Litter box usage (also known as housesoiling) is one of the most common problems cat guardians may experience. It’s probably because there are so many reasons why this may occur. The first step in trying to solve this behavior issue is to determine why the cat is eliminating outside of the box. Let’s start with the easier answers.
- The box isn’t clean. How often are you scooping? It should be no less than once per day, ideally more than that. Some cats are more particular than others and in my experience have found many of the purebreds are the pickiest. Some cats won’t care, but other cats won’t use it if it’s dirty. A key indicator of this is that you’ll find poop in particular right in front of the box. They knew what they needed to do, and went to the right place, but it was unacceptable once they got there.
- How many litter boxes do you have? The typical rule of thumb is there should be one box for each cat, plus one more. A litter box is a key resource and basic life necessity for a cat. It’s something that can cause territorial behavior and aggression if there’s competition for it. If a cat has any reason to be uncomfortable going to one – maybe another cat or dog is blocking the way, or one is already occupied, they should have the option of another. As a temporary solution if this is a problem you’re experiencing is to put a bunch around the house, especially the areas where you’re finding the mess. You’ll learn where your cats preferred spots are for placement.
- Where are your litter boxes located? No matter how many you have, if they’re all lined up in the same place, the cat sees that as one giant box. I’ve seen this many times. It’s the same theory as having the right amount and avoiding competition. If the urge arises, you don’t want your cat having to go down two flights of stairs to get to it, or find the one walk to get to the line up has something intimidating standing there. Think about it from the cats perspective while using the box. Are there hidden spots so they can’t spot if danger is lurking? Will they be cornered once they come out, or are there exit options (left or right perhaps)? This is all how the cat determines if the box is acceptable or not. You want them ALL to be acceptable and viable options.
- What type of boxes are you using? Cats don’t care about privacy. That’s just a human perception. Your cat is much more concerned with safety and seeing is danger is coming. Eliminating puts them in a brief vulnerable state. Take off any lids. Cats prefer open boxes that allow full visibility. Jackson Galaxy has wonderful suggestions on how to have uncovered boxes through out the house that are somewhat disguised and reasonably attractive. You should also make sure the box is suitable for your cats stage of life. Small kittens, or older cats, may have trouble stepping in and out of box if the sides are too high. There are great boxes with a lower front and higher back if you’re concerned about litter being kicked out.
- What kind of litter are you using? Unscented, clumping, is my recommendation. Others may disagree, especially the companies that make them, but I also discourage the usage of some of the natural litters on the market made from food based items like crushed walnut shells. A cat won’t eliminate near a food source. Your cat may or may not see this type of litter as something edible, but why risk it if you’re having litter box issues. Cats have an incredible sense of smell. Even though the scents don’t seem strong to us, it may be overwhelming to your cat. Again, why risk it. If you’re scooping regularly, it won’t smell. There are very good litters on the market that include cat attractant in them. The attractants are also sold separately. Both are great options to try and have been known to work well.
Other aspects could include how much litter you’re putting in – 1-2” is recommended. Cats want to feel steady footing, more than that may cause them to feel off balance. I’ve seen guardians load it up to 5-6” high so they don’t have to refill as often. Again, some cats may be okay, some may not. It’s something else you can consider if you’re experiencing this behavior problem.
Litter liners are another variable. I’ve used them for years and never had a problem . It makes cleaning much easier. Some cats don’t like them though. They feel funny under their paws when they’re covering and it can make a noise. Something else to consider and try.
These are good solutions for all litter box issues. If none of these solve the problem, the cause could stem from many other issues. These include:
- Territorial issues – this will typically be a urine marking issue where you find it on walls and other vertical space, in your bed or other personal item that will have your scent. It could be feces left around as well. The cause can be caused by outdoor cat visitors that your cat can see from doors or windows and your cat is defending (marking) their territory. The solution then would include deterring those outdoor visitors and/or covering the window door where they are seeing each other. If even if you haven’t seen any, feral visitors may be coming at night.
- Territorial issues can also come from fear and insecurity whether it be from another cat in the house, (particularly a new family member) or something else like a internal or external sounds. Cats are comforted by the smell of their urine which contains pheromones. They don’t see it as a destructive behavior which is why punishment will never work. It just confuses them and damages your human/cat relationship. Understand they are doing it as a way to soothe themselves and the answer lies in figuring out why they are stressed. See other page on Raising Your Cats Confidence for possible solutions.
Regardless of the cause, there are critical steps you need to take as your try to solve the problem. First, clean all soiled areas. Many typical cleaners do not do a sufficient job. You don’t just want the overall odor and stain out, you need the scents your cat will smell out too. A black light will help find all the hidden spots since the urine proteins glow. There are great products on the market that really do the trick. Here are two that I recommend and have used successfully. Both can be purchased from multiple retailers. One is Anti Icky Poo – CLICK HERE and the other is Zero Odor which has a variety of formulas – CLICK HERE
In some places, it may not be appropriate to place an additional litter box as suggested above. Prime example is your bed! In those cases, after diligently cleaning, another solution can be to change the purpose of the space in your cats mind. Place favorite toys here, or a puzzle feeder with treats. Your cat will see this as a play/feeding spot and not an elimination spot. It’s the same principle as my recommendation against food based litter substrates. They typically won’t eliminate near a food source.
Hopefully, one of these solutions was able to make your cat happier and improve their litter box habits. If not, calling in a qualified and knowledgeable cat behaviorist may be necess