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How to Solve Your Cat Litterbox Problems

Posted by Jennifer on November 12th, 2012

Cat Sniffing LitterboxOne of the most frustrating behaviors for a cat owner is litterbox issues. If only cats could talk to tell us why they weren’t using their litterbox! There are so many reasons cats completely stop or won’t use their litterbox all the time. It can take some detective work to figure out the reason or reasons, and the cure or cures. This blog article will give you a step-by-step process to figure out why and fix the problem. Many cat owners I know and I have personally used these steps to solve litterbox problems with many cats, from young kittens to seniors. Litterbox issues are one of the most common reasons cats are surrendered to shelters, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We describe nine steps below in detail – don’t be overwhelmed! Often it only takes finding the right step to get your cat going back in the litterbox again.

To make these steps easier to understand, I’ll call your litterbox-avoiding cat Kitty.

Cats can be sensitive and effected by your mood. They might not show it in a way you understand, but if you are stressed or unhappy when your are cleaning their litterbox or otherwise, Kitty will pick up on that and that may be why he is avoiding the litterbox. Can you change your mood? Sometimes buying a pretty new litterbox and scented litter makes you feel better, and will help Kitty start using it again. Also, as your Kitty gets back on track, don’t forget to lavishly praise Kitty each time he gets it right, and reward him with his favorite treat if you ever see him using his box.

These steps assume you know litter box math: each cat should have their own litterbox plus one extra, so 1 cat = 2 boxes, 2 cats =3 boxes, 3 cats = 4 boxes.

Step 1. Clean up

Cat urine is one of the most difficult smells on the earth to remove. To add to the challenge, cats have an extraordinary sense of smell, and may continue to go if they can smell their prior mess. But it can be done! Remove, sterilize, and store (or throw out) any items Kitty urinated or defecated on outside the box. If Kitty went on more permanent items like your front door or wall-to-wall carpet, thoroughly clean the entire area, and soak with an enzyme pet cleaner for 24 hours. If you can’t close Kitty out of that room, keep him away from it the entire time you are trying the steps below by covering it with a large cat-proof item, like a plastic tarp.

Step 2. “Brand New”

The easiest and fastest thing you can try is adding another brand new litterbox, with new litter, in a new location. Put a brand new litterbox, as big a one as possible and NOT a covered one, filled with fresh all-new litter, as close as you can to where Kitty was eliminating inappropriately the most. This might be right next to your shower if they were using the bath mat, in your closet, on the couch, under a window or in a doorway.

Monitor Kitty for one full day.

Did that stop Kitty from going outside the box? Great! Keep it there for one full week or as long as it would usually take for your Kitty to go outside his box. If you can keep the litterbox in the new location with that kind of litter, your outside-the-box problem may be solved.

What if the new location is not where you want a litterbox?  Gradually – just one foot a day -  move it to where you want it. If Kitty’s peeing or pooping outside the box resumes, move it back. If you get up to two adjacent boxes, keep the 2nd box there for one month. After one month, you can take up the 2nd box – but be aware, even some single cats need two boxes.

Step 3. Medical

If the “brand new” solution didn’t fix your problem in one day, you should take Kitty to your vet ASAP to rule out any medical causes. Often cats will stop using their box to communicate they aren’t feeling well or are in pain. Here are the steps most vets will recommend:

1. A urinalysis to check for infection.

2. A urine CULTURE for elevated bacteria.

3. Blood panel or other tests for illnesses.

4. Feline Prozac or Buspar to relieve anxiety-driven litterbox issues.

Step 3. Litterbox preferences

After your vet has ruled out immediate medical causes, and while you’re waiting on the culture to come back, you can start the process of figuring out if it is the litterbox location, type or depth of litter, cleanliness, or style of box. Kitty may have a particular preference!

In the order listed below, try each of these six options for three days each. Add on the next option after three days if the previous step didn’t get Kitty going in his boxes 100%. If you reach a success combo, keep it up! This takes time, but each option or combination of options could be the key to your success.

  1. Cleanliness: Keep all boxes hospital clean for three days. Dump all litter out daily, scrub with a cat enzyme cleaner (or use a brand new box), replace with 100% clean new litter. Some cats are super clean and don’t want to use a box once it has been used.
  2. Style: add another new litter box, as big as possible, uncovered, with the lowest sides possible.
  3. Type: Fill new box with a different type of litter – try unscented non-clumping Tidy Cats if you weren’t using that.
  4. Soil: Replace new box litter with nice rich potting soil.
  5. Depth: Add more soil to new box and litter to original box make it deeper. Some cats want to dig down first.

