Why Isn’t My Cat Using The Litter Box?

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Apart from intercat conflict, the most common reason I am consulted is due to litter box usage. Whether your cat is peeing outside the litter box or pooping on your floor, it can be a frustrating (and stinky) problem to have. Litter box usage is complex so I want to go over a few things to get you started if you are trying to solve a house soiling problem on your own. If you need some professional help, I’m here to help.

Start With A Vet Trip

Before we go any further, I want to be very clear that the first step to figuring out why your cat isn’t using the litter box is to head to the vet. This is especially true if your cat suddenly stops using the litter box or if you have an older cat who isn’t using the litter box.

In particular, if your cat is pooping outside the litter box, you need a veterinarian appointment. Please do not set up a session with me unless you have seen your vet. One thing I suggest doing to clients that may help your veterinarian if your cat is pooping outside the box is to get a video of your cat pooping. It can help them see if your cat is straining or if there are any other unusual behaviors that may help them. It may seem odd to get a video of a cat taking a dump, but I can assure you they don’t care.

A grey cat jumping out of a litter box.
Shame is not an emotion cats feel. Photo courtesy of Litter Robot via Unsplash.

Factors Influencing Litter Box Usage

If your veterinarian has ruled out medical causes of house soiling, the next step is looking at all the different parts of litter box usage that could drive your cat to choose to go do their business somewhere else. Evaluate each of these and determine if your cat may be telling you that they don’t like one of them.

The Box Itself

The litter box is the most basic part of… well, the litter box. What a profound statement, I know. It should be the first thing you look at as a box that is too challenging to get into or unappealing to your cat may make them not want to use the box at all. I prefer making a litter box as many commercially available boxes are too small for cats.

In general, cats prefer boxes that are easy to enter (skip the top entry boxes), large, and many prefer open boxes. I also have bad news for those of you with the automatic cleaning boxes: many aren’t designed with cats in mind and the robotic litter box may be the problem. Skip them for something simpler. If you want to make litter box maintenance easier, get a Litter Genie instead. They really are magic.

The Litter

Did you recently change litters and your cat isn’t use the box anymore? Switch back to your old litter. Bam! Saved you time and money.

Cheekiness aside, there are a lot of gimmicky litters out there that offer benefits to humans, but don’t appeal to cats. Cats prefer unscented litters with small particles. Pelleted litters are like walking on rocks for your cat and pine-based litters often have too strong of an odor for your cat. If you’re looking for a non-clay litter, consider grass litter rather than pine as it has less of an odor.

If your cat seems to be going on a particular material, that may give you a hint as to what type of litter they prefer. For example, if they are consistently going on soft surfaces, that may be a hint that they want a softer litter or even reptile sand.

The Amount Of Litter

Another factor to consider is that your cat may feel like they are sinking into the litter if you have too much. Try changing the amount of litter you have. Generally, about 2 inches is a good amount for most cats. One hint that your cat may want less litter? They are going on flat surfaces like rugs. If your cat is repeatedly going on a rug, save your sanity and get a washable rug like those from My Magic Carpet. Until you figure out what’s going on, it will be easy to clean.

The Box Location

The location of the litter box is a huge factor in if your cat will use it. Make it easy by placing the box in an easy to find location. Yes, that means putting all your boxes in the basement isn’t a great idea.

Box Cleanliness

If your litter box is a disgusting mess, your cat isn’t going to want to use it. Think about it as being the difference between using a luxurious, clean bathroom with a heated toilet seat vs. using a dirty, grungy gas station bathroom. You may choose to pee in the bushes outside the gas station or on the side of the road rather than using the bathroom. Scoop your cat’s litter box at least once a day, ideally twice daily. You should also do a deep clean of the box monthly and replace the box at least once a year.

Other Things That May Cause Your Cat To Stop Using The Litter Box

The litter box and the content of the box aren’t the only things that influence litter box usage so there may be another problem occurring. Think about your cat’s life overall and what things may have changed prior to the house soiling starting. That may give you a hint as to what went wrong.

One important note: lack of training usually isn’t the reason your cat isn’t using the litter box. There really isn’t any need to “train” your cat to use the box and I don’t recommend doing things like showing them where the box is. They’ll find it.

Medical Problems

If you made it this far and your cat still hasn’t seen a vet (or you don’t have plans for your cat to see the vet), please take this as your second sign to schedule a vet appointment.

Stress

Is your cat using the box sometimes but not consistently? This often is a sign of stress of some sort as chances are the litter and box itself are not being changed that often, whereas stress fluctuates. Other signs that stress may be a factor would be if they are using soft surfaces or peeing in places they may feel safe.

You can work on reducing stress by trying a pheromone diffuser (though don’t rely on this as your only stress reduction intervention), adding in more cat resources such as cat towers, or playing with your cat more.

Cat Conflict

Do you have a multicat household and your cats are fighting? Territoriality or conflict between the cats may be the cause of your cat not using the litter box. You can try switching to an uncovered litter box and adding litter boxes in multiple locations. Otherwise, the best solution is working to solve the cat conflict. It isn’t an easy process generally, but it should knock out both issues.

Outdoor Cats

Have cats wandering around outside? They may be the issue. This is especially true if your cat seems to be urinating near windows or doors that they may see cats peeking in or an outdoor cat may be marking near. Even if you haven’t seen one, I suggest getting a Wyze or Ring camera that has night vision, motion detection, and recording capabilities to see if you have guests coming to say hello.

An Aversion To The Box, Litter, Or Something Else

While not as common, your cat may have developed an aversion to something about the box, the litter, or the location of the box. For example, if your cat was declawed, the pain following the procedure may cause them to not want to use that type of litter anymore. You can consider trying a sensitive paws litter, but the best solution is to not declaw your cat and get a high-quality scratching post instead.

In other instances, it may be related to a cat conflict, another illness, or something that happened in the box. The solution may be trying a different box, location, or litter. Otherwise, you’re looking at a situation where you want professional cat behavior help as it can be challenging to address on your own.

Why Isn’t My Cat Using The Litter Box? It’s Complicated

Ultimately, there are a lot of factors that can influence whether your cat is using the litter box or not. It can take some experimentation and may not always be as easy as it seems. Try a few different things to see what your cat prefers and remember that your cat’s preferences are what ultimately matters the most.

I know, I know… Not what you want to hear. Your cat is the one that chooses to use the litter box, though, so it does benefit you to take their preferences into account. Unless you want to be cleaning cat pee all the time, you ultimately win by listening to your cat.

And seriously, set up a vet appointment.

Need help getting your cat to use the litter box?

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Joey Lusvardi

Joey Lusvardi

Joey Lusvardi CCBC is an IAABC Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and professional cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation and cat training service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. Joey is available for in home sessions locally or virtual sessions wherever you are located!