Most of the time, altered indoor cats have little issue using their litter box. Since their instinct is to bury their business, they typically start going in the litter box (or digging and burying outside) around 4 weeks of age.
But sometimes, there are reasons cats don’t use their box, from intermittently to not at all, causing a lot of frustration and annoyance for their owners. It’s one of the most common reasons cats are relinquished to shelters or euthanized.
During this My Lovely Feline Zoom call, small veterinarian Dr. Leslie Brooks discusses what causes litter box issues and what you can do about it.
Foster and behavior specialist Liz Italia co-hosted the call and added her input, as well.
Note: We host these interactive calls exclusively with some of our customers—every single week 🙌
Selecting Litter Boxes & Location
There are four points Dr. Brooks outlined regarding shopping for litter boxes and placing them in the home.
- Make sure to scoop the litter box at least daily.
- Wash the boxes weekly by emptying out all the litter and using a mild detergent to clean it before putting fresh litter back in.
- Box Type, Size, Amount
- Most cats like uncovered large boxes, big enough that they can stand up and turn around fully.
- The rule for how many boxes is 1 per cat + 1.
- Type of Litter
Fine grained, unscented scoopable litter is preferred.
- Avoid putting air fresheners near the litter box because cats don’t find the smells pleasing.
Make the litter box is in an area that’s quiet (keep away from things like a furnace or washing machine), feels safe and is easily accessible. If it’s in a room with a door, keep the door open at all times.
If you have a dog, get creative so the box is accessible to your cat but not the dog. One way is to put up a baby gate so your dog can’t get to it.
Some gates have a small door at the bottom that the cat can go through. If your dog is eating your cat’s poop, there is a powder you can sprinkle into your cat’s food that will make the poop taste nasty to your dog.
If your cat has arthritis or has been declawed, it might be physically difficult to get in and out of the litter box. You might want to add a small ramp or flat box.
You can also try a litter that’s labeled to be soft on paws. Talk to your vet to see if your cat needs pain medicine or joint supplements to help with mobility.
Of note, although declawing can prevent scratching, declawed cats are more likely to develop litter box issues, and in turn be relinquished to the shelter or euthanized.
If you’ve followed the directions above and you’re still having issues, schedule an appointment with your vet, because it could be one of these common issues:
Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) - WIth a UTI, cats feel the urge to go all the time. They usually can’t hold it and make it to the box in time. They might strain to urinate in the box or urinate in small amounts frequently, sometimes in the same place and other times in different locations. They may also lick under their tail because it’s very uncomfortable. The urine might be orange, pink, or brown, indicating the presence of blood (a common occurrence with UTIs, even in humans). UTIs are treated with antibiotics.
These same signs might also indicate the next condition we’ll discuss.
Feline Cystitis - We don’t know what causes feline cystitis in cats, but it’s completely behavioral, brought on by stress. Any changes in the home environment (new baby, new dog, new cat, new home, cats outside) can cause this condition.
Other than decreasing stress, feline cystitis is treated with pain medication, sometimes a drug to prevent spasming of the urethra, an anti-inflammatory, or even an anti-anxiety med.
Other diseases that can cause your cat to go outside the litter box include kidney disease, kidney failure, cancer, and hyperthyroidism.
All of these conditions will increase the amount of urine your cat produces, and they may not make it to the box, or they’re going so much more, you’re unable to clean it as often, so then they eliminate outside of it.
Liz explained how she trained her super senior to use puppy pads. Given he was old and with arthritis, it was clear he was going near the boxes, but likely had problems getting into and out of the box.
She started by putting puppy pads in places where she was finding his pee, which were around the litter boxes. Puppy pads have an attract element in them, and although it’s for dogs, she thinks cats can smell something too.
When it seemed like he was missing the pads too much, she put him in a puppy playpen and covered the entire area with puppy pads.
Even though he didn’t like being confined, when she let him out, he used the puppy pads pretty consistently, although, he didn’t always have the best aim.
Lower litter boxes are also an option for older cats. They are large and have a small lip which makes it easy for them to get in and out. Liz tried curing a hold in a large tote so her cat could walk right in to use it.
Liz wasn’t sure why, but her cat didn’t like it and wouldn’t use it. She knows many people who’ve had success with large tote litter boxes, and suggested owners try it, especially if getting in and out of the box is an issue.
Pooping Outside the Box
More often than not, pooping outside the box is a behavioral issue, making it extremely difficult to resolve.
