Updated May 24, 2018.
Cat litter box problems are the most prevalent of cat behavior problems dealt with by feline professionals and, tragically, the most common reason cats are handed over to shelters (where they are most often euthanized), or abandoned by their families and even sometimes abused.
Punishing cats in such a way is cruel and inhumane, not to mention fruitless, and usually makes the problem worse.
There are solutions, but they all start with understanding cat behavior, how cats see the world and how cats communicate with their cat guardians.
Most often cat litter box problems are not a behavior issue, but an indication of a physical nature, perhaps an ailment or injury requiring medical attention. Get a clean bill of health from your trusted veterinary professional; a full exam should include a urinalysis and a full blood work panel to rule out any medical issues. Know that cats exhibiting emotional distress and out of character behaviors can result in physical problems.
If a medical issues have been ruled out, then cat litter box problems are stress related, likely a territorial issue. The cat is acting out its anxiety, insecurity and frustration . . .
. . . think of it as a cat communicating its distress to its guardian.
It’s a call for help!
Something has rocked this cat’s world and not in a good way.
Put on your detective hat.
Hone your investigation skills and get to work deducing the cause of the change in behavior.
Using a journal, record your cat’s behavior and other happenings during your cat’s day; do this for a week. What you are looking for is the change.
What changed in your cat’s world?
Be extremely observant and listen to what things are telling you.
Are there any patterns?
Remember, cats are creatures of comfort and predictability. They do not adjust to any change easily.
Ask yourself, what has changed?
Are the cat litter box problems stress related or are they territorial issues?
If it is a territorial issue, then there is likely a new cat challenging your kitty’s territory in some way, whether inside the house or outdoors. Perhaps a neighbor adopted a new cat and it wandered through the yard one afternoon while your kitty was sunbathing in its favorite window.
Most territorial conflicts are cat related and from your kitty’s point of view that means marking and protecting its territory. Marking behavior is definitely different than elimination behavior.
Do you live in a multi-cat household?
If you have one cat box for many cats, there are probably territory issues happening. It’s not unusual for cats to bully and ambush each other; it’s part of their nature, but to do so when another cat is taking care of its needs in the litter box is an intentionally aggressive intimidation.
The poor victim will quit using the litter box in order to avoid further threatening encounters with the perpetrator.
To bring harmony back into the house, set out one cat litter box per cat, placed in different locations throughout the house. Choose quiet, peaceful locations where your cat will feel safe and secure. Position each cat litter box in a friendly way ensuring many routes of escape. Some professionals find adding one extra litter than there are cats often does away with the territorial issue.
Is the litter box covered?
If so, remove the cover and swear to never use it again, because covers limit space, inhibit your cat’s ability to eliminate comfortably and offer no escape routes when your kitty's safety is threatened.
Learn more about how to diagnose cat litter box problems:
Clean and tidy. That’s the way cats like things. Predictable. Every thing in its place as it should be. They preen and groom every inch of their bodies regularly, just as they keep their territory . . . everything is by the book, in order, on schedule and ship-shape.
So clean and tidy are cats, they dig a hole and bury their urination and defecation. But to cats, the act of elimination is much, much more than a biological function of digestion.
They bury their dirty business to mask their strong scent from would-be predators and to keep the air clean, because off-smells are a sure giveaway to would-be prey.
Yet the locations of cat’s elimination holes are strategically chosen as part of their territory.
Both Dodger and Abby have created a perimeter of potty holes about 3 to 5 feet out from the foundation of house in the backyard where most of the wildlife and neighboring prowling cats wander through at night. Their best weapon against underground intruders is to eliminate in mole and gopher holes (see The Surprising Truth about Kitty Cats and Moles).
Felines spray urine on well-calculated places marking territorial boundaries to communicate their ownership. Other cats and boundary respecting wildlife, such as coyotes, cougar and bear, smell the sign and either respond to it with a scent markings of their own or beat a quick path to a safer locale.
I lost a prize fern and a beautiful climbing rose to feline border scent battles, but my Dodger and Abby are more important to me than those plants, which are replaceable, though not in the same location.
It is important as cat guardians we understand the difference between elimination and scent mark spraying. Your cat needs to mark its territory, whatever that is, to protect itself . . . and YOU ARE PART OF THAT TERRITORY!
