Why Wont My Cat Use the Litterbox?

      Cats can urinate outside the litterbox for many reasons… a frustratingly large number of reasons. Some cats will posture to urinate in a normal way then will typically “bury” the urine spot afterwards. If this is on your floor, then they are probably just making the burying motion with their paws around the spot, but are not actually burying anything. The alternative to this would be marking or spraying, and they are doing just that, “marking” what belongs to them. When cats do this they typically have backed themselves up against a wall and spray urine on it while they are standing and their tail is straight up. This is most common in intact male cats, but neutered males and females will do it also. The very basic reason that cats will do each of these (with the exception of the intact male) is the same: the cat is displeased about something and is feeling stressed out. Remember dogs have owners, but cats have staff. And cats generally let you know when something is not to their liking.

      The first step is to make sure that there is not a medical reason for your cat to be urinating outside of the litterbox. Some medical conditions cause cats to urinate large amounts which can cause them to occasionally not make it back to the litterbox in time before they have to go. Alternatively, they can develop bladder inflammation or stones that cause them to have difficulty urinating or have painful urination. If this is the case, then a cat may have had a painful experience in the litterbox and then choose to avoid it in the future. The veterinarian will likely want to test your cat’s urine +/- blood and do some imaging of the bladder.

      If it is determined that your cat has no medical concerns, the next step is to make sure that the cat is happy with her litterbox. Litterboxes are not fun for pet owners to clean, but cleaning urine out of your carpet is much much worse. First of all there should be at least one litterbox in your house for every cat, and every litterbox should be scooped at least daily. Cats are very clean creatures, and a dirty litterbox can be off putting. Some cats prefer for the litterbox to be cleaned multiple times a day. Cats often also prefer litterboxes that aren’t covered and clumping litter. The box should be large enough for the cat to get in all the way, head to tail, comfortably. The litterbox should be in a place where there is some privacy and no loud noises that might startle the cat while they are using it, such as a washing machine or furnace. Inter-cat aggression can also be a reason that a cat may not be using a litterbox. Sometimes one cat will keep another cat from being able to get near the litterbox, another reason that it is important to have multiple boxes in your home. Remember that if anything negative happens within the box, that your cat will be more wary about using it in the future.

      But cats need more than a beautiful litterbox to be happy and mentally healthy. First of all, cats need somewhere to scratch. This is a natural behavior for a cat and they should be provided with an assortment of horizontal and vertical scratching opportunities. They need a place to rest where they feel safe. They need a cozy place in a back bedroom or den that they can relax and not be startled. Being high up makes cats feel safer as well, so having a perch for your cat can decrease stress, and some perches or resting places need to have a view outside. A view of the birds outside in the tree can be great entertainment, but your cat needs toys so they can play inside the house too. Playing with your cat is important to provide a chance for them to practice normal hunting behaviors, to provide your cat with exercise, and as a bonding opportunity between you and your cat. Some cats are very particular in the types of toys that they like to play with. Take the time to find out what they like.

      Next we need to make sure that your cat is not stressed by anything else in the home. Cats do not like changes in their lives, and any change such as a new animal, new baby, moving, or change in your work schedule can be extremely stressful. Try your best to make any of these changes slowly and try to keep the routine as normal as possible for your cat. For more ideas on any of these specific situations or anything about cat or dog emotional needs, please reference the website at the bottom of the page.
Finally some cats need a little extra help. Feliway is a product that is a synthetic version of the feline facial pheromone. This is what cats are spreading on the furniture when they rub their chins on it. It says to the cat that they are in a safe and familiar place. Feliway comes in sprays in diffusers. They can be located near litterboxes or in locations where a cat is marking. And some cats need oral anti-anxiety medication. Some anti-anxiety medications are very effective in decreasing marking behavior.

Please reference the website indoorpet.osu.edu for more information on making a happy and healthy home for your cat (or dog!)

Erin Clark, DVM