5 Causes of Litter Box Problems in Cats

Why do some cats love their litter box and others hate it? See more cat pictures.
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Cats have enchanted humans for centuries with the low rumble of a satisfied purr, the rhythmic knead of a contented paw, the velvet rub of thick fur.

Then there's the litter box.


This bane of cat-loving humans, when gone wrong, threatens to upend our age-old kinship. An estimated 50 percent of all feline behavioral problems referred to veterinarians are rooted in litter box avoidance. And the more a cat refuses to use the litter box, the greater the problem grows.

Cats who relieve themselves outside the litter box once a week are four times more likely to be given up by their humans. If the problem occurs daily, these same cats face 28:1 odds of finding themselves searching for new homes [source: Dodman].

There's much you can do to prevent litter box problems or correct them once they begin. From investigating medical culprits to selecting the right litter box location, paying attention to the details can help preserve your relationship with Kitty for years to come. And isn't that the (wonderful) point? Here are five common causes of litter box issues.

5: Your Cat Is Sick

Some feline illnesses will make Kitty go anywhere -- not just in the litter box.
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Sick cats don't always look sick. In fact, most of the time they appear to be just fine. But if your cat suddenly stops using the litter box, the first step is to investigate possible medical issues. Here are a few key illnesses to watch for:

Urinary tract infection: If your cat enters the litter box on a disturbingly frequent basis, cries out while urinating or begins urinating in other parts of your home, a painful urinary tract infection could be to blame. Sometimes, even after an infection has been treated, a cat will refuse to use the litter box because she associates it with pain.


Kidney stones: These can be a painful and serious problem for cats. The symptoms mimic that of a urinary tract infection, but may also cause your cat to flinch in pain at the touch of her swollen abdomen.

Feline interstitial cystitis: Although this disease is neurological in origin, its symptoms include frequent and strained urination, often with little output. Other signs include a cat who obsessively licks herself where she urinates or has blood in her urine. The pain and nearly constant urge to urinate will cause your cat to relieve herself in places other than the litter box.

If any of these troubling medical symptoms are present, contact your veterinarian. Not only will these illnesses make your cat uncomfortable, in the case of feline interstitial cystitis, they could be life-threatening as well [source: ASPCA].

4: Your Cat Isn't Neutered or Spayed

Spaying or neutering a cat can help block his urge to spray urine.

Spraying small amounts of urine onto vertical surfaces is perfectly normal behavior for your cat, but can be a real nuisance to their humans (especially if the drapes or furniture happen to be the target). Cats define their territory, compete for dominance or announce their sexual readiness by spraying urine, a practice that is particularly common with unneutered males and in multiple cat households.

It can be difficult to narrow the cause of urine spraying, especially if there is more than one cat in your home. Try isolating the cats from each other to determine which cat is spraying urine. Or, with the guidance of your veterinarian, administer a dye test to establish which urine sprays belong to an individual cat. Your cat will need to swallow a fluorescein pill that will make his urine visible under black light. (You can use a portable black light wand to see where the urine is located.)


Spaying or neutering a cat can help block the urge to spray urine. In addition, limiting access to windows where an indoor cat may see -- and compete with -- an outdoor cat, can prevent your cat from feeling the need to mark his territory. Try providing some private space for your cat, such as a cat condo or high shelf from which he can watch his kingdom. Or use a calming spray like Feliway that mimics cat pheromones. This is a good way to reduce stress and the urge to assert dominance with urine spray [source: Fenichel].

3: Your Cat Doesn't Like the Litter Box or Its Location

Maybe Kitty doesn't want to share her bathoom space with you!
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Placing the litter box out of sight in the utility room seems like the ideal solution, doesn't it? Unfortunately, your cat doesn't agree. She's been eliminating on the living room carpet instead. Now what?

It's time to think like a real estate agent: location, location, location. If your cat's litter box is difficult to reach, she won't use it. Would you want to march to an outhouse in the middle of the night? Plus, if the litter box is near a noisy furnace, dryer or other appliance, she might have a hard time relaxing and getting down to business.


To find the perfect litter box placement, keep these additional parameters in mind:

  • Don't place the litter box near your cat's food and water.
  • If you live in a multi-level home, place a litter box on each level.
  • Place the litter box in a private, but convenient-to-your-cat location. If you select a closet or bathroom, be sure there is plenty of opportunity for your cat to enter and exit -- or install a cat door.
  • Make sure there is at least one litter box for each cat.

