(AKA … Not Using the Litterbox)
Unfortunately, we often hear from people seeking advice on this problem. The good news is, there may be an easy solution! If your cat is peeing and/or pooping (eliminating) outside the litterbox, check out the following common causes:
The Box Itself
Some cats have strong preferences for their litter box, and sometimes what seems to us to be a simple change upsets their whole world. If your cat has recently started eliminating outside the litterbox, consider whether anything has changed recently.
- Is the litter different?
Many cats simply won’t use litter that they don’t like. There are many types available (clay vs. natural materials, clumping/non-clumping, pelleted, scented/unscented) and sometimes if we decide to try something different the cat does not agree with our choices.
- Is the box different?
Some cats prefer an open box to a hooded one, or won’t enter a litterbox through a swinging door. Try taking the door or the hood off of the litterbox and see if that makes a difference. Alternatively, if your cat is going to the bathroom just outside the litterbox, maybe adding a hood will help him or her keep their business in the appropriate place.
- Is it clean?
Each cat has an individual tolerance for cleanliness of a litter box. If you are having trouble with your cat not using the box, try cleaning it more often and seeing what happens. Often this will help solve the problem.
- Is there enough litter in the box?
Especially if your cat really likes to dig around in the litterbox or feels a need to bury its business deeply, they may choose another place to eliminate if they feel there is not enough litter in their box.
- Has it moved?
If you have recently moved your litterbox and the cat is now avoiding it, consider the new location. Is it private enough? Too private? Too far away from where the cat spends most of its time? Too near the food and water? Perhaps it has ended up near a generator, heater or air conditioner that is producing noise or an uncomfortable temperature. If there is no obvious reason, consider moving the box back to its original location.
Stress and Changes in the Household
We cannot always anticipate what sort of household changes are going to cause stress to our animals, and sometimes that stress shows itself in ways we may not expect. One common stress behavior is eliminating outside the litterbox.
- Are there multiple cats in the home?
We recommend having enough litterboxes so each cat can have their own, plus one extra. This ensures that every cat has its own appropriate space to eliminate and provides enough locations that the other cats can’t keep him or her away from all the boxes.
- Is there a new member of the household?
Cats: A new furry family member is not always well received by the members of the household. Your cat has to figure out his or her place in the new dynamic of the house, and whether your cat is the boss or low man on the totem pole, inappropriate elimination can result. Some cats become territorial when a new cat enters the home, and can exhibit marking behaviors. Especially if your cat is urinating while standing up and is urinating on walls, chairs, and other upright objects, consider this as a possible cause. Other cats may be bullied by a new bossy cat, and feel that they are no longer “allowed” to use their litterbox and must find somewhere else to do their business.
Dogs: Especially if your cat has never lived with a dog before or this new dog is more active and interested in the cat than it is used to, this may be a cause of stress for your cat. If possible, try to separate the cat and dog during the day when no one can supervise them and introduce them gradually while you are home. You also may want to consider providing a litterbox in a location the dog does not have access to; for example, putting the box upstairs and placing a baby gate at the foot of the stairs. This provides your cat with an escape from a playful or pushy dog and may reduce stress.
Baby: A new baby in the house is exciting for the parents, but occasionally is a source of stress (or, let’s face it, jealousy) for the cat. A new baby means a new routine, new smells and sounds, and less attention for the cat, which may cause a more sensitive cat some anxiety. Provide a quiet place for your cat to escape the chaos, and if she is comfortable there, consider providing a litterbox in that area. Also, try to reserve a few minutes when possible to provide attention, play, and cuddle time for your feline friend.
New roommate/partner/significant other: Any significant change in a cat’s routine can be a source of stress, and a new housemate can cause a significant upset. Keep in mind that your cat is not used to this person yet, and try to cut him some slack. In the meantime, encourage cleanliness in the house, as clothes full of unusual smells (housemate’s workplace, new laundry detergents, etc.) can tempt a cat to do something to make sure that the new stuff smells like them too! Also encourage the new person to spend time with the cat, as nurturing a bond will only help the process. It is also important to make sure that with a new person and a new routine in place, the cat’s litterbox routine (how often it is cleaned, what type of litter is provided) remains the same.
If there are no obvious changes in the box or the household that might prompt a change in behavior, it may be time to consider a medical cause.
If your cat is very old or very young, it may not be physically able to use a litterbox reliably. Especially with elderly cats, climbing in and out of a litterbox may be too much of a hardship, so they settle for eliminating somewhere else. If your cat doesn’t get around as well as she used to, consider a box with smaller sides so she can get in and out more easily. It is also possible that your cat has less control over his bladder as he ages, and cannot always make it to the litterbox. If this is the case, litterboxes more evenly spaced around the house may help.
- Urinary Tract Infection
A urinary tract infection may cause frequent and/or painful urination. This often means that cats will avoid using the litterbox. If your cat seems to be urinating frequently or if doing so seems to make her uncomfortable, please bring her to a vet as soon as possible. The infection will need to be treated with antibiotics.
- Urine Crystals or Blockage
If your cat is producing crystals in his or her urine, they may have trouble urinating. These crystals, if left untreated, can form a blockage that means your cat is physical unable to urinate. This is a serious medical condition that requires immediate veterinary care—it will not go away on its own and can cause serious illness, organ damage, and eventually death. Symptoms of urine crystals include frequent visits to the litterbox with small amounts of urine produced, pain while urinating, and, when a blockage is present, straining to urinate without producing anything. Again, if urination is causing your cat pain or if you notice them using the litterbox more often, please see a vet immediately!
You may also want to consider introducing cat pheromones, such as Feliway, to the household. These pheromones are a commercial production of the pheromones that cats produce when they are happy, and can have a calming effect on cats which may help.
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