Medical issues that cause your cat to poop outside the box could be due to diarrhea and being unable to hold it and make it to the box.
Or if they’re having constipation issues, they can’t squat long enough to get the poop out, so they may walk around with it dangly and it eventually falls off. The last reason would be if they have arthritis (or are declawed) and getting in and out of the box is painful for them.
In Liz’s option, pooping is either medical or it’s so behavioral it’s obvious. For example, pooping by doors that go outside is territorial.
Whereas pooping right outside the box may be medical, where they aren’t comfortable getting into the box, so they go right outside of it.
Liz also thinks that in the case of senior cats, they lose muscle mass in the back half of their body, and might not be able to hold it long enough to get to the box and go, which could lead to pooping outside the box.
If there is a new scent in the home or if they smell cats outside, they may go outside of the box to mark their territory.
This behavior makes them feel more safe. When cats mark, both males and females, they typically put their tail up and spray along a vertical surface, like a wall or in a corner.
Liz also noted that one of her males has peed on outlets before, and while she’s done research on it, and it is a “thing,” there isn’t a clear explanation.
She read that it’s because you don’t remove outlets and clean them. This doesn’t make sense to Liz because she recently replaced outlets and it’s still happening.
It’s making her wonder if there is something with electricity and maybe some cats are more sensitive to it.
Sprays and Diffusers
Sometimes using cat pheromone sprays and diffusers can help your cat feel more comfortable and not feel the need to eliminate outside the box.
Dr. Brooks recommended the site The Indoor Pet Initiative, which has a lot of great information about taking care of indoor cats, including behavior issues.
My 16-month-old boy that I rescued will use the litter box, but also peed on a shiny throw rug, a woolen cat bed, and on two different dog beds. He seems to like the texture. How can I train him not to do this besides removing the items?
Dr. Brooks: I would have him checked by the vet to make sure there’s nothing wrong with his urine. Males are prone to blockages.
If it’s not medical, try the pheromones. If he’s just attracted to that type of fabric, I would remove it.
Make sure there are no stressors in the home. You may want to evaluate his relationship with the dogs.
Liz: I would at least temporarily remove these items, because even if you’re going to retrain, it’s too tempting for him to go on them if they’re still in the environment.
Also, see if you can take him into a small bedroom or bathroom for a short period of time with a box and see if he uses it. If he uses the box exclusively, that’s a good indicator that it isn’t medical.
I feel it’s likely behavioral. When they go on soft items like clothes, it’s usually an insecurity and they feel the need to mark those items to communicate to others in the house.
Make sure he’s getting at least 30 minutes a day of dedicated playtime, including one-on-one interactions and grooming, and make sure he’s getting tons of affection, because if it’s not crystals or a UTI, he’s likely insecure.
He seems to get along with the dogs well, but he also doesn’t cover his feces, and paws at the floor after he pees.
Liz: By not covering his feces, he’s trying to establish dominance and that he’s the alpha in charge. So, clearly he wants to have that hierarchy in the home and that’s why he’s not covering it.
They spread pheromones with their paw pads, so him marking the floor is actually normal even though he’s not going in the right places. I would do dedicated time and temporarily remove that material.
The other thing you might want to try is put a box where you normally have a pet bed and he can use that. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this and I know it’s frustrating. I have a feeling it’s behavioral, especially because he’s peeing on the dogs’ beds.
Q: I have two 16-year-old female cats. I bought a new Litter Robot. One cat uses it with no problem but the other one doesn’t. She refuses to use it and poops on the floor in a couple of different places.
Dr. Brooks: Add another litter box that’s not the Robot. If she had one negative experience in the Robot when you weren’t around, that could prevent her from using it.
Liz: Maybe you could temporarily put the box back out and move it closer and closer to the litter robot a little each day.
Then if it’s directly next to the Robot and she won’t use it, you know she has some sort of fear associated with the Robot.
But if she’s still using the box when it’s next to the Robot, maybe you can remove it and she’ll use the Robot.
I’m not a fan of cats peeing in toilets, but that’s similar to the method that’s used to teach them how to pee in a toilet.
I can’t guarantee it will work, but it’s worth a shot. And like Dr. Brooks said, if there was some sort of traumatizing experience, it’s going to be really difficult to get her to go in the Robot.
Q: I have a 2-year-old rescue cat and she was outside fending for herself. She’ll poop in her litter box, doesn’t bury it, but she’s choosing to pee on the wall-to-wall carpet in my dining room. I’m using the Feliway pheromone plug-ins, and it’s not working.
