"As every cat owner knows, nobody owns a cat."
- Ellen Perry Berkeley
We can all say we are the “owner” of our cats, but most of us know that our furry feline friend is the real boss. They tend to decide when we wake up, when and what they get fed, what other animals or people are allowed in the house - the list goes on. We try our best to give them a comfortable and luxurious life and all we ask for in return is that they’ll cuddle up with us every now and then.
But what happens when your cat is unhappy or uncomfortable and can’t communicate with you as to why? There can be a lot of issues in your cat’s life, but the one we’re going to tackle today is troubles with the litter box.
Let’s start off by discussing the warning signs to look for relating to the litter box. If your cat is visiting the litter box often but not producing urine/stool, is only producing tiny amounts, yowls in pain when urinating/defecating, has blood in urine/stool, or is straining to urinate/defecate it is important to schedule a visit with your veterinarian. If your cat is male and is straining to urinate this is an immediate issue and should be seen as soon as possible. It would be a good idea to take your cat to the veterinarian even if it is having litter box issues and does not have these symptoms, to rule out medical issues and get specific tips from a professional.
Sometimes litter box problems are behavioral rather than medical. There is no one solution to these problems, but there are some things you can keep in mind when tailoring your treatment for your cat. It is crucial to catch and act quickly to resolve the issue before your pet is accustomed to using anywhere other than the litter box. Regardless of the solution you decide to go with do not scold your cat, rub their nose in the accident, attempt to give treats while in the box, or force them into the litter box. This will not help.
The first and most obvious thing to look at is accessibility. Make sure the box is in a place and is a size that your cat can easily visit and spend time in. This means you might have to try several locations or types of boxes. You should have one litter box per cat in the household plus an extra. If you have multiple stories, have one on each level. A good location has visibility for your cat to see other animals/people approaching and has multiple escape routes (no corners). Sound and traffic can also be a factor, so avoid places like the laundry room or near your dog’s food and water. If your cat uses a certain place that is not the litter box often, then try placing a box there (if that is not possible, put their food/water/bed/toys there so they will not associate it with waste). If your cat is geriatric or overweight, they might have trouble using a box with high sides, a lid, or top entry.
The next is litter preference. Different cats prefer different textures and depths. Most cats prefer 1-2 inches of litter. If one texture is not working well, try another. This can be frustrating as there are so many options (clay, crystals, paper, pine, corn, wheat, walnut, grass, etc.), but it’s worth trying before taking desperate measures. Try multiple litter options at once side by side to allow your cat to communicate with you on their preference. No matter which litter you are using, be sure to clean it out frequently. This may mean scooping/replacing litter as much as once a day and rinsing the box out with water and an unscented soap once a week.
Changes in daily routine can cause stress. If there has recently been a move, an addition to the family, or a change in the daily routine, your cat may not feel comfortable using their litter. Eliminate stress by keeping the cat’s daily routine as predictable as possible, make sure children and other pets cannot reach the litter box when they are using it, and look into products such as sprays and diffusers. We use Feliway at our clinic.
Medical issues or stressful situations may cause a cat to gain a negative association with the litter box. If your cat has had urinary issues that cause pain, an incision site that may affect litter usage, or a bad interaction with another pet, they will remember that feeling as happening when they use the litter even after the pain is gone. This can be helped by changing the location/type of litter or placing toys and treats near the box to help regain a positive correlation. However, do not place food or water near the litter.
Cat vs. cat conflict can be a contributing factor, as well. Some cats can be territorial over their litter boxes, which encourages the other cats to not use it. To determine if this is a problem, isolate the cats to see if they will use the litter properly if left alone (do not do this for more than a day or two without exhausting all other efforts first). If they do use it properly when left alone, attempt to create an environment where they each have their own space and have that isolated feeling in their daily life with their litter, food, water and beds being entirely separate. If there is one cat that is still not using the litter when isolated, it is time to focus on that cat and try other solutions. Diffusers and sprays may help in this situation as well.
If your cat is using the litter box regularly, but also spraying urine outside of the litter box on objects around the house this may be an attempt to communicate with other cats. They could be marking their territory, announcing their presence, looking for a mate, or expressing stress. Spraying is typically done on vertical surfaces, has less volume than normal urination, and smells different or stronger than regular urine. If your cat is intact, spaying or neutering them can help with spraying. You should also try to eliminate your cat’s ability to view other neighborhood cats by limiting access to windows with a view of them.
Be sure to clean urine or stool accidents outside of the litter box thoroughly with scent eliminating cleaner that has enzymatic action. If you clean with an ammonia based product, it will not help as urine contains ammonia.
Hopefully one or multiple of these changes will solve your cat’s litter box issue. Know that this process will take time and patience. Remember that your cat is trying to communicate with you, not make you miserable. We wish you and your pet the best of luck. Please contact us with any questions or stories about your cat and his or her litter box issues.