How to deal with common litter box problems

Litter box problems can occur in any household, regardless of the number of cats. Here’s how to deal with some common issues.

Many owners assume the litter box is just the place cats use for elimination – the feline version of a bathroom – and as long as they keep it clean, everyone will be happy. Oh, if only it could be that simple. In reality a cat’s relationship with the litter box is complex and emotional. When more than one cat has to share the box, that relationship can get even more delicate.


Cats don’t just spray without a reason, so you must examine the social environment within your cat community. It’s time to play detective.

Where is your cat (or cats) spraying? Under what circumstances? It is in one area? Perhaps a lower-ranking cat is trying to establish a little piece of his own territory. Did you bring a new cat into the home? Every time you add or subtract a cat it shakes up the hierarchy. One of your resident cats may be trying to see how dominant this new cat is. Observe the overall behavior of your cats. Do you notice any changes recently? If you know which cat is doing the spraying, try to remember what happened just minutes before. Perhaps one cat always seems to spray after a confrontation with another particular cat. Is there a pattern?

Look at the targeted locations for clues as well. There are claimed territories and neutral pathways within your home. If you really know your cats (and they’re creatures of habit, so it gets easier as time goes on), you might be able to tell if perhaps the spraying occurs along a pathway – perhaps warning other cats not to enter a claimed territory. Maybe a neutral pathway is being sprayed because there just isn’t enough territory, and a lower-ranking cat is trying to establish some turf.

If the target areas are under windows or on a wall opposite a window that looks out onto an active yard, the problem could simply be that a cat has noticed an unfamiliar cat on the property. That happens in single-cat households very often, but in a multi-cat home it can occur because the sprayer knows there just isn’t any more territory to divide up. If you allow some or all of your cats outdoors, one may spray after returning indoors if he comes across a cat outside. A kitty’s adventures outdoors can create insecurity because a cat may pick up the scent of another cat while outside or maybe even engage in an actual confrontation. Once back indoors, he may reinforce his territory and reassure himself by spraying within the safety of his own home.

Don’t restrict yourself to thinking the spraying is either the top-ranking cat asserting himself or the lowest-ranking cat trying to establish some tiny piece of territory. In my house calls, I’ve found that the middle cats are often the ones who squabble. The top cat may clearly know he’s the head honcho, and the lowest cat may have long ago settled onto the bottom rung. Those middle cats, however, can sometimes be discontented with their positions in the hierarchy. Sometimes it’s the cat you least expected because spraying can seem very secretive to humans. You have to look at your home from a cat’s point of view.

It’s hard to treat a spraying problem in a multicat environment if you don’t know who the culprit is. Some cats are very open about their displays, but many engage in covert behavior. If you have no idea which cat is spraying, you can ask your veterinarian for some fluorescein capsules. This harmless ophthalmic dye is placed in capsules and then given to a cat orally. You then purchase a black light. Nature’s Miracle makes an excellent one. The black light will cause all of the urine marks to fluoresce, but the fluorescein-stained urine will really stand out. To use the black light, darken the room before turning on the light. Hold the light a few inches away from the carpet or other objects in the room. Give the fluorescein capsule to the most likely suspect. After a few days, if you don’t see any traces, you can move on to the next likely subject.

If there are just a few specific areas where the spraying is being done, you can set up a video camera. The inexpensive video baby monitors that are available make this very simple. The monitors can be hooked up to record to your VCR, so you won’t have to camp out at the monitor twenty-four hours a day waiting to catch someone in the act.

Catwise caution

Any change in litter box habits can be an indication of an underlying medical problem. There are several conditions that can cause a cat to eliminate away from the box, and one is lower urinary tract disease. It’s not uncommon for a cat to associate the box itself with the pain he feels while urinating, and that’s why he chooses other locations. Cats with feline lower urinar y tract disease (FLUTD) also have irritated bladders and feel a sense of urgency even when there’s just a drop of urine in the bladder. You may also notice a cat who goes in and out of the box frequently, who has a bit of blood mixed in with his urine, who cries while eliminating, or who is able to eliminate only small amounts. Other conditions can cause cats to eliminate outside of the box as well, including diabetes and renal failure. Don’t assume that a litter box problem is behavioral until you’ve had your cats checked out by the veterinarian. Urinary problems can be fatal if the urethra becomes totally blocked, especially for male cats, who have long narrow urethras. Any change in a cat’s litter box habits or water/ food intake should be brought to the veterinarian’s attention immediately.

Potential reasons for indiscriminate urination

• Underlying medical problem
• Dirty litter box
• Loss or arrival or a cat
• Overcrowding
• Wrong type of box
• Litter aversion
• Undesirable litter box location
• Abrupt change in litter brand or type
• Inadequate level of litter in box
• Move to a new house
• Renovation or construction
• New baby or family member
• Death in family
• Change in owner’s schedule
• Negative association due to medical problem or punishment

Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Cat vs. Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More Than One Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett. Copyright © 2004 by Pam Johnson-Bennett.

Previous articleHair analysis for animal health
Next articlePreparing your dog for a new baby
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the best-selling author of 10 books. She starred in the Animal Planet UK series Psycho Kitty, and is one of the most popular and sought-after cat behavior experts in the world. She is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting and has influenced many practicing in the field today. Pam began making house calls to work with clients on cat behavior problems in 1982 and had her first book published in 1990. Since then, she has led the way as an inspiration and mentor to many in the cat behavior profession and her books have been used as texts for professional behavior courses.