If your cat isn’t using the litterbox 100% of the time, or if you’re trying to prevent future litterbox problems, this guide is for you. The litterbox is perhaps the most dreaded aspect of cat ownership, but it doesn’t have to be. Luckily, you can solve many common litterbox problems by taking some simple steps.
Check for medical problems
If your cat isn’t using the litterbox, is straining to go, producing only a small amount of urine, or appears to be in pain while urinating, seek veterinary attention right away. Urinary tract blockage is common in male cats and is fatal if not treated within 1-2 days. Common problems like urine crystals can often be resolved with prescription food. The rest of this guide will assume that you have taken the critical step of consulting your vet for advice and/or treatment.
Add another litterbox
This simple step solves the vast majority of litterbox problems. Even if your apartment is small, or you feel you just can’t deal with scooping another box, do not skip this step! You should have at least one more litterbox than the number of cats in your household: N+1 is the magic formula. If you have one cat, provide at least two boxes. If you have three cats, provide at least four boxes, and so on.
Location, location, location
Consider the location of the litterboxes. Are they in accessible areas and distributed throughout your home? Could one cat bully another, or prevent other cats from getting to the box by “guarding” it? We strongly recommend that you place at least one litterbox on each floor of a multi-story home, or at either end of your apartment. Make it as easy as possible to access litterboxes in each area of your home. Keep in mind that elderly/disabled cats and young kittens may not be able to go up and down stairs or through pet doors to reach the litterbox.
Since you now have at least two litterboxes in your home, you can test to see if your cat dislikes his/her current type of litter. City Kitties has found that many cats simply do not like pine litter. Declawed cats, in particular, may find the large pellets uncomfortable under their paws. If you’re using this type of litter, try traditional clay or clumping litter in one of the boxes. Make sure it’s deep enough (3 inches or more) so your cat can dig and bury as needed.
Uncover the litterbox
Though covered litterboxes may look nicer, many cats don’t like them. Especially if you have a covered box with a plastic flap the cat must go through, you should uncover the box at the first sign of problems. To prevent litter from getting all over the place or your cat scratching the walls around the box (usually the reason it was covered in the first place), move the box further from the walls and place mats underneath with 1-2 feet on each side. If your cat is really messy, buy a plastic storage bin with 18″+ sides and place the litterbox inside of it. If you’re concerned your cat won’t go inside, cut a hole in one side of the bin. If you feel you must keep a covered box in one location in your home, provide an uncovered box in a less conspicuous location (closet, basement, bathroom, etc.).
Clean up old accidents
You may not be able to smell the cat urine on your rug, but your cat certainly can — and he/she may continue using your rug as a toilet until the urine is completely gone. Clean up pet accidents with an enzymatic product like Anti-Ickypoo or Nature’s Miracle. These products don’t just remove the stain or cover up the smell; they actually break down the urine that, no matter how hard you scrub, is still embedded in the fibers of your rug or the cracks in your hardwood floor. If you have carpeting, we recommend pulling it up and soaking the padding and underside of the carpet as well.
This may seem obvious, but keep the litterboxes as clean as possible. Some owners even scoop twice daily. This keeps the box from getting smelly, and it’s worth the extra time: it takes 5 minutes to scoop litter once a day, versus 30 minutes or more to clean up another accident on the rug.
Consider the impact of stress or change
Did you recently move to a new home, have a baby, add a pet, rearrange the furniture, go on a long vacation, or switch schedules at work? Has your cat been sick, or did you take him/her to the vet? All of these things can cause stress in a pet, and sometimes we forget how sensitive they are to changes in routine.
Declawed cats & litterbox problems
Imagine having the tip of each of your fingers and toes amputated, then being forced to dig around in a litterbox. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? Declawing is a painful procedure that involves amputation of the cat’s toes up to the first joint — not just removal of the claw. Not surprisingly, some declawed cats develop litterbox problems due to pain or discomfort. If your declawed cat refuses to use the box, you may have to use shredded newspaper or other substrate that is easier on the paws than traditional clay litter. Be understanding, patient, and creative in your efforts, as it may take your declawed cat longer to adjust and learn to use the box.
Intact (not neutered) cats & litterbox problems
If your cat isn’t spayed/neutered, your litterbox problems are here to stay. Cats who are intact not only have smellier urine due to hormones, but are more likely to spray all over the place in hopes of attracting a mate. Spaying/neutering takes care of these problems. It also reduces other behavioral problems (like constant yowling), and reduces the risk of certain cancers. You can get your cat fixed for under $50 (or for free in some cases), so there really is no excuse. Find a low-cost spay/neuter clinic in Philadelphia.
Forget about “training”
Contrary to popular belief, cats don’t need any training to learn to use a litterbox. Their natural instinct is to bury their waste, and a welcoming, clean box in a quiet location is the perfect place to do so. Sometimes kittens need a little encouragement or a box with lower sides, but generally by 6-10 weeks, they should be using the box consistently.
Never scold your cat
Never use scolding or punishment — it’s a waste of time and could make the problem worse. Cats, like dogs, do not understand or respond to punishment. All they learn is to fear you. Even if you think your pet “knows” it did something wrong because it’s acting “guilty,” it’s only anticipating your negative reaction to that puddle on the floor. The worst thing you can do is shove your cat’s nose in a puddle of pee, as it will stress your cat out and possibly cause more accidents.
Try the “reset button”
If none of the above steps help, consider restricting your cat to a single room with a litterbox for a week. In some cases, this serves as a “reset button,” so to speak, and allows the cat to get reacquainted with its litterbox. A bathroom is perfect for this, but any room with a door will do. Take this time to completely clean any old pet stains around your home, so when the cat has full run of the house again, he/she won’t return to those old spots.