Litter Box Problems?

Litter box problems with cats can be extremely frustrating, to the point that many people give up and make the difficult decision to relinquish their cat to a shelter or rescue.  There are a few easy things you can do to try to solve the problem first, though, and patience is key!  Curbing litter box issues can take up to three months or more.  Try the tips below, and feel free to call us if you have any questions at (320) 252-0896.

Step 1: Figure Out Why

  • Rule out a a medical problem by taking your cat to your veterinarian.  Cats with urinary tract infections might associate the pain of urinating with being in the litter box, making them not want to use the box.  This accounts for 15 percent of all litter box problems and should be ruled out immediately.
  • Keep a log of accidents to see if there is a pattern.  When does it happen? Where? What does it look like? How frequent are the accidents?
  • Spay/neuter your cat.  Studies show that 90 percent of male cats that spray will stop after being neutered.  Felines can also mark areas when they are in heat to try to attract a male cat.  There are many benefits to spaying/neutering, and this is one of them!
  • Routine change?  Cats are creatures of habit and most do not care for change.  Ask yourself if there have been any lifestyle or environment changes since the litter box problems began.  New pet?  New baby?  New litter box location?  New air freshener near the cat's litterbox that might be offensive to your cat?  If it is something you can easily remove, try it.  If not, be patient with your cat and give them extra love and attention.  It can take them a month or more before they realize that things are not going to go back to how they once were.

Step 2: Remove/Neutralize Urine Spots

  • Locate urine spots.  You can find urine by using a black light. Veterinarians also can give a supplement called Fluorescein to feed your cat that makes the urine glow even more. This is particularly helpful with multiple cat households to find out which cat is having accidents.
  • Don't skimp on cleaning!  Cats are repeat offenders and will continue to return to the same inappropriate potty spots if you don't clean the area properly.
  • Pick the right product.  Just like anything on the market, there are some products that work well for cleaning cat urine, and some that don't.  We recommend products such as Nature’s Miracle (sold at Tri-County Humane Society), Outright, FON, Oxi-Clean, or baking soda (½ cup to ½ gallon of water).  It is important to know your product and how to use it, too!  For example, Oxi-Clean in its powdered form must be added to very hot water to activate its neutralizing abilities.  If it foams up when added to hot water, you know it is hot enough!  Never use detergents, bleach, vinegar, or any products containing ammonia. These products might encourage the cat to return to that spot.
  • Soak the entire area, a light mist of cleaning product won't do!  Neutralizing products work best if they are allowed to soak and sit over the soiled area for at least 20 minutes before removing excess product with a towel or carpet shampooer. 
  • Repeat if necessary.  If you can still smell urine, you can bet your cat can!  Once the area dries, if it still smells like urine, repeat the process.

Step 3: Prevention

  • Make the accident areas unappealing.  Upside down carpet runners on the floor (the kind that is bumpy on the bottom that a cat would not want to walk on) work well, or bricks spaced a couple inches apart.  Tin foil may work for some cats as well.
  • Move the litter box to the location preferred by your cat.  If your cat only goes in one spot in the house, try putting the litter box there after neutralizing the area. If it is a spot that you don’t want a litter box permanently, wait until the cat is using the box religiously and then gradually move it a few inches each day to a more appropriate location.
  • Keep the litter box clean! Scoop daily or every other day and completely change the litter and wash the box out on a regular basis. Do not use products with ammonia; they will actually accentuate the urine smell and may make cats not want to use the box. Scrub the box with baking soda and rinse it well. If you are unable to remove the urine smell over, it may be time to replace the box.
  • Do not use plastic liners in the litter box. Most cats do not like them!  It can also encourage them to urinate on plastic bags around the house.
  • Keep the box at ground level.
  • Give the cat a variety of litter boxes to choose from in different locations.  If you live in a multi-level house, make sure there is at least one box per level. A general rule of thumb is to have one box per cat plus an extra one in a multi-cat household. At least two boxes are needed for a one-cat household because some cats prefer to urinate and defecate in different locations.  Also, give them different box choices, such as one covered box and one open box, and make sure the size of the box is appropriate for the cat.
  • Try different types of litter. Most cats prefer 1 to 1 ½ inches of soft, sandy litter, such as the “scoopable” variety.  Try litter such as Cat Attract (sold at Tri-County Humane Society), which contains herbs that are designed to encourge the cat to use them.
  • Use unscented litter.  Perfumed litter may be too strong and offensive to your cat. Litter with Chlorophyll is especially unappealing to most cats.  Stick to unscented litter.  Baking soda to prevent odor is okay.
  • Keep litter boxes away from eating or sleeping areas.
  • Keep litter boxes in a quiet area with low traffic.
  • Make sure cat has an escape route. If it feels trapped while using the box, it may not want to return.
  • Try products such as Feliway for cats with anxiety or behavioral issues.
  • If all else fails, ask your vet about anti-anxiety medication.
  • Never punish the cat. This will only backfire and may make the problem worse. Reward the cat with treats when you see it using the litter box.