The type of litter box matters, too. Some cats don't like covered litter boxes, while others appreciate the coziness. Covered litter boxes trap odors inside, so be vigilant about cleanup. If your cat's litter box becomes too full of feces or urine, she will avoid the mess -- and the smell -- and may start to use other parts of your home as a makeshift loo [source: HSUS].

2: Your Cat Has a Litter Aversion

Some cats like the cosiness of a covered litter box. However, they trap odors inside, so be vigilant about cleanup.

It may not seem like a big deal to you, but the type of litter box you purchase for your cat can make or break her elimination experience. So before you play litter-roulette based on this week's sale price, consider the consequences.

If your cat doesn't like the litter used in her box, she may begin to soil the carpets or bedding as far from the litter box as possible. She may also spend very little time in the box when she does use it, skipping the important and satisfactory tasks of digging and scratching. She may not like the texture of the litter (cats usually prefer find grains). Plus, an abrupt change in the type of litter can be picked up by her sense of smell, which keys in on scented formulas. One solution is to use an unscented formula and sprinkle it with baking soda to help control odors.


Pay attention to the litter level -- your cat certainly will. Levels that are too high or too low -- or inconsistent -- can be stressful and may cause her to seek other spots to eliminate. The ideal level is 1-2 inches (2.5-5 centimeters) [source: Johnson-Bennett].

1: Your Cat Feels Threatened

Sometimes, stress from another cat can make your kitty start to relieve herself throughout the house.

Unlike their canine cousins, cats are not pack animals. Although a cat will often tolerate the presence of other cats -- and dogs -- in their household, all this company can be stressful. And this stress can lead to litter box problems.

When grouped together, cats will establish a social hierarchy that includes multiple territories. For example, while one cat may be dominant in the area where food and water are served, another may be dominant in litter box territory. These complicated relationships require cats to create routes that don't cross the path of the dominant cat. So when the cat who rules the litter box area decides to take a lengthy nap smack-dab in the path to the litter box, it can cause subordinate cats to relieve themselves on other surfaces throughout the home.


You can help keep the peace by placing multiple litter boxes for easy access. Put a bell on the collar of the cat who dominates the litter box area so other cats can hear her coming, and consider installing some vertical resting spots to ease tensions. Elevated shelves, cat "trees" and cat walkways can reduce testy interactions between cats [source: Litter Box Guru].

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Author's Note: 5 Causes of Litter Box Problems in Cats

When I was pregnant with my third child, I made a new best friend. She lived next door and when I planted myself on the front porch every evening -- ankles swollen, feet aching -- she would come over for a leisurely visit. The best part? She would wind herself in-between my ankles, an infinity loop of soft fur. It was the best part of my day. Smokey, as we came to call her, was a one-in-a-million cat. Confident, persnickety and exceedingly loving to the people she chose as her own. Luckily, we became those people. When her humans next door moved away, Smokey was adopted into our family and remained there in the years that followed. She kept watch over sleeping children, cuddled with me at night and entertained us all until her death two years ago. She is missed.

Related Articles

  • American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Litter Box Problems." (March 28, 2014) http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/virtual-pet-behaviorist/cat-behavior/litter-box-problems
  • Dodman, Nicholas. "Stop Feline Inappropriate Elimination." Veterinary Practice News. May 29, 2012. (March 28, 2014) http://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/vet-practice-news-columns/pet-projects/stop-feline-inappropriate-elimination.aspx
  • Fenichel, Janice. "Urinating Outside the Litterbox." Petfinder. 1998. (March 28, 2014) http://www.petfinder.com/cats/cat-problems/urinating-outside-litterbox/
  • Humane Society of the United States. "Preventing Litter Box Problems." Sept. 12, 2013. (March 28, 2014) http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/cats/tips/preventing_litter_box_problems.html
  • Johnson-Bennett, Pam. "Does Your Cat Have a Litter Aversion?" Cat Behavior Associates. (March 28, 2014) http://www.catbehaviorassociates.com/does-your-cat-have-a-litter-aversion/
  • Litter Box Gurus. "Multiple Cat Households." (March 28, 2014) http://litterboxguru.com/multiple_cat_households