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Litter Box Problems

Cat urine is one of the most potent smells in the entire world. And it’s no wonder that this problem causes even the best of us to have second thoughts about cats.

Cat urine can destroy practically anything. If the problem goes on long enough, the stench will permanently damage not only sofas and carpets, but even floorboards and dry wall.

If you keep a clean litter box and your cat pees outside the box, something is wrong. In this section, we provide help with litter box problems and tips on how to prevent them in the future. Note: this section is about the problem of your cat urinating outside of the litter box. For spraying problems, see Spraying; for pooping problems, see Vomit, Hairballs, Diarrhea, and Poop

Causes of Litter Box Problems

Stress is the major cause of litter box problems. Cats get stressed out for the same reasons that people do. These reasons include:

  • Illness or pain. Usually the first sign that a clawed cat is sick is that he pees outside the box. Ailments such as constipation, infection, kidney stones, bad thyroid, epilepsy, depression, pain, and impacted anal glands, as well as urinary tract problems such as feline urologic syndrome (FUS), frequently cause cats to pee outside the box.
  • Poor diet and lack of exercise. A dry-food-only, unbalanced, or unvaried diet can contribute to kidney, liver, or bladder problems. Allergic reactions to certain foods may also prompt depression or litter box problems.
  • Change. Things such as keeping an outdoor cat indoors, moving to a new house, going on an extended vacation, and introducing a new dog to the household can be very stressful to some cats. Declawed cats often have a more difficult time with disruption in their daily routine and environment.
  • Poor environment. Violence, overcrowding, loneliness, boredom, sharp smells, loud noises, or people who argue constantly all make the cat’s life more stressful.
  • Litter box. If the box isn’t kept clean or is placed in a bad location, the cat may not use it. The new electronic litter boxes, which rake the solids into a tray, may frighten and intimidate some cats to the point that they refuse to use it.
  • Keeping a feral cat (wild cat) in the house. Feral cats are not domesticated. If one has been used to living outside and is brought into the house, he may retaliate by peeing outside the box. It’s his way of telling you he’s not meant to be there.
  • Territorial challenges. Some cats get upset by seeing or smelling a strange cat near their home.
  • Bad chemistry. Not every cat fits into every home. Some cats have trouble adjusting to the wrong set of people as well as cats, dogs, or other pets.
  • Declawing. Perhaps because declawing makes it difficult for a cat to cover its waste, declawed cats have a much higher frequency of more serious litter box problems.
Note

Declawing is the number one cause of litter box problems in cats. Declawing causes pain and stress in cats. In people, stress is the number one cause of illness.

Warnings

If you are pregnant, do not handle cat litter. See Cat Safety for more information.

Do not reprimand a cat for peeing outside the litter box!

If your cat cries or strains while peeing, or tries to pees more than twice in an hour, he should see a veterinarian immediately!

Preventing Litter Box Problems

The most important thing to remember is that healthy, clawed cats rarely have litter box problems. Go through this quick checklist. Is your cat:

  • Eating two or three wet meals a day? Eating high-quality foods?
  • Eating a wide variety of foods?
  • Spending daily time with you? Getting attention every day? Cats like routine. A daily, consistent schedule for scratching post, meals, and outdoor and play time can help reduce stress and build confidence.
  • Living with too many other cats, dogs? Overcrowding can result in territorial pressures.
  • Getting exercise? Is he using the scratching post?
  • Confusing heaps of dirty laundry or foul-smelling objects, such as tennis shoes, with litter boxes? Keep dirty laundry in hampers and shoes tucked away.

When Your Cat Pees Outside the Litter Box

Although there are no guaranteed cures for litter box problems, there are at least four things you can do that should help.

Take Him to the Doctor

Cats don’t normally pee outside the box unless something is wrong. Even if you think the cause of the problem is that you just had a baby or moved, the onset of litter box problems may be due to illness. Never assume that the problem is “just behavioral.” Too many owners mistake their cat’s last veterinarian visit as a sign that Kitty is healthy because “the veterinarian saw the cat, gave his shots . . . the vet didn’t say anything was wrong . . . the cat looks okay.” Your cat needs lab work done to confirm he doesn’t have a health condition that would cause him to go outside the litter box.