Safety, security and cleanliness are extremely sensitive emotional issues for cats and, except for physical or mental illness, are the primary causes of cat litter box problems . . .
. . . threats to your cat’s safety, security and cleanliness needs cause them great emotional distress, anxiety and insecurity.
Cats will refuse to use a dirty litter box and will relieve themselves wherever they think best or will withhold their eliminations to the point of becoming constipated, or worse, some even becoming sick.
Observe good cat litter box custodianship. Purchase a litter box that best suits the physical capabilities, age, size and elimination habits of your cat.
Learn how to set up your cat litter box right.
Fill it with a natural kitty litter.
Scoop out waste at least once per day and keep the area around the litter box tidy.
Using a Litter Champ is very helpful and makes clean-up a snap!
For generations, clay cat litter was the tradition, and it was available just about everywhere for a reasonable cost. Unfortunately, this product is not a healthy litter option for the cats we love and hold so dear . . .
. . . nor for us, either!
Clay based cat litters naturally contain silica, you know, that nasty gray dust that kicks up when you pour fresh litter into the cat box, and when your cat digs a hole to do business, and then again when your cat neatly covers up the pile left behind.
You inhale it.
Your cat inhales it more.
The whole household inhales it . . .
. . . a known carcinogen.
With modern new innovations in cat waste control, clay based cat litters were laced with the additive, sodium bentonite, the chemical used to “clump” cat waste.
Cat owners rave about the convenience and the ease of keeping a clean cat litter box, but every time your cat grooms its paws, that sodium bentonite is ingested, dehydrating your cat by soaking up liquid 15 times its volume and “clumping” inside your furry loved one. Tortuous feline intestinal distress and even death are just some of the known results of using cat litter containing sodium bentonite.
Perfumed cat litters are overwhelmingly scented to humans. Imagine what it must be like for cats whose olfactory systems are exponentially more sensitive than humans’ are? Consider the myriad of cat litter box problems resulting from allergies to chemically scented litters.
Dodger is asthmatic and artificially scented cat litters quickly bring on an attack. I’m a chemically sensitive person, and so are other members in my family. Artificially perfumed litters are like bad air pollution in our house, and many artificial additives make me sick. Cats will frequently reject highly perfumed cat litters.
Choose a natural litter with a texture your cat finds comfortable and used the softest you can find for declawed kitties as their paws are especially sensitive.
Also, use a depth of litter that keeps the urine from sinking to the bottom of the box to help simplify clean-up and to maintain an odor-free waste system.
For your convenience, I’ve done the research for you.
Below are links to excellent natural cat litter choices generally recognized as safe for cats and their humans. Try them, and then use the one your cat prefers.
For instance, cats that eat cat litter, or don’t bury or cover their elimination, like Dodger; he never covers his defecation.
Unfortunately, some kittens are removed from their mama cats and siblings too early, before they have completed their socialization and skills training. These cats compensate as best they can, but often develop what humans term “unacceptable” elimination habits, a sort of handicap, if you will. These cats’ habits are nearly impossible to train out of.
Remember, I said, “Living with cats is all about compromise.”
Kittens removed from their mamas and siblings too early need more love and care, and they need their cat guardians to fill in where they, themselves, are not able to.
Dodger is one of these kinds of kitties. On the rare occasions he does use his litter box instead of going outside, I must cover his defecation for him and crack a window to vent the odor, because he does not have the ability to do it for himself. It’s not his fault, so he cannot be held accountable for the shortcoming, nor can he retrained to do what he is incapable of.
It’s a sort of, “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine” arrangement. Dodger keeps our place rodent free and he is a BFF (best friend forever), and once in a great while I cover his pooh. I think I’ve got the easy end of the deal, don’t you?
As a good steward of one of the most wonderful creatures ever created, I consider it a privilege to serve, and to help him out with his few cat litter box problems.
After all, I’m not PURRfect, either!
Should cat litter box problems persist despite your best efforts to remedy the situation, consider asking an expert on cats, or consult a feline behaviorist professional.
In most cases, once you’ve isolated the cat litter box problem you can implement the appropriate solution and make your cat, and family household, happy again!