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Q&A: What to Do When Kitty Stops Using the Litter Box

Q: My cat stopped using the litter box. What do I do?

A:  This is a problem I’m thoroughly familiar with, so this is going to be as detailed as possible because anyone who owns a cat, or is thinking of owning a cat, needs to learn how to think like a cat. Too many cats are euthanized every day in this country because people don’t want to take the time to work with the animal and gain a deeper understanding of their furry friend, which can lead to a much deeper connection that will benefit everyone involved.

Part One: Know What You Know, and Know When That Knowledge Isn’t Enough

Congratulations! Step one is already done. If you don’t know what to do, ask for help. You’ll probably get tons of different advice, and that’s a good thing, because there are so many different reasons that cats might display a single behavior. The worst thing a kitty caretaker can do is approach any problem as if there is only one way to solve it, and if that doesn’t work, they give up and declare the cat a lost cause. This is rarely ever the case. I have yet to meet a lost cause kitty. Cats are complex beings, just like people. And you can’t just sit down with a family therapist to talk it out. So, how do we figure this out?

Before we go any farther, you need to take your cat to the vet. There is a very good chance that this is due to a physical problem. Spaying/neutering, if not already done, should be your first order of business. There can be any number of health-related causes. Cats often don’t show any outward signs of pain or illness, and when they do, it often appears as what seems like odd, aberrant behavior to the observing humans. If your cat is suddenly acting differently, especially with litter habits, something is wrong. Pain (a hurt paw, UTI, constipation, or even just a bit of litter digging into the paw) is a leading cause of this type of behavior.

If you have a new cat that has never used the litter box, skip to Part Four: Solutions.

Part Two: Work Out the Timeline of Events Before and During the Problem

The second step is to try to work out the initial trigger for the behavior. This won’t always work, but the closer you can get to the reason, the faster you’ll get results. What was going on around the first time the cat didn’t use the litter box? The obvious place to start is: what changed? Cats know when we’re stressed, they know when we’re sick, and major disruptions in the household can cause the cat’s sense of security to falter, and that leads to problematic behavior. Other indicators of this could be a change in personality (is s/he more needy or standoffish? Is s/he displaying more sensitivity to noise, people coming and going, or showing signs of aggression or fear?).

If that doesn’t seem to be the case, try to think of something that may have startled or scared the cat while it was using the litter box: another pet, a loud noise (passing truck, someone shouting, a dog barking, etc.), the smell of another animal (if you’ve got cats outside, the cat inside will be able to smell any marking that’s going on around the perimeter of the house, you may also have tracked in some animal scent), or seeing another animal from a window or doorway. Third, a dirty litter box; all of these things can create a negative association with the litter box. Sometimes there is no clear answer, so you have to do some detective work.

Part Three: Gather Data

1. Where is the cat doing its business? Are there one or two consistent spots, or is it all over the place?

  • If s/he has a few spots he likes, figure out why those spots are significant to him/her. For example, interior doorways (bedrooms, halls, etc.) are places of power for cats. If the cat is leaving those unwanted gifts near doorways, this can be like putting a big sign on the door saying, “MINE!” And that means that we’re dealing with some insecurity or a territorial dispute with another pet in the home. Even cats that have gotten along for years can suddenly have a falling out over territory.
  • Try to observe the cat (if you have your phone handy, try to record it) while it is doing its business. Does s/he seem to be in pain? Is s/he straining? Is s/he looking around or appearing paranoid? Note any clues you see. Even if you don’t see anything out of the ordinary, go ahead and write down what happened. Every move you remember the cat making. If you recorded it, watch it back, writing down what happened in a play-by-play. This will help your mind work on the problem. Maybe you didn’t realize something at the time, but it might click later. And if a second trip to the vet is necessary, or the vet visit is scheduled several days away, make sure to take any notes or video you have to the appointment.
  • Outer doorways are also places of power. If s/he’s using the outer walls or places near windows and exterior doors, this likely means that someone or something out there is what’s bothering him, and he feels the need to mark his territory. This is also a sign of insecurity, but likely due to things happening outside, although I have seen some cases of this when the source of stress is separation anxiety. It’s not as common (the pooping and peeing on outer doors and windows aspect, separation anxiety itself is fairly common, especially with a new family), but it does happen.
  • When cats urinate/defecate on personal items like laundry, bedding, your favorite spot on the couch, etc., people often incorrectly attribute it to the cat being vindictive. Cats don’t think like that. But if s/he’s soiling these spots, it’s because s/he’s insecure about his place in the family. S/he wants so badly to let everyone know that you are a part of his/her family. Your scent is the strongest on your things, and s/he’s insecure, so s/he’s going to want to mix his/her smell with yours.
  • HOWEVER, if all the places he’s peeing are soft places (laundry, bedding, soft furniture), this could also be indicative of a urinary tract issue. The pain is sharp, so they think that the pain is caused by where they are peeing. If you’re a cat, you want to counteract that sharp pain with soft things. So you pee on the bed, the laundry, the plush bathroom rug, etc.

