There are 2 reasons a cat stops using their litter box – Medical and Behavioral.
Understanding what makes a cat tick is key to understanding the importance of the litter box. Sometimes the area of inappropriate elimination may be an indication of the issue at hand. Surprisingly, it can help us get to the bottom of house-soiling by knowing where in the home (or what items) the cat is urinating on. Urinating at windows and doors usually suggests a perceived threat coming from outside. Cats will mark their territory from inside the home when they see outdoor cats walking in their yard. Marking in hallways, doorways, and stairwells can indicate stress (new baby, remodeling, new person in the home). If your cat is going right outside of the litter box, it can indicate that the litter box is too small, dirty or it is uncomfortable in some way for your cat. A cat that urinates outside of the litter box is trying to get your attention! They are telling you that something isn’t right!
Urine Spraying…not just for the boys! Both sexually mature female and male cats can and will spray to mark their territory. The cat sprays to also alert other sexually mature cats that they are ready to breed. Cats become sexually mature around 6 months of age. Spaying or castrating your cat can minimize urine spraying. The percentage is roughly 90% in males and 95% in females show a significant decrease in spraying once they are neutered.
How many litter boxes? Did you know that you need a litter box for each cat in your house plus one additional box? YES! You read that correctly; if you have 3 cats in your home, there should be 4 litter boxes. Cats are very clean creatures, and many don’t like to have a dirty litter box. The average human can’t be home to clean the boxes every hour, so multiple boxes allow for more clean areas to go. Experts recommend cleaning litter boxes once a day and washing boxes with soap and hot water every 1-4 weeks. NEVER use strong chemicals or ammonia-based products to clean the boxes. Harsh smells could deter cats from using their box. Multiple litter boxes will prevent a line! When a cat must go, s/he must go. With a box for each cat plus one, there will always be a box available.
Feline Hierarchy – Not just for lions. Scientists used to believe lions were the only cats that had a social hierarchy. More recent studies revealed cheetahs, domestic felines, and a few other wild cats all have group social structures. These social structures include rules like who can eat first, where they can sleep and even certain bathroom rules. Just like with dogs and their “pack rules” any time you add a new member to the group (like a new kitten), there will be an upheaval in the ranks. Stress (regardless where it comes from) can cause a cat to eliminate outside of the litter box. Even indoor cat groups are territorial. The cat that is in a socially higher position may not allow the lower cat to use his/her favorite box. Therefore, the lower cat will have to look elsewhere so it can relieve itself. Hence the need for a box for each cat plus one!
Location Location Location! Cats can be very particular about the location of where they “go”. They prefer to not have their litter boxes close to their food and water. Cats like to have their privacy when they are doing their business. Try to avoid placing their litter box in busy areas (high foot traffic areas) of your home. Make sure that if you keep the box in a closet, small room or basement that the cat could not become cornered in or blocked off from coming or going. This could cause a negative experience and result in the cat avoiding the area and consequently not using the litter box. Avoid placing a litter box close to something that could make them startled by sudden noises, such as furnaces and washing machines. Keep litter boxes apart from one another. Your cat will see lined up boxes as one giant box. In multi-story homes, a litter box should be placed on each level of the home. Younger kittens and senior cats may have difficulty getting to the litter box when it is on another floor. If you do have a senior cat in your home, you may have to add another litter box to the areas they spend the most time in. You may need to get creative with the type of box. Boxes with high sides are difficult for an arthritic cat to get in and out of. If your cat has been using a different location to relieve itself, you may have to place another box at that site to get the cat to start using the box again. If your cat is happy with a location of their litter box, don’t remove it because you want to rearrange the room. Other negative experiences that can lead to inappropriate elimination: pulling cat from the litter box to place it in a crate, a child cornering the cat in the litter box, administering medications while the cat is in the litter box.
Size Does Matter? The general standard for the size of a litter box required for your cat is that the litter box should be 1.5 times the length of cat from nose to the base of the tail. If you’re wondering… many commercial litter boxes are too small for many cats. Alternative suggestions for a litter box can include no lid plastic storage containers or concrete mixing trays. A variety of types of litter boxes are available. They make covered boxes, covered boxes with a flap, self-cleaning, etc. These different types have pros and cons. The type of litter box may be the reason your cat isn’t using it. If you don’t like the idea of having several litter boxes around your home or there isn’t enough space for all of them, there are alternatives to regular litter boxes. There are several companies that now make furniture that can hide a litter box. For the crafty builders out there, you can also make your own hidden litter box furniture.