Before you go the veterinarian, inspect the litter box for the condition of your cat’s stools and urine and for any blood.

If you’ve already been to a veterinarian, you may want to try again or consider trying a holistic veterinarian. He or she is likely to use acupuncture, chiropractic techniques, herbs, or homeopathic home remedies to solve your cat’s problem.

So that there are no surprises, call two or three different offices and ask how much the exam, urine test, blood tests, and medicine will cost. No matter how old your cat is, make sure that his urine is tested! Ask the veterinarian how the urine can be collected.

The veterinarian also may want to do a blood test, especially if the cat is older. This test will detect liver, kidney, or thyroid problems and will be useful as a baseline to evaluate changes in the cat’s condition as time passes. Declawed cats should have their toes checked for infections or any other amputee-related problem.

If at all possible, avoid feeding dry food altogether when a litter box problem exists. If the veterinarian prescribes a specific dry food and it contains ethoxyquin, ask for alternatives. If feeding dry food is necessary, ask him about foods such Wysong Uretic or prescription foods, which are naturally preserved and are designed for urinary tract health.

If the veterinarian prescribes an antibiotic, steroid, antidepressant, or tranquilizer, find out what side effects and risks are associated with each medicine.

Which Cat Is the Culprit?

In multi-cat households, make sure you correctly identify which cat is peeing outside of the litter box. Some veterinarians may offer pills that each cat can take to discolor his urine. You can find the colors with a black light.

Most cats like to urinate when they first get up in the morning. Get up a little earlier some morning to spy on them.

Use a video camera to record events while you’re not there. One cat owner did that and discovered that a neighbor’s cat was coming into the house through the cat door.

Handle with Care

If your cat urinates outside of the litter box, don’t yell at him or rub his nose in the urine. Don’t reprimand him. Don’t show anger. Don’t talk to your cat as if he is bad. But don’t say his name or “poor baby” either. Just say “oh, no” or nothing at all. Act as though he’s sick. Treating him as though he’s bad will make matters worse.

Pick him up and take him to the litter box right away. Do not put him outside. Set up a confinement room with a litter box and a bowl of water and lock him inside as described in “Housebreaking and Confinement” in the Bringing Home a New Cat section.

In his confinement room, talk gently while showing him where things are. Have a wet meal ready and spend some time with him before he’s left alone. Turn on a radio and a light.

Keep the cat in the room whenever you can’t watch him—even when you are on the phone or doing the dishes. It’s best to keep him confined for two weeks. Being in a small room will force the cat to use his box.

Collecting Urine

If you think about collecting the urine yourself at home, be sure that the urine is fresh when tested. You must put it on ice right away and take it to the vet immediately. Also, the urine sample must be clean. The cat needs to pee in a clean specimen cup, or in a clean empty box. Sometimes people will use Styrofoam packing material as a clean temporary “litter.”

It’s easier to have the veterinarian collect it to guarantee freshness.

Ask the veterinarian to squeeze the cat’s bladder to collect urine rather than insert a catheter.

Neutralize the Urine

Because urine can permanently damage anything porous, thoroughly neutralize a urine spot on carpet or furniture. It’s very important to not leave an odor that will attract a cat to pee there again.

If you’re not sure exactly where the spot is, find it by feeling with a paper towel or by walking around in some old socks. Sniff the spot to make sure you found urine.

Commercial neutralizers are made especially for pet urine and are inexpensive, but vinegar also works as a stopgap measure. Buy the commercial stuff and apply it as soon as you can.

Sop up as much as you can with a sponge or paper towels. Apply the neutralizer according to the directions on the package. If your cat has peed on clothes or a pillow, wash the objects with some of the neutralizer and let them dry. You may want to inject neutralizer into the sofa, but test it for colorfastness first. Then cover the sofa and keep it covered until you know your cat’s using his box again.

If the urine has penetrated the carpet pad, try injecting neutralizer under the carpet with a syringe. If you have to replace the carpet, apply a special paint sealer to the floorboards. If the urine damage is deep enough, you may not get rid of the odor until you replace all affected floorboards and dry wall.

