How to Prevent Litter Box Problems in Cats

Updated on October 17, 2019
Rena J Sherwood profile image

Rena has been a freelance writer since 2006. Her dogs are Pony and Hugo but she also enjoys cats.

This is how a cat normally uses a litter box.
This is how a cat normally uses a litter box. | Source

Cats are great but they do need to use litter boxes. Problems using the litter box is a major reason why cats are surrendered to shelters. With practice and a little patience, you can make the necessary chore of cleaning the litter box as painless as possible. Stop a lot of litter box problems before they start by making sure you follow these three simple steps:

  • Get a litter box big enough for your cat
  • Put it in the right place
  • Make sure your cat can easily get to and from the litter box.

How Big of a Litter Box Does My Cat Need?

New cat owners are often baffled by the variety of sizes of litter boxes available. It’s tempting to get the smallest or kitten-sized box since it’s less noticeable. However, small litter boxes fill up quickly. Unless you are willing to constantly clean the litter, get a large box.

Cats will not use litter boxes that are filled up. Think about it—would you want to use a toilet filled to the brim with urine and feces? Get the biggest litter box you can afford. Don’t worry about the box fitting in with your décor or your cat may use your entire home as his litter box.

How Many Litter Boxes Does My Cat Need?

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) recommends that each cat in a home should have two litter boxes. Cats will often refuse to use a litter box that another cat has used. This means if you have two cats, you need three litter boxes.

There are a variety of reasons to keep more than one litter box. If one breaks, you need a replacement right away. Kitty won’t wait. If you live in a multi-story home, a cat may be lazy enough not to use the stairs to get the litter box. Place a box on each floor.

Where Should I Place the Litter Box?

You may have to move the litter box around your home in order to find the right spot your cat prefers. Your cat needs to easily get in and out, so make sure the door to the litter box room is always open.

Place the box as far away from the cat’s food and water as possible. Just as we don’t like eating next to a used toilet, a cat does not like eating next to a used litter box. If a cat needs to be sequestered in a single room for a while, keep the food and litter on opposite sides. If you keep seeing your cat using the same spot to toilet despite clean litter boxes available, then try to fit a litter pan in the spot the cat prefers. This can help eliminate a lot of stress in the long run.

Cats are a bit like Goldilocks at times—everything has to be JUST RIGHT. The litter box needs to be big enough, not near food and easy to get to. Here are other places to avoid:

  • Next to heaters or heat vents. If it’s too hot, Kitty will not use the box because the heat makes the box smell as if it had been used to capacity.
  • Next to really noisy things like dishwashers, televisions or clothes washers. Kitty needs some quiet.

Why Won't My Cat Use the New Litter Box?

If a cat is used to a certain kind of litter box, he or she will not be thrilled if you change it. Cats love routine and hate change. Cats usually will not use a new litter pan if it greatly differs from the old, such as having a cover or being automatic instead of “human-atic.” There are ways to train a cat to use a new litter box, but this takes patience and persistence. It’s easier to do when:

  • You place the new litter box where the old box was
  • Still keep the old box next to the new one
  • Clean the new box more often than the old one so your cat is tempted by the clean litter
  • Pick up the cat and place in the new litter box as soon as it is set up.

How Many Times a Day Do I Need to Clean the Litter?

Cleaning the litter means scooping out the poop and wet patches of litter, then adding fresh litter. This can take only a few minutes a day for one cat, a bit longer for two or more. Responsible cat owners soon figure out how to fit this necessary chore into their days.

Ideally, you should clean the litter every time your cat uses the box. Since we do not live in an ideal world, HSUS recommends cleaning it at least once a day for hygiene reasons and to keep the cat using the box instead of your houseplants or loafers.

If you have more than one cat, get ready to change the boxes several times a day in order to keep the home smelling like home and not like a litter box. You need all of the members in the family to help clean the litter or at least have someone to call on for help if you live alone and get sick.

How Often Do I Need to Completely Change the Litter?

Even the most expensive of litter will become a health hazard if left in a litter box for months. It also becomes smelly enough for a cat to avoid using the box altogether, even if it is cleaned often. The HSUS recommends completely replacing the litter twice a week.

This is a good time to wash the box. All you need is water and mild dish detergent. Never use any cleaner containing ammonia or citrus oils as these are smells a cat hates. If it smells wrong, then a cat will not use the box.

Should Pregnant Women Ever Clean a Cat Litter Box?

