Litter box problems?

Read below to find some solutions
to kitty's bad toilet habits.

Why does my cat refuse to use the litter box?

Why does my cat refuse to use the litter box?
The wonders of the litter box, cat toilet, cat washroom, kitty potty or whatever you wish to name it, is something most of us cat guardians love to hate. Sure, there is no dog walking involved and no poop to scoop up in a park, little Fluffy comes toilet trained. I was always fascinated with the cat’s innate ability to cover their waste. It’s just what cats do, it’s in their DNA. Put a kitten in front of a litter box and they immediately know what it’s for and start digging a hole to take care of business. These fastidious habits of washing up after eating and burying feces stem from their link to the wild before they were domesticated. In order not to attract any attention of potential predators they would wash off any remaining scent after eating and bury their feces after doing their toilet business.

When I look back at the cats I’ve had, I’ve only ever encountered litter box problems when they were frightened by something, bullied by another cat in a multi-cat household or sick. And now that my oldest cats are twelve and thirteen years old and I have never had a soiling problem ever – not even during the car rides to cats shows around Ireland and on two plane trips to two different countries!

Problems arise when we, as cat guardians, don’t recognize the signals that our cats are sending us. When your cat starts to eliminate in inappropriate places it is important to examine when and where the problem started and from there figure out how to stop the behavior. Remember that cats do not understand punishment, like rubbing their faces in their mess, or isolating them in a bathroom.

There are many factors that come into play when kitty starts to soil inappropriately and that can include any of the below:

Is that a bang I hear, oh no! Vacate immediately and find somewhere safe to go

If a cat was scared by a loud sound nearby, like a tumble dryer or washing machine suddenly starting a cycle, that might be the cue for the cat thinking, “must go some place else next time”. Some cats are very skittish and this can easily trigger a negative response from your cat, especially if the cat is new to his environment. When getting a new cat it is very important to place him in a quiet room with the litter box and all other essentials to make him feel comfortable and get him accustomed to his new environment.

I keep getting attacked in my toilet. I won’t go there anymore it’s a bad place.

This may occur in a multi-cat household where the bully or boss cat thinks he owns a particular litter box and wants to keep every other cat out! The best way to solve this issue is to provide multiple cat litter boxes in various crucial spots. This is where you need to observe which cat is patrolling which litter box. It might not even be due to a bully cat at all. When a rather skittish cat exits the litter box and is taken by surprise by another overly zealous cat deciding it’s time for a bit of ninja style rough and tumble, the skittish cat will end up trying to find a different spot next time. In multi-cat households, I cannot stress enough, the importance of multiple litter trays in various spots throughout the house.

How do I dig a hole in this small space?

I really do feel that store-bought litter boxes are too small for my cats – actually, for most cats, even the so-called larger sized boxes. When you’re adopting a kitten, these are perfect to start out with, but kittens grow and their toilet needs increase in size too! Think about a cat in the wild or feral cats. They are not restricted by a 4 sided contraption, are free to cover from all angles with no obstacles in their way. A medium to large cat might need more space to turn around comfortably to bury waste. There may be litter residue on the sides of the litter box that may rub off on kitty’s fur while turning around – yuck, he doesn’t like that! This fastidious creature wants to keep his fur in tip-top shape so get him a bigger litter box! Now depending on whether your cat prefers a covered litter box over an uncovered one – there may be different challenges with both kinds.

I feel trapped in this cave-like toilet!

Covered litter boxes are very popular these days and this is mostly convenient for us guardians. Not all cats “prefer their privacy” as is thought by many guardians. There are those cats who prefer an open top or the ‘cabriolet’ as I like to call it. Again, think of the cat in the wild – there is no cover to prevent a quick escape. Cats who prefer no cover feel the need to be on the look out for ‘predators’ or anything that they may perceive as a potential threat. This might occur in a multi-cat household where the cat using the box feels trapped because of an encounter with a bully cat. (See above) With a cover, there is only one way out – through the entrance where the bully awaits him. In these instances, you might find soiling outside of this space – because they know it’s where they supposed to go, but it’s not safe inside so they go next to the box. Another problem with covered litter boxes is that there is less air circulation so the smell is trapped inside, which the cat might find too pungent for his kitty senses and will find somewhere more ‘appropriate’ to eliminate.