You must get rid of all un-neutralized urine spots in your house, even the old ones. A black light can help you find them. Shine a black florescent (tube type) light on carpet and walls to look for cat urine and cat spray. (Some retail stores sell a boxed kit which includes a convenient hand-held battery operated black light and a bottle of urine neutralizer.) Also watch to see if your cat sniffs the floor or wall. It could be an old spot.

Keep all pets away from the spot until the urine has been totally neutralized. Cover it with a laundry basket or a piece of furniture to allow it to dry. When the spot is dry, guard it with rubber or a plastic carpet runner (either right side up or knobby side up).

Some neutralizers work right away, but some take two weeks. After removing the guard, place a food bowl or carpet runner on the spot to keep it inaccessible and to make him forget it was there. Don’t use tinfoil to cover it up because the foil crumples and your cat could choke on it.

Neutralizer Product List

These neutralizers are found at most pet stores, some hardware stores, and from mail order sources. Read the labels for instructions about how to use them. Many other products are on the market; only a few are included here.

Improve His Litter Box Experience

Here are some tips for how to make sure your cat’s litter box suits him well.

  • Some cats won’t go in the box because it’s too dirty. Scoop solids and lift out wet spots daily. Keep the area around the box clean. Change the litter when it starts to smell, which is about once a week per cat. (See the Cat Litter Boxes section for information about maintenance of litter boxes.)
  • Make sure you have enough litter boxes. Set up one litter box per cat, plus one extra. If your home is too small for that many litter boxes, try to find a small litter box that fits snugly in a corner. These small triangular boxes are difficult to find but work surprisingly well for the small amount of room they take up.
  • Put less litter in each box. Some cats will pee in a practically empty litter box.
  • If he’s using scented litter, try nonscented litter; if he’s using clay litter, try pellets. Let your cat decide what he likes.
How Often Do I Need to Change the Litter?

If you have one litter box per cat, you will probably need to change each box about once a week as well as scooping out the solids every day. If your cats use one box more than another, you’ll need to change it more often. That means you can change the other one less often, so you still can average about once a week per box. Warning: If a box starts to smell, change it now. Read the cat litter package for instructions about minimizing the odor, too. (See the Cat Litter Boxes section for more information on litter box maintenance.

  • Try different size litter boxes. Some cats like bigger boxes; some like smaller ones. Hardware and department stores stock utility boxes that are larger than the average litter boxes. Some stores carry smaller boxes, such as the corner litter box. Older cats or kittens may need a lower, shorter box.
  • Try a covered litter box. Point the opening so your cat can see people or other pets approaching. Or, if you already have a covered box, try an uncovered one.
  • Location is important. Unless your cat is very old or very young, keep the litter boxes away from their food, scratching posts, and beds. A bathroom or laundry room usually is a good place. Don’t put it in a room he doesn’t like to go in, or in an area that is heavily trafficked by dogs.
  • Remove the plastic liner if you are using one. Some cats don’t like the liner.
  • Only touch a cat when he is inside the box if he raises his hind end to pee over the edge. Gently touch his rear end and hold it down. Don’t say anything. Then buy a box with higher sides, or a covered box. Protect the floor and wall with plastic, or place the litter box inside a large television box with one side and the top cut out. Drape newspapers over the edges; replace as needed. (See the Cat Litter Boxes section for more information about litters, boxes, locations, and maintenance.)

Note: If the litter is kept clean, then the problem probably isn’t the brand of litter. Something else is wrong when a cat stops using a well-maintained litter box.

Helpful Litter Box Hints

  • If your cat pees in a potted plant, cover the dirt with pinecones or decorative rocks.
  • If he pees on your bed, wash the bedding and neutralize mattress spots immediately. Later on, pet him or play with him on the bed.
  • Avoid putting a litter box directly on carpet, so that if he reaches outside the box to scratch at the litter, he doesn’t snag the carpet. Protect your carpet with a runner, office mat, or plain cardboard.

More Help

Choose any ideas from this list that you think might help, considering your situation, time, patience, and budget.