2. Did s/he sometimes use the litter box after that first out-of-the-box foray, or is this a full strike of the litter box?

  • If s/he’s using it sometimes and not others, pay close attention to what is going on when s/he’s doing his/her business both in and out of the box. If it’s not clear, mark each spot with a sticker or colorful tape (write the time and date on it) until you see the pattern emerge. This is critical data.

3. Does s/he have options? One litter box isn’t enough. Your cat needs at least two. If you have more than one cat, a good rule of thumb is number of cats plus one. So, if you have 3 cats, that means 4 litter boxes.

Part Four: Solutions

You’ve taken your cat to the vet, you’ve gathered data, and now you’re going to take all that data and figure out a plan.

1. In the areas where your cat is usually doing its business, put down small litter boxes. You might begin with a dozen or just a few, depending on how many places your cat is doing its business. Put down a couple puppy pads around each small littler box and check them frequently to keep track of progress. For areas where you can’t put down a litter box, use a puppy pad or restrict access.

  • Try a variety of different litters (cedar, sand, soil, etc.). You may find that your cat simply prefers another kind of litter.
  • Reward success immediately using whatever motivates your cat (treats, toys, affection, etc.). NEVER punish a cat for failure to use the litter. The cat doesn’t think like humans, and it will likely make the situation much worse. Cats will refuse to return to a place where they have been punished, and if the cat was punished near the litter, bye-bye progress, hello stinky carpet. They don’t see their actions as either good or bad, which is why punishment never works.
  • Stay positive. The last thing the situation needs is more stress. It’s a distressing situation already, so do your best to keep things on track. If you have a setback, take a time out and then begin again.
  • Keep lids off the litter boxes. You want kitty to have an open invitation to use the litter.
  • Scoop the litter daily, change the liner and puppy pads if needed, but try to avoid using completely fresh litter when possible.

2. If there are no specific places where your cat is doing its business (this is extremely rare, especially if the vet finds nothing wrong with your cat), you’re going to need to designate a room and keep your cat in there with at least one litter box (number of litter boxes should depend on the room size. As many as you can fit without being ridiculous about it). The room should be small, but not a closet or tiny bathroom. The idea here is to give kitty only one option. Make sure bedding, food, and water are away from the litter box.

3. If you think the problem may be with animals outside, pick up some animal deterrents for your yard at your local hardware store (lawn and garden section). In this case, it’s best if the cat is unable to see the ground outside, but they should be able to watch birds and get some sunlight, so tape something over the lower portion of the window.

4. More specific problems (health issues, separation anxiety, etc.) will require treatment for the specific problem. Once you deal with the main issue, your cat may or may not require litter re-training (items 1 & 2).

5. If none of this is working, it’s time for a second opinion. Call around to find a vet that is willing to work with you to find out what’s going on. Look for a vet that makes house calls. Further tests may be needed at this point.