Dr. John C. Wright, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist

Dr. Patricia B. McConnell, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist

9 Ways to Build Trust in a Shy Cat

Bobby webWhether a cat was rescued from a situation where she was treated poorly by humans, has never interacted with humans before, has a health issue that is making her act out from stress, or is simply shy by nature, we have a responsibility as caretakers to help our feline friends learn to trust and feel safe in their environments.

It takes a tremendous amount of patience, sensitivity and care to transition a cat from skittish to secure. The process can be tedious and heartbreaking. All of your hard work can pay off, though.

Give her a quiet space, complete with essentials

Shy cats need to ease into situations slowly, so it’s important to make sure she has some space where she can feel safe and protected from all of the sounds, smells, and stimulations of your home. Having a safe space will allow her to explore at her own pace as she builds trust and confidence.

Safe spaces are most commonly created in spare rooms or uncluttered closets. The key is to choose a room or section of your home that gets minimal food traffic and has a few good hiding spaces. The space should include all of her essentials: a comfy bed, a clean litter box, food, fresh water, a scratching post, and toys.

Be patient

Patience is one of the biggest skills to practice if you want to encourage a shy cat to trust you. Getting frustrated or trying to force your cat into a situation she isn’t ready for will ultimately do more harm than good and can set back any progress. Most importantly, recognize that every cat is different and don’t hold her to the standards or pace of other cats you have known. This cat has her own unique history.

Move slowly and quietly

Shy cats can be easily spooked by loud or sudden movements. When she’s around, move in slow and quiet ways. Any sudden movements or loud noises can send her back into hiding.

Speak softly and quietly, but speak often

Like sudden or loud movements, shy cats can be spooked by booming voices. When you talk to her, speak with a voice that is soft and calm. Get her used to your voice by speaking to her often. Hearing your calm voice while you clean her space or simply sit with her will help her become more comfortable with you.

Pay attention to and respect her body language

Give space to a cat that exhibits any of these classic fear/anxiety signs:

  • Ears that lay flat against her head
  • Fur standing up
  • A tail that is either flicking back and forth or laying low and tucked between her legs
  • Arched back
  • Hissing, spitting or growling

Attempting to touch a cat that is displaying any of these warning signs can not only cause her to distrust you more, but you can become seriously injured if she strikes.

A cat who exhibits the following behavior is relaxed and happy:

  • Upright or forward ears
  • Erect tail
  • Exposed belly (unless signs of aggression also are shown)
  • Rubbing against you

Let her sniff you

Cats gather a lot of information about their environment through their sense of smell. Before touching your shy cat, put your hand out (palm down and relaxed so it is minimally threatening) and allow her to sniff it. A trusting cat may use this opportunity to rub her face on your hand. Your cat has glands on the sides of her mouth used to mark objects and people she considers to be safe. Take facial rubbing as a great sign.

Respect her “no-touch” zones

Once your cat begins to let you touch her, you may notice that she is uncomfortable being touched on certain areas of her body (many cats don’t like being touched on the belly, for instance). As you pet her, pay attention to spots that make her nip at your hand, growl, or jump away. Respect her boundaries and stick to petting the areas that keep her happy and relaxed.

Give her treats

Shy cats can often be coaxed out of hiding by treats. In the beginning, leave the treats where she can access them while you sit nearby. Don’t try to touch her while she is displaying any of the above signs of fear or anxiety. This will help her associate treats with safety and security. As she begins to warm up and become more brave, treats will be associated with good experiences.

Engage her in play

Wand toys and laser pointers are great ways to engage her in play while maintaining a distance that will help her feel nonthreatening by you. Touching her head and back with a wand toy also can help you assess her “no-touch” zones.

