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