Solving the Litter Box Challenge

A high percentage of cats end up being surrendered to shelters because they have litter box problems. Unfortunately, many of these cats are euthanized because they are considered unadoptable due to their poor urination habits. This is such an unnecessary waste of life since most of these challenges can be resolved with a little patience, behavior modification and changes to the environment. If you are pet-owner struggling with your cat in this arena, you should consider the following factors to help resolve these undesirable urination issues.

Both male and female cats can develop inappropriate litter box habits for an array of reasons. When evaluating problems of this nature, it is important to first take your cat to a good veterinarian in order to rule out any medical conditions that would be causing your pet to not use its litter box such as diabetes, thyroid problems, or Urinary Tract Infections. Also, take into consideration whether or not your cat is fixed. Whole males have a tendency to spray. Neutering males can stop this behavior. After determining that the cat is healthy and fixed, you could deduce that the urination habit is probably behavioral.

In order to correct a behavioral problem of this type, it is important to first identify what is triggering the cat to spray or not use its box. Identifying these triggers is similar to solving any mystery- try asking yourself questions such as “Where is my cat urinating?” If your furry feline is spraying around doors and windows, there may be cats in the neighborhood visiting the house and your pet is responding through spraying. A cat urinating immediately outside the box can be an indicator of a problem associated with the box itself such as the box is covered or not clean enough, or perhaps there aren’t enough boxes located in desirable locations. Cats will keep urinating on the same areas over again if the targeted areas are not thoroughly cleaned up with a good enzyme cleaner. Inappropriate elimination can result from a cat being alone every day or even because of changes in your household including a loss of a human or animal companion. Additionally, status issues in multiple cat households can be a trigger. For example, your cat may not be using the box because another resident cat is resource guarding and not allowing the cat access to the box.

After identifying what might be influencing the cat to shy away from using the cat box, the next step to resolve the issues is putting a behavior-modification program into practice that includes thorough cleanup, trigger elimination, and changing your cat’s association with the targeted areas.

No matter what the trigger is, proper clean up is essential. Cats will continue to target the same areas unless the areas are thoroughly cleaned with a good enzyme cleaner. Standard household cleaning products will not work. Cats have a very keen sense of smell and even if an area smells clean to your human nose, a urine smell might still be detectable to a cat. A careful clean-up starts with identifying all of the soiled areas. A black light will cause the target areas to fluoresce in the dark. After identifying the areas, soak them a few times with the enzyme cleaner. There are many enzyme cleaners on the market and some of them work better then others. Regardless of the brand you use, it does take time for enzyme cleaners to do their jobs. To insure the most complete cleanup possible, make sure to leave the cleaner on the target spots and then let the areas dry naturally.

The techniques that work best for stopping inappropriate urination are based on environmental changes combined with positive reinforcement and behavior modification. Punishing your cat will not work. It can escalate the behavior or alienate your pet from you because the cat might associate the punishment with the punisher. The steps to take to change undesirable urination habits are dependent on what is causing a cat to not use its box. Below is a list of the most common behavioral reasons that can result in a cat having litter box challenges, along with the actions to take to correct the behavior.

If an outside cat is causing the resident cat to spray, the following will help eliminate the behavior:
§ Eliminate triggers by discouraging cats in the yard. Talk with the neighbors about keeping their cats in, or trap, neuter and release ferals or use safe deterrents to keep the unwelcome visitors away.
§ Put butcher paper around the windows so that your cat cannot see outside.
§ Do a thorough clean up of the targeted areas, using a good enzyme cleaner.
§ If possible, confine the cat to one room or one area of the house with lots of cat boxes. There are some cats where confinement simply won’t work. Cats that do not respond well to being confined should be allowed access to other limited areas in the house. Whenever the cat is using the litter box, praise the cat, let the cat know how pleased you are with it.
§ Change the cat’s association with the target areas by feeding treats, playing, or giving the cat catnip on the targeted areas.
§ Decrease stress by plugging in a pheromone diffuser such as Comfort Zone into the wall outlet.

If a cat is being triggered by the litter or litter box, the following will help eliminate the behavior:
§ Use only large uncovered boxes. Covered boxes trap odors, are too small and do not give cats a way to escape. A cat is vulnerable when going to the bathroom and needs to have multiple escape routes available. Tall 66 qt. Sterilite Clearview translucent storage containers, without lids, make very good litter boxes.
§ Proper placement of boxes is very important. Locate them throughout the home in accessible areas. Don’t put boxes in closets, noisy areas, or isolated locations where the cat wouldn’t normally go.
§ Make sure there is at least one box more then there are cats in the household.
§ Scoop every day, dump and scrub the box every 2 weeks.
§ Do not move boxes around.
§ Do not use scented litter.
§ Change litter types very slowly, adding the new brand litter to the old litter. Start by adding a small handful to the existing litter. Every day put more in. It can take from 5-7 days to change a cat’s litter.
§ Do a thorough clean up with a good enzyme cleaner.
§ Change the cat’s association with the target areas by feeding treats, playing, or giving the cat catnip on the targeted areas.
§ Decrease the stress by plugging in a pheromone diffuser (Comfort Zone) into the wall outlet.

Cats can develop litter box issues when living in multi-cat households. Among a few of the reasons that these issues develop are that there are not enough litter boxes, status issues with your pets, or too many cats in too small of a space. The following will help eliminate the behavior:
§ Increase the vertical territory by providing tall cat trees for the cats. They should be about 6 feet tall with multiple levels and a very solid base. One way cats show status is by where they sit in relation to the other cats.
§ Sometimes slowly reintroducing cats to each other will help solve the problem.
§ Change the cat’s association with the target areas by feeding treats, playing, or giving the cat catnip on the targeted areas.
§ Deterrents, such as lemon can be applied on specific areas twice a day to keep cats away from a particular area.
§ Decrease the stress by plugging in a pheromone diffuser into the wall outlet.
§ Increase the number of cat boxes so that there is one box per cat and one for the house.
§ Take an honest look at the space available for the cats and the number of cats in the household. Too many cats in too small an area can result in cats spraying and or not using the litter box.

Leaving a cat home alone every day for hours at a time with no one to interact with can result in a cat developing poor behavior habits such as inappropriate elimination. Consider doing the following:
§ Provide entertainment for the cat, leaving the TV on, playing a video that features birds, small animals, fish and insects
§ Make treat balls out of small plastic balls with holes, filling them with treats. Dehydrated chicken works great for this.
§ Provide interactive toys for the cat
§ Schedule regular play times with the cat
§ Change the cat’s association with the target areas by feeding treats, playing, or giving the cat catnip on the targeted areas.
§ Sometimes bringing in another cat into a one-cat household will stop the behavior, if the cats are slowly and properly introduced to each other.
§ Decrease the stress by plugging in a pheromone diffuser into the wall outlet.

Tragically, too many cats are unnecessarily surrendered to shelters because they are not using the litter box or are spraying. With proper cleanup, behavior modification and environmental changes, cats can become model citizens with perfect litter box habits. It is worth the effort for cat owners to do the necessary work to modify their cat’s behavior so that their beloved pets learn to use the litter box consistently and maintain a happy and lengthy companionship with their owners.

© March 2007 by Marilyn Krieger, CCBC.
First published in the Pet Yellow Pages 2007

Marilyn Krieger, CCBC is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant. She can be reached for phone or on-site consultations to help solve cat behavior problems either by e-mail or by phone: 650 780 9485. Additionally, Marilyn teaches cat behavior classes and is available for speaking engagements. You can find out more about The Cat Coach at

Marilyn is certified through The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants

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