Now if you have already started using the covered litter box and you have no toilet issues then continue this way. Also, bear in mind that it’s best to remove waste at least twice a day to prevent odors lingering. Most of my litter boxes are of the huge storage box variety, some housed in custom-made ottoman-style cabinets with holes at the top to allow for air circulation and my cats don’t have problems with these. I have big cats and the sizes of these storage boxes are ideal for my boys. I discuss to cover or not to cover below.

I can’t get to my toilet in time, why is it so far?

If you have an older cat you need to be mindful of his changing needs. He might start soiling outside of the litter box if he cannot make it there on time. If necessary, provide your senior cat with access to more litter boxes in various locations. For instance, he should not have to descend two flights of stairs to the basement to get to his litter box. We cannot build Mr. Senior a kitty stair lift, but we surely can make his golden years as comfortable and pain-free as possible by providing him with multiple litter boxes on the various floors of the house. If the litter box has walls that are higher than the standard height, your old cat might be having difficulty climbing over. Customize it for him by providing something to step on, even if it’s a two to three-inch height piece of shelving. Be creative and think outside the box.

It hurts when I use this litter box, note to self  “do not use again!”

Older cats are prone to developing arthritis and this affliction may hinder their normal toilet habits. Visit your vet to rule out any underlying causes for unwanted elimination and find a suitable litter box with a low entry wall. It might not be evident but declawed cats are more at risk of developing early arthritis due to the change in gait which puts pressure on the spine. The associated pain might also lead to inappropriate elimination and shallow litter trays are ideal for these cats. Other reasons for litter box issues include pain associated with urinary tract infections, constipation or colitis so a vet visit is key to rule out a medical condition.

This litter hurts my paws

In my experience, cats prefer a smaller grain of litter. This feels more comfortable on their paws. I’ve tried many really expensive brands of crystal type litters with so-called magic odor eliminating enzymes, you name it I’ve tried. But when my cats tell me “there’s no way I’m using this” I acquiesce and get them what they want to keep the harmony! Some cats’ paws, especially declawed cats, are very sensitive and when it hurts them, you have to listen and try something new. In my experience, cats like fine-grained litter resembling sand as it is closer to what they would be using out in nature.

Who does the cleaning around here?

This is really a no-brainer. As humans, we have the luxury of flushing the toilet bowl each time it is used, how convenient for us! Cats, on the other hand, do their best to bury their waste. Some cats are so obsessive about this that they would literally build a mountain in the litter box! But try as they may, the poop is not going away! Here is where us guardians have to play our vital part as designated poop disposal. There are many great brands of litter out there that are excellent at absorbing smells but it is really up to us to see to it that we ‘flush’ their toilets regularly. Depending on how many cats you have, I recommending scooping twice per day, mornings and evenings – and at the very least, once per day.

Cats always dig their little poop hole first, and nothing is more irritating to them than digging up old poop that should have been removed already. It’s like stumbling into a toilet stall to find the toilet wasn’t flushed. Not nice! When you have multiple cats you might have (if you have done your homework) one litter box per cat plus one. It still amazes me how cats sometimes all queue for the same litter box after dinner time. So sometimes it’s unavoidable to have multiple cats use the same box. General hygiene is the key – cats love a clean tray and if we would like them to keep their goods habits, get scooping!

The smell in here is appalling!

Some brands of litter come with fragrances like lavender and pine. These brands of litter are really made to appeal to the humans of the household but fail to consider the cat. It’s best to stick to the regular unscented varieties. Firstly your cat’s nose is way more sensitive that your’s and what might seem pleasant to you might be totally repulsive to your cat. A good percentage of cats do not like lavender and would turn up their noses at that freshly refilled lavender-scented litter box. Keep your aromatherapy oils and scents for your potpourri and diffusers where it belongs!

At the opposite end of the spectrum, if there are funky smells inside the box, especially if it’s covered, your cat will not use it – simple. So the rule of thumb is really simple – clean the litter box every day and avoid accumulating a collection of poop mounds in the litter box. Your cat needs to breathe too! One thing that often gets neglected is the sides of the box. Use a paper towel and a mild cleaner or enzymatic cleaner such as Nature’s Miracle to wipe the sides of any residue that may have splashed on it. Remember those vertical urinators, or rather, ‘elevator butt’? Again use a mild detergent – avoid using anything which is ammonia based (this mimics cat urine odor), lemon or lavender-scented. Cats like it neutral.

A plastic thing in my litter box, why?

