try offering different litter options among those boxes. As long as you're grasping at straws, you might as well experiment with various textures and, perhaps, fragrances.

Some like it coarse, some like it soft, some like it pelleted, some like it flaked, scented or unscented.
Some like it coarse, some like it soft, some like it pelleted, some like it flaked, scented or unscented. | Source

It's Possible The Problem Is With The Litter

Sometimes cats will reject the texture or aroma of the litter, maybe it’s not being changed frequently enough, or maybe the box itself has absorbed odors that the cat has an aversion to.

Perhaps the litter box isn’t in a suitable spot. I had a customer who was grappling with the problem and I asked her where the litter box was. It was in the basement of her condominium.

I asked if it was near a furnace, air conditioner or some other sudden noise maker, and it turns out that it was against a common wall and her neighbor had a sump pump near that wall. I suggested moving the box to the other side of the basement. That seemed to solve the problem.

If the litter box is in a busy area, try moving it to a more secluded spot. Cats prefer privacy, out of security, not out of modesty.

During the act of elimination cats feel vulnerable to attack or predation; one of the consequences of being merely domesticated and also of, at once, being both predator and prey.

We fortunate, civilized humans are pretty confident that, while we’re going potty, no one’s going to knock us over the head or eat us.

One thing you surely shouldn’t to do is shout at or strike your cat while he’s eliminating (you shouldn’t strike your cat under any circumstances).

Doing so may drive him into seclusion and he’ll end up eliminating behind and under furniture, or elsewhere you can’t see him.

If you can catch him just as he’s about to start eliminating, some say it’s OK to startle, but not frighten him. The distraction serves as an act of prevention.

My personal feeling is that if the cat is rejecting the litter, the box, or the box location, you’ll just startle him into peeing on the rug in the den instead of the rug in the living room.

If you’re dealing with the problem, I hope you now have some new ammo for that battle. If anyone else has suggestions, please share them by commenting below.

© 2012 Bob Bamberg


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