  • Stop feeding dry food, or stop leaving it out in between meals. If possible, feed only wet food, especially to old cats—they need all the moisture they can get. Add water to their wet food, too.
  • Your cat may be allergic to some particular food or ingredient. Try more chicken-and lamb-based foods, fresh meat or fish, and vegetables as well as different grains such as brown rice, corn, or wheat (preferably whole wheat). Or try a diet without grains, just in case your cat is allergic to them. Try grain-free cat foods such as Acana and Orijen, www.championpetfoods.com.
  • Withhold food products and supplements containing yeast for a month, or until the urination problem is under control. Slowly add the yeast product back into his diet. If a reaction occurs, he could be sensitive to some products containing yeast.
  • Don’t feed salt or salty foods, which will make him drink more water. Salt can strain already weary kidneys; besides, cats weren’t designed to drink a lot of water.
  • Add fiber to his diet, and try a hairball remedy (see Cat Vomit, Hairballs, Diarrhea, and Poop.
  • Feed him roasted chicken necks twice a week. They have a lot of calcium.
  • If you’re desperate, stop feeding canned food altogether and feed only raw organic foods.
Did You Know?

A cat in the wild is more meticulous about covering up his waste the closer he is to his nest.

  • An old cat may not be able to wait to be let outside or to make it down to the basement in the middle of the night. Put a litter box on each level of the house and near the room where he sleeps. Also keep a litter box on each level for a kitten until it is old enough to know its way around the house.
  • Make sure you have a litter box indoors even if your cat is allowed outside. He needs a place that is always safe.
  • Too many pets in too little space caused stress. Adding an outdoor kennel could provide some additional space and stress relief, especially if the kennel is accessible from indoors. (See Outside/Inside Training for more information.)
  • If your cat is frightened by constant or frequent noise and commotion, try to set up a quiet place for him to retreat to. An open carrier case with a blanket in it is good. Playing music can help cover the noise of nearby construction or traffic.
  • Don’t leave dirty clothes or bad-smelling articles such as shoes lying about. Some cats will pee on rank-smelling stuff.
  • Speak to other members of the household. Make sure everyone understands how to treat the cat. Ask them to help you with feeding the cat and cleaning up after it.
  • Being an only cat may be difficult for many cats. But don’t get a new cat until the litter box problem is solved.
  • Some cats only pee outside the box when their owners come home from vacation. Just in case, pay special attention to your cat when you get home. Before you look at the mail or listen to phone messages, spend time with him. Play with him. As soon as he uses his box, go to the kitchen and feed him a wet meal. If you will be gone for more than two days, get someone to visit your cat at least once a day.
  • Eastern medicine hands-on remedies like Jin Shin Jyutsu, Reiki, or Tellington Touch may help. You can take lessons in using these techniques so you can help your cat yourself.
  • Contact a cat behaviorist for advice. Ask questions to assure yourself that she or he is qualified. A few behavior consultants are listed in Cat Behavior Consulting. Many animal shelters can direct you to free help, or refer you to someone who knows about cat behavior problems.
  • A cat door could be letting strange cats inside the house. Your cat may be intimidated by the intruder and use peeing as a way to mark his territory. The strange cat might even be the one doing the peeing. To make sure that can’t happen, close off pet doors while you’re not home. This can help reduce the stress your cat may have if he’s intimidated by intruders.
Warning

Do not put compost containing cat waste on the garden. Cat waste is not suitable compost material.

  • Ultrasound or x-rays may find kidney stones that a urine test could miss. Call around for price quotes because this can be expensive.
  • If these measures don’t work, your cat may need the additional help for declawed cats described in the next section.

Special Considerations

Special considerations are made for declawed cats because there are most likely to have litter box problems. (Declawing is an amputation of toes on an animal that uses his feet to cover it’s waste.) These tips can also help emotionally or physically challenged cats that need special attention:

Declawed Cats

Declawing a cat makes him “litter-boxed challenged.” Because declawed cats have a lower tolerance for stress and a higher risk of pain, their litter box problems frequently are more difficult to solve. Even years after the operation, the declawed cat can easily lose bathroom manners when he becomes upset—and often, it doesn’t take much to upset him.