Cat poop can sometimes contain a parasite that causes a disease called toxoplasmosis. This can cause serious birth defects in unborn babies such as blindness or brain damage. However, cat mommies can still care for their furry babies by changing the litter while pregnant with a human baby.

It’s a common misconception that pregnant women should not keep cats to avoid getting this disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that pregnant cat-keeping women:

  • Deworm your cat
  • Use gloves when changing the litter
  • Always wash hands afterwards
  • Avoid getting a new cat when pregnant
  • Keep the litter box clean as this reduces the risk of contracting toxoplasmosis (feces that sit for several days and contain oocysts or parasite eggs can sporulate and become hazardous)
  • Keep cats indoors, which greatly reduces their chances of catching the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis
  • Avoid all stray cats when pregnant as they are far more likely to carry the parasites than indoor cats
  • Never feed a cat raw meat
  • If you have a sandbox outside, keep it tightly covered so stray cats will not use it as a litter box.

Should I Use Liners to Make Cleaning Easier?

Litter box liners are not recommended by many animal rescue and welfare organizations like the HSUS. The liners don’t do the cat any harm, but they rarely make cleaning the litter box any easier.

Cats often intentionally or unintentionally shred or poke holes in the liners. This causes the liners to become useless when you try to lift them. Even declawed cats may be able to damage the liners to the point where they are useless.

In the long run, cleaning the litter often is the fastest way to keep a happy cat and a clean home. Keep a dustpan and brush or a vacuum nearby to clean up the bits of litter inevitably tossed out or dragged out when it clings to the cat’s fur.

Why Is My Declawed Cat Not Using the Litter Box?

Occasionally, cats that are up for adoption have been declawed. This is usually done by the former owners before they give up the cat to a shelter. Sometimes cats have to be declawed for medical reasons. Whatever the reason, declawed cats are notorious for not using the litter box.

Declawed cats, whether they have all four paws done or just two, will usually refuse to use conventional clay litter or any pellet-like litter. This is because the litter hurts their paws. Usually the pain from surgery goes away in a few weeks’ time, but not always. Occasionally, the pain becomes chronic.

In order to get a declawed cat to use the litter box, use the softest litter you can find. Clumping litter is usually much softer than conventional clay litter. It may take some time before finding just the right litter your cat will tolerate.

Why Is My Cat Using the Bathtub Instead of the Litter Box?

Some cats get in the habit of using the bathtub or a sink as a litter box instead of a litter box. This often happens in multi-cat homes or homes with dogs when more aggressive animals will chase a cat away from the favored litter box.

In desperation, the cats use the tub. Over time, they get in the habit of using the tub, even when they get their own litter box. They usually only use the box for urine but defecate in the tub. They may even claw at the tub as if trying to bury their waste.

Sick cats, especially those with urinary tract infections, may use the tub. It’s always best to get a cat that does not use the litter box a medical check-up. Blocking access to the tub is the only way to guarantee the cat never uses it as a litter box again.

Can I Train My Cat to Use the Toilet?

There are all sorts of videos and anecdotes of cats being toilet-trained. Some have even learned to flush. It is a fact that some cats can be toilet trained – it’s just not a fact that yours will one of them.

It takes a very long time to train a cat to use the toilet. Even then, cats with any kind of balance issues or arthritis cannot ever safely use a toilet. Cats that are trained tend to be those interested in running water, such as Turkish Angoras or Abyssinians.

Cats have to balance precariously on the seat in order to use the toilet. There is always the risk of falling in and drowning. Kittens younger than six months old should never be toilet trained as they are most prone to falling in.

How Can I Stop My Cat From Tracking Litter Everywhere?

A common complaint from cat owners is that litter, caught in the cat’s fur, gets everywhere in the house. Changing to another litter is not a great idea since cats hate change. If your cat is happily using the litter, do not change it.

There many other are things an owner can do to cut down on this runaway litter, according to Petfinder. They include:

  • Keep a mat outside the cat’s litter box to trap litter bits. Every day, lift the mat and dump the litter into the trash for maximum effect.
  • Keep the hair between a cat’s toes trimmed. This is especially important for long-haired cats like Maine Coons or Persians.
  • If all else fails, try a heavier kind of litter like that made from wheat or newspaper—and cross your fingers.

Why Is My Male Cat Urinating Everywhere?

Male cats, called toms, are very possessive. Toms want all other cats to know what is theirs and theirs alone. Toms do this by spraying, or urinating on walls, furniture, doors and just about everywhere their urine spray can reach. The smell can be overwhelming.

