Nov 01 2011

Cats and their litter boxes

Cat owners often become stressed because their cats do not use the litter box properly. In fact, inappropriate elimination, which means urinating and/or defecating in an unacceptable place is one of the main reasons that cats are surrendered to animal shelters.

The reasons that a cat may not use its litter box can vary – sometimes inappropriate elimination is caused by a behavioral or emotional problem, while other times it is due to a disease or physical problem

The most common reasons that a cat does not use its litter box are:

  • The cat does not like the litter
  • The cat does not like the litter box or its cover
  • There are not enough litter boxes
  • The litter box is located in the wrong spot (to the cat)
  • The litter box is dirty
  • The litter box smells strongly of chemicals
  • The cat associates the litter box with unpleasant things
  • Stress

It is important to deal with inappropriate elimination issues as soon as possible, so that the cat or cats do not develop bad habits with regard to where they relieve themselves.

Sometimes, the problem can be solved readily by changing the litter box or litter, changing its location, or adding a few more litter boxes in the house. As a general rule, if you have more than 1 cat in your home, you should have more than 2 litter boxes – the recommendation is to have 1 more litter box than the number of cats (i.e. if you have 2 cats, have 3 boxes). These litter boxes should be located in different locations in the house.

If your cat is old or has any mobility problems, the litter box should have low sides so that the cat can get in and out easily. The box should be big enough so that your cat can get into it easily, and if it is a covered box, it should have both an entrance and an exit. Remember that covered litter boxes will trap odors inside, and your cat’s sense of smell is much better than yours! Litter boxes should be scooped out at least once per day, and the litter should be changed weekly.

Self-cleaning litter boxes are appealing to pet owners, but can be frightening to cats, especially if they begin a cleaning cycle while the cat is near them. Likewise, a litter box that is located in a noisy spot, such as beside the furnace or in the laundry room, can be unappealing to the average cat. And litter boxes should NEVER be placed near the cat’s food or water dishes.

If your cat has suddenly stopped using the litter box, there may be a specific problem. It may be that the cat has an illness such as a bladder or digestive problem that is painful, and the cat has associated the pain that occurs when it uses the litter box with the litter box itself. There may be a problem that is causing the cat to produce more urine than normal, such as diabetes, kidney disease, or liver problems. Therefore, it is always important to have your cat examined by your veterinarian to rule out physical problems prior to assuming that the problem is behavioral. Your veterinarian will recommend a series of tests, including blood, urine, and fecal tests, to rule out underlying disease processes.

In some cases, your cat may develop a litter box aversion because something unpleasant has happened to it while it was in the box. Never ‘ambush’ your cat in the litter box if you need to give it medication or want to trim its nails, groom it, clean its ears, etc. If there are multiple cats in your home, make sure that one cat is not ‘dominating’ the litter box or preventing the others from using it.

If your cat does have an accident outside the litter box, it is important to neutralize the odor so that the cat will be less attracted to the spot in the future. Cleaning the spot with detergent or other cleaning products is not enough. You need to use a product that is specifically designed for neutralizing pet odors.

For specific advice on preventing problems with house soiling, solving your cat’s inappropriate elimination problem, or effective products that will neutralize unpleasant pet odors, please call us during business hours, or check the articles in our Pet Health Section of the website under housesoiling and inappropriate elimination.


Caution: These news items, written by Lifelearn Inc., are licensed to this practice for the personal use of our clients. Any copying, printing or further distribution is prohibited without the express written permission of Lifelearn Inc. Please note that the news information presented here is NOT a substitute for a proper consultation and/or clinical examination of your pet by our clinic veterinarian.

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