 PRINTABLE: 9 Ways to Build Trust in a Shy Cat

Source: Andee Bingham

When Cat Meets Baby ...

A new baby can bring a lot of joy into the home (and, of course, some stress). The adjustment might take time, but baby and cat can co-exist, even happily. Here are some tips on helping ensure that happens:

  • Use the entire pregnancy to get the cat used to the idea of a little one. Play tapes of baby noises, or rub baby lotion on your hands before engaging in a pleasant activity with your cat. Set up nursery furniture as soon as possible and allow the cat time to investigate it before certain areas (the changing table and crib) are put off-limits. That way the cat knows there’s nothing unusual or scary about those areas.
  • At least one month before the baby arrives, make the surfaces in the nursery unwelcoming. Cut sheets of cardboard to the size of the furniture and put sticky tape on it.
  • If a litter box had been in the soon-to-be nursery, move it a few inches a day to its new location. Give yourself plenty of time to get it moved completely before baby arrives. Consider covering that area with a diaper pail or dresser so the animal isn’t tempted to potty there again.
  • If cat care routines are going to shift from new mother to partner, those routines should be switched one to two months before the birth. The cat needs to get used to the new caregiver's style.
  • When Mom arrives home from the hospital after baby is born, she should peacefully greet the cat without interruption. After they've reconnected, everyone else can come in. The cat will likely flee the hoopla.
  • Place a used receiving blanket or piece of infant clothing in a quiet area where the cat can investigate it.
  • Allow the cat to approach and quietly check things out while Mom is nursing.
  • Don’t allow the cat in the crib.
  • Close the door to the nursery when the baby is napping. If there is no door to close, install a temporary screen door or hang mosquito netting over the crib to keep the cat out.

Source: Jacque Lynn Schultz, CPDT

PRINTABLE When Cat Meets Baby ....pdf

Keep Playtime Fun, Safe

Muffy21853606 1 WEBIs your tabby attacking your feet as you walk down the hall? Ahh, the joys of owning a cat. But fear not – there are ways to redirect that behavior.

  • Engage the cat in interactive play throughout its life using stimulating toys. There are a variety of them in Tri-County Humane Society’s store. (All proceeds go back to the animals!) If you’d rather go the DIY route, stuff an old sock with paper and a little cat nip and knot it at the top; use a string to pull the cat toy along in front of your feline friend.
  • Don’t use your fingers or hands as toys, no matter how cute your kitten or cat is! That’s teaching them bad habits.
  • Interactive toys should be locked away with the game is over. Most of them require human supervision to ensure animals don’t ingest certain parts. Plus, if toys “disappear” they keep their allure to the cats.
  • To be most effective, play the interactive games several times a day with the cat. Playing the game right before mealtime works best. Three to 15 minutes per game is a good guideline.
  • Interactive play provides many benefits. But best of all, it’s quality time with your favorite feline.

Source: Information adapted from Jacque Lynn Schultz, CPDT

Naughty at Nighttime

FirecrackerHiRes WEBCats sleep about 18 hours a day and take multiple cat naps to accomplish this feat. They’re also nocturnal, which means they’re up and about when most of us are trying to sleep. Single kittens and feline adolescents tend to be the most active at night. Here’s what to know to try to keep a cat’s nature from interfering with your sleep:

  • Try to combat overactivity by wearing the felines out. Engage them in interactive play an hour or so before bedtime.(Find appropriate toys at Tri-County Humane Society's store. All proceeds go back to the animals.)
  • Give them a late-night snack.
  • Make the bedroom as dark as possible. Cats can’t see in total darkness. They can get around in low light very well, though.
  • If cats are just too playful, they might need their own playroom at the end of the home. This nighttime isolation is typically only needed until the cat is older.
  • Sometimes two is better than one. A second young cat with a similar activity level will give the first one an exercise partner.
  • If the cat starts tapping you, wanting food before your wake-up time, ignore him or her. If you give in, that just teaches them that they can get their way by harassing you. Roll over, pull the covers over you – do whatever you can to give them the message that this behavior will not be rewarded.
  • To keep a hormonally charged female from making night noise, spay her!
  • If it’s an older cat that’s being restless, consider taking him or her to the vet. A health issue may be behind the ruckus.

Source: Adapted from information by Jacque Lynn Schultz, CPDT

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