One of the most stressful things cat owners encounter is when their beloved feline stops using the litter box and starts making messes around the house. There are several different reasons why cats stop using their litter box, and therefore several different solutions.
The most common causes are owner error, however most owners do not want to admit any part in the blame. Let us look at what an owner may have done wrong to cause this behavior.
Declawing – The declaw procedure often causes pain in the cats paw, often making the natural habit of digging painful. As such cats soon associate their litter box with pain and resist using it. Sometimes this is noticed within weeks of the surgery while other times it occurs years later.
Dirty Litter Box – Cats like clean litter. A horrid smell will turn them right off and force them to look for another place.
Scary Litter Box – A litter box located next to a laundry machine might be viewed with fright if the laundry machine was turned on and changed cycle while a cat was using its litter box. Automatic litter boxes that clean themselves may have also scared the cat. Some cats do not like covered litter boxes and feel trapped by them, while others fear the open ones.
Wrong Litter – The litter people like isn't always the litter cats like. Scented cat litter often is disliked by cats. They prefer unscented litter, and usually like clumping litter the best, as it is more like sand.
Hard to find Litter – A young kitten will not be able to find a litter box in a hurry in a larger house, instead he, or she, should be confined to the room where the litter box is at night and when its owners are away.
Not enough Litter Boxes – Homes with more than one cat need more than one litter box. A good rule is one litter box per cat, ideally spread over two locations.
Wrong Food – While this often results in more trips to the litter, it can also mean more accidents. Cheap cat food is cheap for a reason, it contains mostly indigestible filler. The more corn a cat food has, the more poop a cat will create.
Stress and Household Changes – This really is not so much of an owner error as much as an owners failure to recognize their cats sensitivity level. Some cats become very stressed at household changes and express this though urinating out of the litter box.
Temptations – If an owner notes their cat is using the dirty laundry pile as a litter box, they need to respond quickly and remove the laundry pile and reinforce proper litter habits to break the cycle.
photo by Author
Although a health problem may also be viewed as “Owner Error” because the owner failed to treat a condition, it must be noted separately.
Urinary Tract Problems – Cats who urinate frequently in the house should be taken to a veterinarian to rule out any contributing health factors. Increasing a cats water intake by keeping its water fresh or adding water to its canned food will help control urinary tract problems. As well owners are wise to select foods with low magnesium content.
Unfixed Males – Unfixed male cats frequently “spray” or mark territory with their urine. Occasionally a neutered cat will do this too, in which case it may be a behavioral problem which can be treated with medication.
Breed – It is well known that certain breeds of cats have more bathroom problems than others. Manx, Persians, and Himalayans, are all breeds noted for having more health issues resulting in refusal to use the litter box. In Manx the condition is generally related to the deformity that causes them to be missing their tail.
Anal Gland Problems - A cat with plugged anal glands will often stop using their litter box for feces, usually having a vet or groomer express the anal glands fixes teh problem.
If the cat was never properly litter trained when young it may have problems realizing that it is doing something wrong in the first place. Most kittens litter train themselves when young by watching their mom. Farm kittens, who sometimes do not have the benefit of having a litter box, occasionally need additional reinforcement.
People who get kittens and allow them too much access to the house too soon may find the kitten learns to sneak off someplace when it simply cannot find the litter box. This behavior may come back when the cat is older.
How to Help
The best thing an owner can do, other than to seek veterinarian attention to rule out health related causes, is to try to reinforce proper litter box behavior. This is best done by confining the cat to a room with the litter box for a few days. This should not be done as a punishment, but rather as a way to remind the cat where its litter box is and what it is for. Reduce stress and remove urine smells from areas where the cat may have messed already. When the cat is allowed out, watch that it does not return to its old behaviors. Putting food or tin foil in areas where the cat has messed may discourage it.
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