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Cat Not Using Litter Box? Try These Solutions

Updated on July 17, 2017
carolynkaye profile image

I'm a freelance writer and lifelong animal lover who's owned cats, dogs, birds, turtles, fish, frogs, guinea pigs, gerbils, and rabbits.

Once you figure out why a cat is not using the litter box, there's usually a way to solve the problem.
Once you figure out why a cat is not using the litter box, there's usually a way to solve the problem. | Source

Cat Not Using the Litter Box?

Cats are naturally clean animals. They love snuggling in soft blankets or a basket of fresh laundry. If your cat is not using the litter box, we need to figure out why before we can find a solution to this frustrating problem.

Whether it's an undiagnosed medical issue or just the case of a dirty litter box, here are many of the common reasons why a cat may not be using the litter box and ways to solve the problem.

What area(s) outside the litter box is your cat going to the bathroom?

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Check for a Medical Problem

If a cat isn’t using his litter box, especially if he or she always has in the past, it might be a cause for concern. A cat with a health problem such as a urinary tract infection or arthritis may associate pain with using the litter box and decide to go elsewhere.

Cats are extremely talented at hiding symptoms of illness, so it’s up to you to notice any changes in their habits or behavior.

To rule out a medical reason for your cat avoiding the litter box, check with your veterinarian. If a problem is found, the sooner it’s treated, the better. Once your cat is feeling better, it’s likely he’ll resume his normal litter box habits.

A veterinarian can make sure there's not a medical issue that's causing your cat not to use the litter box.
A veterinarian can make sure there's not a medical issue that's causing your cat not to use the litter box. | Source

Spay or Neuter Your Cat

Cats that aren’t spayed or neutered may be more prone to mark their territory by spraying. Many people believe this issue is only associated with male cats, but female cats can spray too. Cats might start spraying when another cat is introduced to the household or even if they see a cat lingering outside the house.

Spaying or neutering can help curb spraying, as well as prevent certain cancers and unwanted behaviors such as aggression. Unless you're a breeder, it’s beneficial to spay or neuter your cat.

Litter Box Train Your Cat

Some cats have never learned how to use a litter box. Perhaps they were taken away from their mother too young or lived outdoors in the past and litter boxes are unfamiliar to them.

Cats already have the instinct to hide their waste, so litter box training is fairly easy. Just wait at least fifteen or twenty minutes after the cat eats or plays and put him near, but not in the box. Hopefully he’ll step in on his own and start digging around. After he goes, praise him and repeat this process until he’s consistently using the litter box on his own.

Solve Litter Box Issues

There are a variety of litter box issues that can cause a cat not to use its litter box. Some cats are very picky about their boxes and making even one small improvement in this area might make a huge difference.

Litter Box Poll

How Often Do You Scoop?

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Keep the Litter Box Very Clean

How often do you scoop the litter box? If you aren’t scooping once or twice a day and fully replacing all the litter once a week, your cat may be trying to tell you something. They don’t want to use a dirty litter box any more than we want to use a dirty toilet.

Try keeping the litter box as clean as possible. Litter boxes can fill up fast, especially in multiple cat households. Keep a bucket and scoop near the box as a reminder to scoop morning and night. Dump the scooped litter into a garbage bag or dispose of it in a covered trash container to keep odors away from the litter box area.

There are many litter box issues that can cause a cat to not use his or her box.
There are many litter box issues that can cause a cat to not use his or her box. | Source

Weekly Litter Box Cleaning

It’s important to fully clean the litter box once a week to keep the box as odor-free as possible. I’ve found it helpful to have a backup litter box available so the cat isn’t without a box while this cleaning is being done.

It’s easiest to clean the box outdoors, but if that’s not possible, the wash tub in your laundry room is the next best place.

Supplies Needed: A pair of rubber gloves, a place to dispose of old litter, a litter scoop/bucket, mild dish detergent, white vinegar, old towels or paper towels for clean-up and fresh litter.

Cleaning Steps:

  1. Dump out all old litter from the box. Use a litter scoop to scrape out any litter that’s stuck to the sides or bottom.

  2. Wash the entire litter box with a mild dish detergent and warm water. Don’t use bleach, ammonia or any other harsh chemicals that are harmful to cats.

  3. Rinse the box completely.

  4. If the box still has odors after a thorough washing, swish a 50/50 white vinegar and water mixture inside the box to help neutralize the smell. Be sure to rinse the box until there’s no vinegar scent in the box. If there are still cat odors in the box after this process, it’s time to replace the box.

  5. Dry the litter box completely before adding fresh litter.

Use a Litter Your Cat Likes

There are so many new and interesting types of litter to choose from these days. Litter varieties like ‘clumping’, ‘flushable’ or ‘scented’ might sound good to us, but our cats often have different opinions on the subject.