I’ve cleaned the carpet professionally and sprayed it with pet deterrent. My kitchen, living room, and dining room are one big great room divided by furniture. Her litter box is a under a desk in the kitchen and it’s very accessible.
I’m using pine pellets, and I clean it every day. I think she wants to go outside to go to the bathroom. What can I do?
Liz: I’d move the box to the dining room temporarily to see if she chooses it or the carpet. I think that’s very important to see if she chooses an acceptable option when she has it in the location she likes.
And I hate to say it because I love pine pellets, but I’d look for a clumping litter. I can recommend some to you that aren’t clay.
I use Okocat’s clumping wood litter on Amazon and PetSmart. Look for the Super Soft one. It’s light so it’s not going to track far but it will be right around the box.
The other litter is The Good Earth, a 100% grass litter you can get on Amazon. It clumps like clay and has a similar consistency, but has really strong odor control.
I know there isn’t another cat in the house, but she’s being territorial. There could be another cat outside or wildlife that’s bothering her. They consider it a threat.
There is a neighbor’s cat named Sweetie that comes around my house, and she doesn’t like her. She even went in my garage, where my cat goes too, and ripped open a bag of food.
That would make sense because since your cat isn’t covering and wants to go outside, she’s feeling territorial.
When she poops outside she covers it.
Because she’s claiming your house, but she knows the outside isn’t hers. It could be another animal, not even the other cat.
Yes, I know there are bobcats and other animals outside.
That could be the cause. Try my suggestions and let us know what happens. I’m sorry, I know it’s frustrating.
Q: Could you tell me about the various litter types?
Dr. Brooks: I’ve used the clumping clay, or for cats with sensitive paws, the Yesterday’s News, which is a soft paper litter.
Liz: I’ve tried so many. Cats’ favorite litter is clumping unscented clay litter. That’s what they like. If you want to go with clay litter, Arm & Hammer Clump & Seal is really great.
My experience was great but I was going through so much of it because I have so many cats and it was getting expensive. It does “clump and seal” as advertised. I was also a big Tidy Cats litter for a long time.
If you use clay, try to stay away from the scented ones because cats don’t like them. I recommend dusting the bottom of the pan with baking soda and sprinkle the top with baking soda after you scoop. That will help control the odor.
What made me change was that I have resident and foster cats here – a lot of them. Even with scooping everyday, I couldn’t handle the smell of the clay litter. So I looked into other options.
That’s when I tried and fell in love with pine pellet litter. You need a sifting litter box for it, but when the cat pees on it, it turns to dust and falls through the sifter into a pan. You still have to scoop the poop.
You sift for the pee which is dust and then you dump it. That changed so much. I would put litter boxes behind the couch and no one could even smell it. It’s also really cheap – you can get a 40 lb. bag from Tractor Supply for like $6-7.
The problem with the pellets was it was hard on my super senior’s paws. That’s when I looked at clumping wood litter. The only bad thing is that it flies out of the box and you’ll get some around it.
The 100% grass one I mentioned (The Good Earth) has been great, with incredible odor control. The cats don’t seem to notice the difference between that and the clay.
For declawed cats, there is a super soft crystal litter, and they’re like little beads. A declawed cat I fostered liked it.
My friend has the Tidy Cat Breeze system and loves it. I’ve never tried it.
There are a number of litters I haven’t tried, including walnut litter, corn litter, and the Fresh Step crystals. I also haven’t tried Yesterday’s News because I haven’t needed to for a cat with sore paws. Some people use it with kittens.
My Lovely Feline has customers who use Pretty Litter and love it, but I’ve never used it. The pH of your cat’s urine will cause the litter to change colors, identifying an issue.
Dr. Brooks: I feel like it might be more useful in situations where your cat has already been diagnosed.
Another note on that, if you make an appointment with your vet, try to get a pee sample. You can put them in the bathroom with an empty litter box and hopefully they go overnight and you can bring it in.
You Aren’t Alone
If you’re facing issues with your cat using the litter box, it’s beyond frustrating, but remember you’re not alone.
Work closely with your vet to rule out medical issues, and it’s also a good idea to speak to other cat owners and find out what worked for them.
There are a lot of resources out there, and keep in mind, solving litter box issues is a bit like opening a safe.
Your cat may need a unique combination to unlock their problems, but once you figure it out, you’ll resolve their problems and improve the feline-owner bond.