How to deal with common litter box problems

Cats and litter box issues go hand in paw. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Here’s how to solve whatever problems you’re experiencing by putting your cat’s needs first.

Few things are more frustrating than a cat that won’t use the litter box. If you’re in this quandry with your own feline, you’ve got plenty of company. Veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker says litter box issues are the biggest concern among cat lovers, and the main reason felines are surrendered to shelters.

Many factors can cause problems to arise, from health conditions and stress, to the family’s failure to keep the litter box scooped. Even the litter box itself can be an issue. There are all kinds of trays and litters to choose from, and many are made to appeal to human aesthetics and convenience, not the cat’s. And ultimately, it’s the cat that makes the final decisions!

1. Visit your vet

If your normally well-mannered kitty starts avoiding the litter box, a visit to the veterinarian is a must. Cystitis or feline lower urinary tract infections can occur at any age, and the pain associated with the infection may translate into litter box avoidance. If your older kitty starts to use the box more frequently or is missing it, it may be a sign of diabetes, kidney disease or hyperthyroidism. If your cat has a tendency toward urinary problems, eliminate any poor quality dry food.

2. Invest in an extra box

The rule of thumb is one litter box per cat, plus one. If your home is on more than one level and/or you have the space, an extra box or two can only help matters.

3. Consider placement

Place litter boxes in a low-traffic but accessible area. Would you want to pee where everyone can see you? Or go down two or three flights of stairs if you’re a little creaky?

4. Try a different type of litter box

Offer a choice between covered and uncovered boxes. A large cat will need a large litter tray; a big plastic storage box is a good option. Cats usually prefer uncovered boxes. Automated boxes are convenient, but still require some maintenance.

5. Keep the litter simple

Cats do not like scented products, so investing in a natural litter might be the way to go. Consider offering a choice – corn- or wheat-based for example – and see what your cat prefers.

6. Keep it clean

Scoop at least twice a day, more often if you have a dog that likes to “snack”. You can’t scoop too often. Keep a vacuum or sweeper nearby to pick up scattered litter that may irritate sensitive paws.

7. Use a natural cleaner

Keep a good non-toxic cleaner on hand in case your cat has an accident. If the “accidents” increase, get help – either from your veterinarian or a behaviorist – before the problem becomes ingrained.

8. Watch who uses the box and when

Multiple bathroom trips or camping out near the litter box may mean urinary problems or constipation. If you have a kitty with litter box aversion, watching his pee schedule and herding him to the box on that schedule may prevent accidents. Offer effusive and immediate praise and treats when he’s successful.

9. Learn the difference between spraying and urinating

Cats spray on vertical surfaces as a territorial response; they squat to urinate. However, some cats do their business vertically – these require high-backed litter boxes or some protection for nearby surfaces. The top of a covered litter box propped on end makes a good shield.

10. Buy the best food you can afford

A poor quality diet is reflected in a stinky litter box. The end result (literally) of better nutrition is less poop that’s less smelly.

11. Scoop some more!

Synthetic sprays and additives that are supposed to control odors do not replace regular scooping, and could be offensive or even harmful to your cat.

12. Accept it

This final piece of advice may sound heretical. When you’ve done all the right things, and your cat still refuses to use the litter box, you just may have to live with the problem. Some people create a safe outdoor environment for their “problem child”. Others arm themselves with patience, an eye on the cat and his litter box, and a good natural cleaner.

It takes serious detective work to figure out what’s causing your cat’s litter box issues – and serious patience to resolve them. Just remember that your cat is not doing this out of spite!


Sally E. Bahner specializes in cat-related issues, specifically nutrition, holistic care and behavior. She has offered her services as a feline behavior and care consultant and gives classes on cat care. Sally is the resident cat behavior expert on Tracie Hotchner’s Cat Chat radio program, and a member of the Cat Writers’ Association and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.