For example, if you’ve been using plain litter for years and then suddenly switch to a ‘scented’ variety, your cat might start avoiding the litter box just because the fragrance bothers him.

Each cat has his or her own preference of litter type. If the timing of your cat not using the litter box and starting a new type of litter coincide, you’ve likely figured out the problem.

If you’re not sure if your cat likes the litter you’re using, here’s an easy experiment that I’ve used successfully with my own cats to discover their litter preferences:

  • Get a second litter box and fill it with a different type of litter than you currently use. For example, if you’re using a clumping litter, try a plain clay litter. If you use a clay litter, try one made from corn, wheat or pine. If you’re not familiar with the various types of litter, ask someone at your local pet store.
  • Keep the two boxes near each other and notice which one your cat uses most often.
  • If your cat uses the new type of litter most frequently, consider switching to this as his regular litter. If he’s not using the new litter, try other types of litter until you find something that works.

A list of common reasons why a cat might not be using the litter box.
A list of common reasons why a cat might not be using the litter box. | Source

Don't Switch Types of Litter Too Often

Switching types or brands of litter too often can cause some cats to stop using their box. It may be tempting try the latest type of litter or buy whatever brand is on sale that week, but cats like consistency when it comes to their litter. If you have a picky cat, he might not be happy with stepping into a box of litter that he’s unfamiliar with.

Once you find a type and brand of litter that works for your cat, try to stick with it. If you need to switch to something else, make the transition over a week or so, mixing the old and new litters together in the box until your cat adjusts.

Have the Right Amount of Litter in the Litter Box

If there’s not the right amount of litter in the litter box, it makes it more difficult for your cat to properly cover his urine and stool. The level of litter gets lower each time you scoop, so this can become a problem if it’s not replenished often enough.

Too much litter is another problem you’ll want to avoid. It’s wasteful, it makes the box harder to empty and the litter is likely to spill over the sides of the box as he digs. Some cats will even go to the bathroom next to the box because they find some litter scattered on the floor.

The right amount of litter can vary by litter type and brand. Typically, two to four inches is a good amount, but it’s best to follow the instructions on your bag or box of litter. As you scoop throughout the week, add some additional litter to maintain the right level.

Open or Covered Litter Box?

Some cats don’t care for covered or enclosed litter boxes because they feel too confined and they tend to trap odors. If you’re using a covered box and it’s not working out, consider getting an open style litter box.

I’ve always used open boxes and my cats like them. Some litter can get scattered outside the box as they step out, but keeping a large litter mat beneath the box traps most of it.

Open litter boxes make it easy to scoop out dirty litter, refill and keep clean.

Choose a Litter Box Style Your Cat Likes

Just like litter, cats can have distinct preferences about their litter box. If your cat’s not happy with the type of box, it’s another possible reason for him not using it.

There are so many different types of litter boxes to choose from these days. Finding the right type of box for your cat can help avoid litter box issues.

Consider your cat's size, level of mobility and the location you plan to keep the box as you choose a litter box.

Use the Right Size Litter Box for Your Cat

It’s important to choose the right size litter box for your cat. A cat needs enough room to fully turn around and not feel confined.

The sides of the litter box need to be at a height that allows the cat to easily get in and out. This is especially important for small kittens and older cats with arthritis or other health issues that cause them to have trouble getting in and out of the box.

If you have a larger cat and can’t find a big enough litter box in a pet store, try a clear storage container. These boxes are available in sizes that are just a little longer and wider than many of the litter boxes I’ve seen in pet stores. I use them for my 12 and 14 pound cats and they seem to appreciate the extra space.

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Keep the Litter Box in a Good Location

If the litter box is located in a less than ideal area of your home, it might be the reason why your cat is avoiding it. This is a problem that can easily be solved by moving the litter box to a better location.

Factors to consider when choosing a good location for the litter box:

  • A quiet location away from heavy traffic areas and doorways
  • Away from the area where the cat eats and drinks
  • A room the cat has access to 24/7
  • A room where the cat can have some privacy and use the box without interruptions

Have Enough Litter Boxes

If you have more than one cat in the home, litter boxes can get dirty fast. Cats aren’t fond of climbing into a smelly, dirty box to use the bathroom, so it’s not all that surprising some cats choose to find another place to go.

In multiple cat households, some cats “claim” a litter box as their own and may even intimidate another cat about using that box.

The basic rule of thumb for litter boxes is “one per cat, plus one extra”. Yes, it’s a little extra work to maintain multiple litter boxes, but each box stays clean longer than if you only have one. The boxes can be kept near each other or in separate locations.

