Litter box avoidance is a major concern for cat owners often resulting with cats being surrendered to animal shelters or being euthanized. Before taking such drastic measures, owners are advised to investigate why their cat(s) won’t use the litter box. Cats instinctively cover up their urine and feces as a way of preventing detection by predators, however some cats relieve themselves outside their litter box.
If frequent urination is the issue, a thorough veterinary evaluation is necessary because the cat may have a medical condition such as a urinary tract or bladder infection, injury, intestinal parasites, or diabetes. Un-neutered cats mark territory, especially indoors, if other cats are present inside, seen outdoors or previously lived in the home. Spaying and neutering may reduce territorial marking.
The condition, size, style, and location of the litter box are factors to be considered.
A dirty litter box is a turnoff for most cats as much as a dirty bathroom is to humans, therefore, cat owners are advised to scoop out urine and feces from the litter box daily. Arden Moore, author of “The Cat Behavior Answer Book” and “Happy Cat Happy You,” recommends that owners remove the litter entirely and clean the litter box with mild dishwashing soap and warm water, and allow the box to air-dry in the sun to kill germs. She advises that if bleach is used to disinfect the box, that a very weak solution be used and the box be rinsed thoroughly before drying because cats dislike the strong odor of bleach. Moore also recommends that owners have a spare litter box filled with fresh litter while the other box is drying. If the household has multiple boxes, clean them one at a time so the cats can always find one when nature calls.
A large cat and a small litter box are not a good match, so owners should select a size that best suits the cat. Also consider the height of the sides of the box because boxes with high sides may be difficult for kittens, elderly, or arthritic cats to enter or exit. Covered or hooded litter boxes may offer privacy, but some cats may feel cramped in them and the boxes may retain the odor of feces.
The location of the litter box is critical for preventing litter box avoidance incidents. Cats generally prefer their litter boxes in quiet and private areas and such as the corner of a room, enclosed patio, inside a den or an open closet, which Moore suggests. She does not recommend placing litter boxes in laundry rooms or dark, damp basements because cats may be frightened by noises and the less convenient location of the boxes may reduce clean-up sessions by owners. She also advises owners to never place litter boxes near food or water bowls because cats don’t like to relieve themselves where they dine and drink. The box should be easily accessible for cleaning and placed on an easy-to-clean surface.
The multi-cat home may present some litter box avoidance issues such as a “bully” cat who intimidates a submissive cat from sharing a litter box. Moore suggests that litter boxes should be placed on every level of the house as a solution to this problem. She also recommends the following formula for the multi-cat household: one litter box per cat plus one extra.
The type of cat litter being used may also contribute to a cat’s avoidance of the litter box. There are numerous types and textures available, such as clay (that forms clumps and is easy to scoop out), grain, pine, recycled paper, silica and silica gel, and flushable brands. Some litters are treated with baking soda, perfumes and citrus to reduce odors, however because cats’ noses are least 100 times more sensitive than ours, they generally dislike the scent of citrus. It may take some experimentation to determine which type of litter your cat prefers. With flushable brands be sure to note if they can be used with septic systems.
Environmental stressors may also cause cats to avoid using their litter boxes. These stressors include home renovation projects, moving into a new home, the addition of a new cat, other pet or a person into the household, a death of a family member, or a change in the owner’s schedule. Owners should try to identify and reduce the stressors, by lowering noise levels, putting the cat in a quiet, safe, comfortable room with his dining area separated from his litter box, maintaining daily routines, playing quiet music (preferably classical which has been scientifically proven to calm animals), installing a diffuser containing Feliway (a product recommended by animal behaviorists that calms cats) and by providing daily quality time with the cat through play and cuddling.
If your cat has an accident, it is counterproductive to scold him. To effectively clean up accidents:
- Do not use ammonia-based cleaners or vinegar/water solutions. Ammonia is a component of urine and will re-attract the cat to the accident area while vinegar temporarily disinfects.
- Do not steam clean carpeting because it bakes stains into the carpet fibers and can leave a permanent odor.
- Use paper towels, newspaper or old cotton rags to blot up the urine until no yellow moisture can be seen, but don’t rub because it pushes urine deeper into carpeting.
- Neutralize the odor and remove stains by applying an enzymatic cleaner to the site, and closely follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Allow the solution to set before soaking it up with paper or cotton towels. Some products require 24 hours to successfully clean the area. Two effective products are Nature’s Miracle and Simple Solution. Both products can be purchased from pet supply stores, catalogs, and online.
For urine-soaked bedding and other machine washable materials, add 1 pound of baking soda to laundry detergent and wash with cold (not hot) water.
Additional helpful tips:
- To prevent dogs from eating the contents of the litter box, place sturdy baby gates across hallways and room entrances.
- As cats age they can become senile and forget the location of the litter box so add litter boxes with lower sides to more rooms in your home.