Cat Litter Box Problems (cont.)

Changing the Way Your Cat Feels

If your cat associates her litter box with unpleasant things, you can work to help her develop new and pleasant associations. Cats can't be forced to enjoy something, and trying to show your cat that her litter box is safe by placing her in the box will likely backfire and increase her dislike of the box. It's usually not a good idea to try to train your cat to use her litter box by offering her treats like you would a dog, because many cats do not like attention while they're eliminating. However, a professional animal behavior consultant, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) may be able to help you design a successful retraining or counterconditioning program. Please see our article,Finding Professional Help, for information about locating an applied animal behavior professional.

Sometimes retraining to overcome litter-box fears or aversions may not be necessary. Here are some steps that you can try to help your cat learn new pleasant associations.

  • Move your cat's litter box to a new location, or add a few litter boxes in different locations at the same time. Pick locations where your cat can see who is approaching from any sides that aren't backed by walls. These locations should also have multiple escape routes so that your cat can quickly leave her litter box if she suddenly feels anxious. If possible, make sure that children or other animals who might seem threatening to your cat can't get near her litter box.
  • Fill the litter boxes one to two inches deep with a litter that is a little different from the litter in the boxes your cat avoids. Use a finer or coarser texture. If you've been using scented litter, try unscented litter.
  • Try playing with your cat near her litter box. Also leave treats and toys for her to find and enjoy in the general area leading to her box. Don't put her food bowl next to the box, though, because cats usually don't like to eliminate close to their food.
  • If you have a long-haired cat, try carefully and gently clipping the hair on her hind end if you notice that it gets soiled or matted during elimination. Matting can cause the hair to get pulled when the cat eliminates. That can be painful for the cat and make her skittish of her litter box.

Treatment for Household Stress

Cats sometimes stop using their litter boxes when they feel stressed. Identify and, if possible, eliminate any sources of stress or frustration in your cat's environment. For instance, keep her food bowls full and in the same place, keep her routine as predictable as possible, prevent the dog from chasing her, close blinds on windows and doors so she isn't upset by cats outside. If you can't eliminate sources of stress, try to reduce them. Incorporate the use of Feliway®spray or diffusers, which deliver a synthetic pheromone that has been shown to have some effect in relieving stress in cats. You can find Feliway products in many pet stores and online.

Treatment for Multi-Cat Household Conflict

Sometimes an elimination problem can develop as a result of conflict between cats who live together. If you have multiple cats and aren't sure which cat is soiling, speak with your veterinarian about giving fluorescein, a harmless dye, to one of your cats. Although the dye does not usually stain carpeting, it causes urine to glow blue under ultraviolet light for about 24 hours. If you can't get or use fluorescein, you can temporarily confine your cats, one at a time, to determine which one is eliminating outside of the litter boxes in your home.

If there is a conflict between your cats and one of them seems stressed, provide additional litter boxes in locations where the anxious cat spends the majority of her time. Also be sure to provide adequate resting areas for each cat. It can very useful in multi-cat households to create vertical resting spots on shelves or window sills or by buying multi-perch cat trees. It may help to distribute resources such as food, water, cat posts or trees, and litter boxes so that each individual cat can make use of them without coming into contact or having a conflict with one of the other cats. Using Feliway spray or diffusers can reduce general social stress in your household.

Medications

Always consult with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist before giving your cat any type of medication for a behavior problem.

Medications can provide additional help in treating inappropriate elimination when the behavior is in response to stress or anxiety. It's unlikely to be helpful if your cat eliminates outside her litter box because of litter-management problems, an aversion to a particular kind of litter or location, a preference for a particular surface or location, or a physical inability to use the box. If you'd like to explore this option, speak with your veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist who can work closely with your vet. Please see our article,Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these professionals in your area.

What NOT to Do

Regardless of what you do so solve your cat's elimination problems, here are a few things to avoid:

  • Do not rub your cat's nose in urine or feces.
  • Do not scold your cat and carry or drag her to the litter box.
  • Do not confine your cat to a small room with the litter box, for days to weeks or longer, without doing anything else to resolve her elimination problems.
  • Do not clean up accidents with an ammonia-based cleanser. Urine contains ammonia, and therefore cleaning with ammonia could attract your cat to the same spot to urinate again. Instead, use a product specifically for cleaning pet accidents, such as Nature's Miracle®.

The ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist specializes in the resolution and management of pet behavior problems only. Please do not submit questions about medical problems here. Only licensed veterinarians can diagnose medical conditions. If you think that your pet is sick, injured or experiencing any kind of physical distress, please contact his veterinarian immediately. A delay in seeking proper veterinary care may worsen your pet's condition and put his life at risk.

If you are concerned about the cost of veterinary care, please read our resources on finding financial help.