Scoopable, Clumping, Clay, Crystals, Sand and Scents Oh my! On to the litter itself. Cats don’t like change. They are creatures of habit. Don’t change litter every time you buy a new bag. If you found a brand and kind that your cat likes and uses, stay with that exact one. Just because two different brands say they are clay litter doesn’t mean that they are made the same way. They could have different size clay pellets, slightly different scent, or slightly different amount of dust and those little changes could be enough to upset your cat and they will let you know by going to the bathroom somewhere else.
Because of their incredible sense of smell, it is recommended to not use scented litters or deodorizers. These scents might smell good to you but can be overwhelming to you cat. Also, having an aroma plug-in or aroma diffuser in the same room as their litter box may have the same effect. Pungent odors can also make your cat avoid their litter box.
Before there became a huge market for kitty litter, people used to use sand. Nowadays, there are many different types and textures of cat litter. Cats do have a preference on what they like to use. Sometimes, you might need to offer different types of litter to see if your cat is picky on the type of litter. Also, keep at least one box with the same kind they are used to close to a new type of litter. If you do need to switch litters, make sure to transition slowly from the old kind to the new one. For example: First week, Litter A makes up about 75% of the box and Litter B is 25%. Keep this arrangement for about 2-3 weeks then make a mixture of 50% each of both Litter A and B. Again, keep this for a few weeks, then increase Litter B to 75% and Litter A to 25% in the box. After a few weeks, it should be okay to completely use Litter B.
Clay litters are made up from different materials depending on whether it is clumping or not. They are usually cheaper than biodegradable or crystal litters. But both scoopable and non-scoopable tend to have more dust in them. Biodegradable materials tend to be packaged in a pellet shape. Wood pellets, recycled newspaper, scoopable sawdust, corn, and wheat to name a few. A nice bonus to these litters is that they can be added to your compost heap. There is less dust when compared to clay litters too. Usually you will use less pellets in the litter box then the amount of clay litter needed. The downside to this style of litter is the expense. **Special note about wood pellets – if you are thinking about buying wood pellets that are typically used for wood stoves be very careful. Some types of woods used for wood pellet stoves are harmful to your cat and can cause organ failure.** Silica gel or crystal litters are the most expensive type of litter that you can buy, yet they have the highest absorbency and complete odor elimination for an extended period of time.
Pay attention to the recommended depths of the litter you are using. Companies provide this information because of research they have done and what works best for that type of litter. Long haired cats like to have the depth of their litter less than 2 inches deep.
Remember, if your veterinary team has eliminated the possibility of a medical reason, and you begin working on a suspected behavioral issue, don’t make multiple drastic changes at one time. This action can cause inappropriate urination as well. You will be unable to decipher what the real issue was if you change a lot of things at the same time.
CLEANING! Clean urine marked areas as quickly as you find them and clean that area frequently. Use a high-quality urine odor and stain remover that is made to destroy urine enzymes. Make sure to clean up to 3 times the size of the soiled area that you see. A black light can help see urine soiled areas that may be invisible to the naked eye. Never use ammonia-based cleaners around your cat. Don’t forget the recommendation to scoop litter boxes once a day and wash litter boxes with soap and hot water every 1-4 weeks.
- Consider using comforting synthetic pheromones. These have calming qualities to help ease the stress your cat is feeling. Feli-way plug-ins and spray is available at our office.
- Laying plastic carpet protectors upside down can create uncomfortable areas you don’t want your cat to be in.
- Restrict outdoor cats from coming onto your property. Motion-activated water sprinklers can deter these threatening invaders.
Never punish your cat for house-soiling. This may complicate the whole issue at hand! House-soiling can be a very frustrating problem for both you and your cat. Your cat is trying to tell you there is something wrong in their world and you need to have patience to figure out what is causing the problem. After an honest attempt to fix all the things listed above with minimal to no positive result, your cat may need a prescription medication to help with stress and anxiety. Our veterinary team is here to help. Keep the lines of communication open and let us know what you and your cat need!