According to the American Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the best way to get rid of this habit is to get the tom neutered. He may continue to spray for a month as the testosterone leaves his body, but he should stop when his testosterone levels drop.

A neutered tom may spray again if he sees a strange cat. To prevent this, you can:

  • Keep the tom indoors
  • Keep window shades drawn so he cannot see any strange cats
  • If strange cats keep coming on your lawn and bothering your poor tom, attach a motion-sensor to a sprinkler. The strange cat’s movements will set off the sprinkler and the stranger gets a hosing.

Do Female Cats Ever Spray?

Female cats do spray on occasion, but their urine is usually not as smelly as a male’s. According to the ASPCA, females tend to spray when there has been some conflict with another cat or some major change in the household, such as:

  • A child going off to college
  • Someone having an extended stay in the hospital
  • A home remodeling project
  • Getting a new pet
  • Having a baby
  • Getting a new piece of furniture
  • Rearranging the furniture
  • A fight between the human members of the household.

Cats hate changes of any sort and spraying is a way of female cats saying, “This is my space. Go away.” This behavior tends to go away in time, but it is always good to take Kitty to the vet to be sure there are no physical problems or illnesses.

Why Is My Cat Sleeping in the Litter Box?

Some cats have the opposite problem of not using the box. Every cat long-time cat owner has a story about a cat who liked to sleep in the litter box. Although this may look cute, this habit can lead to health problems, not to mention the annoying litter constantly caught in the cat’s fur.

There are two reasons why cats sleep in the litter box, as explained in this video featuring veterinarian Dr. Karen Fling—behavioral problems or physical ones. Cats adopted from shelters are prone to this habit as their cages are often so small that the only place to sleep is the box.

Since the cat is used to the shape and size of a litter box, try offering a brand-new litter pan with bedding or an old towel in it. The cat should make the switch. Have the cat checked out by your vet to make sure there isn’t a physical cause.

Why Did My Cat Suddenly Stop Using My Litter Box?

If your cat has faithfully used the litter box for years and suddenly starts leaving piles and puddles about your pad, the chances are that he or she is ill and needs to go to the vet. Schedule an appointment right away.

Many medical conditions can make it hard for a cat to become incontinent or make it too hard for him or her to get to the litter box in time. These conditions include:

  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes, which causes a cat to urinate a lot more than usual
  • Epilepsy—which a cat may have even if you have not seen any seizures
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Kidney problems
  • Bladder stones, which appear more often in males than females
  • Tumors or cancer
  • Bad reaction to a new medication, especially if it makes the cat sleepy or relaxes the muscles
  • Being too fat.

Fortunately, many conditions which cause incontinence in cats are treatable if caught in the early stages.

What to Do When Your Cat Has an Accident

There is no use shouting or hitting your cat when you discover a pile or a puddle. They will not think that they have misbehaved. They may even get bite or scratch if you get aggressive with them. To the cat, you have gone nuts for no reason.

The cat is not out to get you. He or she is behaving like a cat. The reason he or she did not use the litter box is that you did something wrong. The creature you should be mad at is yourself. Simply clean up the mess and get on with discovering what you did wrong and change it.

Make sure to use a cleaner that does not contain ammonia or bleach, since they smell like urine to a cat. Use a cleaner specially made to clean urine or pet messes. It’s best to test a product on a tiny bit of carpet or furniture to see if it damages the fabric before using it on a huge spot.

What Should I Do When All Else Fails?

When all else fails and your cat still will not use the litter box and is declared healthy, it’s time to consult an animal behaviorist. These are not always vets but professionals that work with animal behavior problems every day. Ask your vet for a recommendation.

If you are part of a cat online community such as a forum or Facebook group, ask the members for any advice. Chances are someone there went through the same problem you are having now. They may also have recommendations for an animal behaviorist in your area.

How Bad Can Litter Box Problems Get?

If you think your cat is crazy for not using the litter box, consider the cat described in cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett’s popular book, Psycho Kitty: Tips for Solving Your Cat’s Crazy Behavior (Crossing Press, 1998.)

A cat stubbornly used the carpet as a litter box. The owners did everything right—took the cat to the vet, placed the box in a good spot, tried different litter—but still nothing worked. The owners were at their wits’ end.

In desperation, Johnson-Bennett suggested that carpet scraps be placed in the litter box. It worked. The litter may be pricey, but at least the cat goes in the litter box and not all over the carpets.

Understanding Why Your Cat Sleeps in the Litter Box

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

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