I can fully understand the logic behind placing a litter liner in the litter box, but the practicality is just plain lacking. Kudos to you if you have successfully incorporated this step in your litter box hygiene routine. I do find them totally unnecessary and sometimes even messier than without. Some cats do not like the feeling of scratching against the plastic which inevitably sticks out of the litter and just gets in the way of the whole burying process. My advice would be to just ditch it.

Can I have a new litter box, please?

Have you thought about the numerous times your cat has used the litter box and how often the bottom of the tray might have been scratched? This especially happens when you have an avid, obsessive compulsive scratcher when burying the waste or when preparing the perfect hole. Well, after a while, the resulting scratch marks in the plastic of the tray forms the perfect nook for harboring bacteria, despite being thoroughly washed and sanitized. A litter box should ideally be replaced every six months to one year.

Living in harmony with your feline friend means observing the world from your cat’s perspective. They cannot speak but there are numerous cues to watch out for to determine your kitty’s needs.

The uncovered box

With the standard height uncovered box, you can get away with a slightly smaller size because oftentimes the cats would perch over the edges with their front paws. There is no cover to block their view so their heads and front paws would be leaning or protruding beyond the box’s dimensions. I find these litter trays adequate if you don’t mind the uncovered box and kitty actually prefers this and has rejected all other types. It’s perfect for small to medium-sized cats who feel safer seeing their surroundings and for cats who don’t obsessively bury their waste with litter flying all over the place! So in summary, use an uncovered litter box when:

  • your cat prefers this type and does not like the cover
  • your cat does not bury obsessively causing litter messes outside the box
  • Litter box ambushing is a common past time in your multi-cat household

If your cats are on the larger side, it’s best to use the large storage boxes such as Rubbermaid storage containers and cut out an 8″x8″ entrance for easy access. These are perfect to allow a larger cat enough space to comfortably turn around inside the box.

These larger and higher Rubbermaid containers are also great for the ‘elevator butt’ cat – you know, that oddball cat that didn’t quite get the memo as a kitten, the cat that pees vertically. This is different to marking behavior where a cat who normally pees squatting, would vertically spray either out of being overly territorial or due to being bullied by another cat. No, ‘elevator butt syndrome’ happens when a cat’s normal position is not to squat but to urinate against the sides of the litter box while standing. Perhaps these were cats orphaned at a very young age and were not properly taught feline toilet etiquette by their mothers. We have one of these cats and at first, it was perplexing as I’ve never seen it before. We promptly took Georgie to the vet and it was confirmed that he is in good health with no nerve damage, no infection or any other medical problem. It was just an oddity that we learned to accommodate. We also learned that George was indeed an abandoned, semi-feral kitty found roaming the streets and was named Vagabond, by the shelter staff. There are many other cats like George who come with their little quirks that we, as responsible guardians will have to learn to accommodate. It just takes some time and patience and lots of observation of your cat’s ‘quirks’ to overcome what at first seems like an enormous and overwhelming task. There are solutions to every litter box issue and if they arise, it should not mean re-homing kitty, but rather re-thinking what might not be evident to you. Put your thinking ‘cat’ on and open your eyes to what your kitty friend might be telling you!

Do you have litter box problems? When did they first start? We would love to hear your stories and experiences in the comments below!

ottoman litter box

Georgie, Mr ‘Elevator Butt’ – the inspiration behind the construction of these ‘ottoman’ litter boxes. We have a combination of “cabriolet” open-topped boxes as well as these custom enclosed ottoman-style boxes for a variety of cat preferences.

About the author

The Lady Cat

Whiskers make me smile.
Coffee is good for you.
And cats are for life.
(Yasaar Nakchbendi)

2 Comments

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  • This is such a great and informational post! Luckily, I haven’t had any litter box issues with my three cats yet (knock on wood!). We go with the uncovered kind. 🙂 I’ve been contemplating getting one of those automated kinds, but I’m not sure if I can justify the expense – and then what if they don’t like it! I guess why fix it if it ain’t broken, right?

    • Thank you Rachel. I absolutely agree with you! If the uncovered boxes are working for your three little musketeers then don’t change it. I’ve also heard that those automated ones could cause a problem if the cat happens to use it and it starts up for some reason. That would be a recipe for litter box aversion! We have a mix of covered and uncovered boxes and we’ve been lucky so far that our cats seem not to care whether it’s covered or uncovered. I think the key issue in a multi-cat household is to have spacious and sufficient litter boxes for all to use at any time so there is never a queue!

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