Step 4. Location and quantity

Try putting six new litter boxes out in six different locations. You don’t have to buy six new permanent ($$) boxes, you can use the disposable cardboard litter boxes sold in packs at pet supply stores. This is a temporary test to see if something in the two locations you tried previously is scaring or stressing Kitty out so he doesn’t want to go there all the time. If you find Kitty is using one or more boxes and not going outside, after one week remove one he’s using the least. If you’re still okay, then remove one more a week until you are down to the maximum number you can tolerate. If Kitty has an accident, then replace the last one you removed. You may need to combine this with keeping all the boxes super clean for it to work long-term.

Step 5. Stress

After a medical cause, stress and anxiety (territorial or other source) are the most common reasons cats go outside their box. Kitty could be upset over a change in his routine, by someone or something new in the house, or something you can’t figure out! Whatever the cause, you can try these stress relievers:

  1. Rescue Remedy. Effects are immediate. Put it on Kitty’s paw so he’ll lick it off.
  2. Feliway plug-ins in every room. Not cheap, but often more effective than spray or collar versions.
  3. Vet-prescribed kitty Prozac or Buspar.
  4. Soothing music, like a classical or easy listening radio station left on.

Step 6. When left alone

If he only does it while you are gone, it might be your absence that is causing the stress. Kitty may feel less stressed in a smaller secure space. If you have a comfortable well-ventilated heated/cooled bathroom, laundry room, or other kitty bathroom-proof room, close Kitty in that room with a litter box, food, water and a bed every time you go out. If you don’t have a good room, you can use an extra large dog crate or a kitty habitat – like this awesome 3 level one. Try that for a week every time you go out to give it enough time to see if it helps. You can give Kitty a “treat” of canned food when you close him in there to make it more enjoyable. Use the above four stress relievers as well.

Step 7. Scent and Territory

What are you cleaning with?  If the old smell Kitty was trying to cover is not removed, he may continue to go on that spot. Does Kitty go on the door, on the rug by the door, or under a window?  It could be anxiety-driven territorial marking. Try blocking off where Kitty can see/hear/smell any other cats or dogs outside.

Cat urine smell out of household items – finding one that works for your surfaces can take many tries. If a pet enzyme cleaner isn’t working, a solution of biological laundry detergent with water, soaking the area for 24 hours, and then flushing it can work. So can strong sunlight. With carpets, often the only solution is to remove them.

After you’ve cleaned all the areas where your cat has gone, gently rub a soft cloth over his cheeks, neck, and bottom, then rub the cloth where he went to the bathroom and leave the cloth there. This spreads the cat’s pheromones and scent onto that surface, and will reduce Kitty from needing to put his scent there himself.

Step 8. Bad memories

Some cats have a painful association with going inside a box, like declawed cats who tried to dig with wounded paws, or cats that had a painful urinary infection. So if all the above fails and Kitty is not using the box at all, or only using it for #2 and not #1, close Kitty in the bathroom, with his food, water, and a new clean litterbox. You may need earplugs if Kitty meows to be let out – you’ll need to be strong and be prepared to keep Kitty in there for up at least a few days for this to work.

Cover the floor with newspaper – every square inch! If Kitty goes in the tub, put the newspaper in there. Most cats will go to the bathroom in one location on the floor. Gradually pick up the newspaper where the cat is not going (one or two sheets removed a day). When you are down to two sheets where Kitty is going regularly, take a sheet that has some urine on it and put it on top of a flat piece of cardboard box, or on a cookie tray. Now there should be newspaper only on top of the box/tray, and none on the floor. If Kitty continues to go on the paper on the box/tray, try a brand new low-sided uncovered litterbox (so it won’t smell anything like litter) in the same spot, and put some urine scented newspaper in it. Then the next day, try putting a handful of a new kind of litter in it, that doesn’t smell anything like their old litter. So if they were using clay litter, try the pine dust or ground up corn litter. Often with baby steps you can have them graduate back up to a real litterbox with litter, but sometimes you may have to stick to newspaper or dirt. It’s better than your _______ (insert where your cat was going before here)!

If at any point during the re-introduction process Kitty reverts to going on the uncovered floor, do not panic. An accident or two may happen. But if it’s more than twice, you should take a few steps back and proceed more slowly. If your Kitty was really traumatized, it can take weeks. But a few weeks in a bathroom, while not fun, is worth the chance of getting your Kitty over his trauma and back to using his litterbox.

Step 9. BONUS STEP FOR SPRAYING CATS! Soak Kitty’s fabric collar in his sprayed urine, let it dry, and put it back Kitty, so everywhere he goes, he will smell his own scent, and will not feel he has to spread it by spraying.

With patience, deductive powers and our suggestions, we hope your Kitty will be using his litterbox very soon.

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