Reduce Your Cat's Stress Level

Cats definitely are creatures of habit. Changes in their environment or schedule can be stressful for them and be a possible cause of them not using the litter box.

Stressful events for cats can include moving to a new home, travel, having a new family member or pet in the home, being in a pet boarding facility, or having noisy remodeling work done in the home.

Litter box troubles can also happen with a cat that’s brand new to your home and is stressed about being in a new and unfamiliar place.

Many situations that stress a cat are impossible to avoid, but keeping his or her routine as normal as possible can help alleviate stress.

Basics like a regular feeding schedule and time for play and rest throughout the day can go along way in keeping things normal.

Here are other ways to reduce your cat's stress:

  • Brushing your cat
  • Playing with your cat
  • Get a new scratching post
  • Bach Flower Rescue Remedies for Pets

If you think your cat’s litter box problems are due to stress, your veterinarian can offer you additional advice or prescribe medication to help your cat feel calmer until the situation resolves and he resumes normal litter box habits.

Stress is a common cause of a cat not using its litter box.
Stress is a common cause of a cat not using its litter box. | Source

Clean-Up of Cat Urine and Stool Around the House

Cleaning the area (or areas) in your home where the cat has used the bathroom outside the litter box is a key part of solving the problem. If the cat smells his scent in these areas, he’ll probably still think these are acceptable places to go.

Never use ammonia for cleaning up messes your cat leaves behind. It’s hazardous to cats and the scent will attract him to return to that area. Also, please test any cleaning products you plan to use to make sure they don’t damage surfaces or stain fabrics.

Cleaning and Deodorizing Floors and Other Surfaces

  • For hard surfaces, clean the area completely with your regular cleaning product. Afterwards, go over the area with a 50/50 mixture of white vinegar and warm water to help neutralize odors. An enzymatic pet odor remover (found in pet stores) is also very effective for removing any traces of odors left behind.
  • For carpet, rugs and other fabric materials, blot the urine with paper towels until it’s totally absorbed. Don’t rub, because that makes odors harder to remove.
  • Clean the material with a mild dish detergent and warm water, followed by an enzymatic pet odor remover product.
  • After the material dries, place sheets of aluminum foil loosely over the area to discourage the cat from returning to the spot.

After clean-up, use aluminum foil to cover areas where your cat has gone to the bathroom. This will help prevent him from returning to this spot.
After clean-up, use aluminum foil to cover areas where your cat has gone to the bathroom. This will help prevent him from returning to this spot. | Source

Additional Suggestions

  • Cats like knowing they’ve done something good, so praise your cat when they use their box.
  • Don’t yell at or scold your cat about not using the litter box. It will scare or confuse the cat and won’t solve the problem.
  • If your cat still isn’t using the litter box after you’ve ruled out medical problems and tried the other solutions, consider working with an animal behavior specialist. This person can help you to get to the bottom of the problem. Ask your vet for suggestions or do an online search for qualified animal behavioral specialists in your area.

I hope this article has given you some insight and ideas about how to get your cat to start using the litter box again!

© 2012 carolynkaye

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    • carolynkaye profile image
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      carolynkaye 18 months ago from USA

      Hi PaigSr, yeah that's a great idea to put a litter box in that spot. Cats are very much creatures of habit, especially when it comes to their box, food/water bowls, bed, etc. I hope that works. Thanks for your comments :)

    • PaigSr profile image

      PaigSr 18 months ago from State of Confussion

      My daughters cat has been leaving a little something for us shortly after she moved home after school. I just realized that where she was leaving them was where a litter box used to be before the daughter moved out. So I placed a litter box in that spot to see if that would help. I am not sure yet as I just set it up a few minutes ago. Its interesting how cats get used to things in a certain order and in certain places.

    • carolynkaye profile image
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      carolynkaye 4 years ago from USA

      Thanks much, DzyMsLizzy! I hope things get better for your senior kitty. I know how rough it is when they get health problems as they get older.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Well put. Cats, however, often are, and can be more adaptable than we give them credit for...they just don't want you to know that, for they are masters of (human) manipulation! ;-)

      We have 6 cats...but only space for 3 boxes. By scooping often, the litter stays cleaner, and the cats don't seem to mind.

      The only cat that gives me a problem is a "senior-catizen," who is 14 years old, and has been on strong drugs for 13 of those years to control her epilepsy. She is now having digestive problems (the vet found no obvious cause), and the result is that she has to stay out in the garage overnight, as she simply cannot seem to remember where the box is...even the one we have out there for her exclusive use. So, my day starts every morning with cleaning up after her..and cleaning HER as well... :-( But, she was our first kitty, and we still love her, so we take care of her because that was the commitment we made when we adopted her.

      Your suggestions are very good, and helpful for the majority of situations. Voted up, interesting, useful and shared.

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