Why won’t my cat use the litterbox?

Cats are normally fastidious creatures. Cats will bury their excrement and urine to keep their environment clean. This natural behavior makes it possible to easily train most cats to use a litterbox. Urinating outside the box can be due the problems outlined below.

Urinary Tract Disease

Inappropriate elimination, usually urination, can be seen for many different reasons. Before we can begin any behavior modification, we need to be sure that this is not a medical problem. The most common reasons for urinating outside the litterbox are urinary tract infections, stones or other causes that irritate the bladder and increase the urge to urinate. A veterinarian will perform a physical exam and urinalysis before any further recommendations are made. Occasionally, bloodwork, x-rays and cultures as well as prescription diets and medication are indicated.

Urine-marking (Spraying):

Marking occurs while the cat is standing. The tail is erect and quivering as urine is “sprayed” backward onto vertical objects. This is a territorial behavior and the amount of urine expelled is relatively small. The cat may pick one or more locations, usually near windows or doors, after an encounter with another cat (sight or sound). The number of marked locations is directly proportional to the number of cats in the household (the more cats the more areas of urine marking). Occasionally, cats will urine mark in a squatting posture.

Treatment: Castration in the intact tomcat is 90% effective. If the pet is already altered, restricting contact with strange cats may help. Increasing or decreasing the amount of time the cat spends outdoors, and preventing access to stimuli that elicit spraying (sight lines of cats outside or things brought into the house marked by strange cats-firewood, garden equipment) may help. Feliway, a pheromone available in a spray bottle or automatic dispenser, has also proven to be helpful when sprayed regularly near the targeted areas. Finally, urine marking can occasionally be treated with anti-anxiety medications if behavior modification fails or isn’t possible. Your veterinarian can discuss this option with you.

Inappropriate Urination:

Cats can develop an aversion to the litterbox, litter or location of the box; or develop a preference for a new substrate or location. Cats prefer to urinate in quiet, private locations in clean, non-smelly litterboxes. If the litterbox isn’t in an acceptable location or isn’t kept clean, they will choose new areas in which to eliminate. Behavior modification and environmental changes can be very helpful in stopping this unwanted behavior. To find all areas of inappropriate urination in your house, purchase a black light (UV spectrum bulb). Urine will fluoresce yellow/green when you shine the light on it.

In general, using behavior modification to correct the problem behavior may take a while. If your cat has been urinating inappropriately for 3 months, assume it may take that long to get the problem under control again. With time, patience, behavior modification and possibly anti-anxiety medications, most cats can be retrained to using their box. If you have further questions, please call our office.

How to create the Purr-fect Litterbox

  1. Scoop dirty litter boxes once to twice daily. Dump out litter and wash boxes thoroughly with soap and water at least weekly. Replace plastic litter boxes regularly as the plastic will age and retain urine odors with time.
  2. Find your cat’s favorite litter type by trying a preference trial. Place several litterboxes in a row and add different litters-try one or two clumping litters, a high quality dust-free small-grained clay litter, and an empty box.
  3. Adding more litterboxes is always preferable to replacing existing boxes. Behaviorists recommend allowing one litterbox per cat plus one extra and they should be distributed so that at least one is located on each level of the home.
  4. Do not change litter type abruptly. Always add a new box with new litter and allow cat to choose. In general, once a cat is regularly using a litter, do not change the type or brand.
  5. Avoid using scented cleaning products or litters.
  6. Place in a quiet, convenient location. Convenient for you doesn’t always mean convenient for cat.
  7. Avoid using the laundry room as a litterbox location if at all possible.
  8. If litterbox is hooded, try removing the hood. Cats do not like to eliminate in a cave.
  9. Avoid automatic litter boxes. Some cats might be scared by the sudden onset of the cleaning mechanism.
  10. Try a different type of substrate other than kitty litter such as sawdust, dirt, Everclean®, leaves, a towel or woodchips. Offer these in a new box.
  11. If the cat is eliminating on linoleum or in the bathtub, keep approximately one inch of water in the tub and offer the cat an empty litterbox.
  12. Put a litterbox in the area your cat has chosen. If your cat resumes using the box, leave in new location or if it must be moved, do so very gradually (1” per day) to a more acceptable spot.
  13. Clean urine soils well with enzymatic odor neutralizers, not just deodorizers, Outright®, Anti-Icky poo and Nature’s Miracle are excellent products that in scientific studies did a great job of removing fresh and old urine odors from many different textured items, including carpet. You may need to repeat the cleaning process several times especially if the carpet pad has been affected. Occasionally, the carpet and pad will need to be replaced.
  14. Do not use steam cleaners to clean urine odors from carpet or upholstery. The heat will permanently set the odor and the stain by bonding the protein into any man-made fibers.
  15. If you have previously used cleaners of any kind, then neutralizing cleaners as recommended above will not be effective unless the cleaners are removed by a thorough rinsing. Otherwise the enzymatic cleaner will work on the chemicals and not the urine.
  16. If the wood on furniture, walls, baseboard or floor is discolored, the varnish or paint has been affected by the acid/urea in the urine. You may need to remove and replace the layer of varnish or paint.
  17. Avoid ammonia and vinegar based products, as they smell like urine to your cat.
  18. If you cannot place a litterbox in the location in which your cat has chosen to urinate, you can change the significance of the area by making it a feeding or play station. You can also change the surface of the location by placing thick plastic carpet runners upside down or aluminum foil over the area and then gradually remove the cover over a period of several weeks.
  19. To re-acquaint the cat with using its litterbox and to stop further inappropriate eliminations, a confinement technique is used temporarily. The cat is left in a small enclosed room, such as a bathroom, with a clean litterbox. After your cat begins to faithfully use the box, you can gradually increase the area to which it has access. As long as no accidents occur, continue increasing the area until things are back to normal.

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