To minimize the declawed cat’s stress levels:

  • Give him daily, supervised time outdoors. This often relieves his problems for a while.
  • Massage him and give him positive attention often.
  • Make sure his meals and outdoor times are on a reliable, daily schedule. It’s important to minimize changes in routine for a cat that is disabled or may suffer from pain.
  • Supplement his diet with vitamins that can help him deal with stress. Vitamins such as B-complex, C (ascorbic acid) and vitamin E every day or every other day may help. Squeeze 100-IU vitamin E from a gel cap (made for people or cats) and add a pinch of vitamin C (ascorbic acid powder or crystals) onto his wet food. Some cats may eat the vitamin E gel straight from a punctured capsule. Anitra Frazier’s book The New Natural Cat has additional specifics for using vitamins.
  • One easy way to give vitamins is to buy multiple vitamins that are specially prepared for pets. Many kinds are sold in health food stores. (See www.onlynaturalpet.com for a variety of supplements available for cats). Use the drops as directed, and check the expiration date before buying or using them. Avoid products that contain sugar.
  • Give him fresh, organic catnip once or twice a week.
  • Bad weather and changes in the barometer can affect joints and bones and cause pain in your declawed cat’s toes, which may in turn lead to litter box problems. On days when your declawed cat seems especially moody, give him chicken broth with a pinch of ascorbic acid (get powder or crystals at a health food store). Put four drops of Bach Flower Rescue Remedy (found in health food stores) in fresh drinking water. Massages can do wonders on those days. Catnip, too.
  • Play peaceful music. Leave a radio on low volume to drown out any distressing noises.
  • Put a night-light by his litter box.
  • When moving to a new house, be especially gentle and conscious of his needs during and after the move. Be slow about letting the declawed cat get full use of the house. (See Coping with Change for more information.)
  • Store things like laundry, quilts, crocheted afghans, and yarn away from your cat. All of these may be tempting places to pee for a cat with sore paws.

Litter Box Considerations for Declawed Cats

  • Spoon out solids and wet urine spots as often as possible.
  • Find out which litter he likes best by trying two or three different litters at a time. Disposable litter boxes or cardboard boxes of litter box size can help with the test. Each week keep one of the brands that he likes, but fill the other boxes with other litter brands. Keep in mind that while clawed cats rarely quit using their customary litter unless something is wrong, declawed cats are more finicky. Sometimes changing the litter will work for a while, but does not address the underlying causes of the litter box problem. Still, it’s a worth a try.
  • If clay litters haven’t worked, try soft litters such as Arm & Hammer Essentials Natural Clumping Litter or World’s Best Cat Litter. These biodegradable clumping litters do not contain sodium bentonite.
  • If you’re using nonclumping litter, try half the amount you’ve been using. Shake the litter to one end so only half of the floor is covered. Each time you remove the solids, shake to expose half of the floor again. He may prefer to step onto a smooth plastic floor.
  • Avoid relocating a litter box. If you have to, get a new litter box and set it up in the new location. After he’s gotten used to its being there, remove the old one.

Litter Alternatives

If you’ve tried many types of litter and your declawed cat doesn’t like any of them, here are some alternatives.

Grass clippings. Grass clippings neutralize urine well and are soft. Leave the clippings outside for a few days to let them dry. Protect the floor surrounding the litter box with plain cardboard to avoid grass stains. Monitor the box and remove solids daily. Dump and wash it and add fresh grass as needed. Don’t use grass treated with a pesticide or weed killer.

Newspaper and paper towels. Line a litter box with a few sheets of newspaper, covered with paper towels. To let cats know it’s the litter box, spoon some soiled litter on top of the paper towel. Change the papers after every use.

Potting soil. Try using all potting soil, or mix some with nonclumping litter. Gradually keep using more litter and less soil.

Underpads. These are 23″ × 36″ disposable, flat diapers, often used in nursing homes. These pads provide a steady, absorbent alternative to cat litter. Sprinkle a little baking soda on the pad to help control odor and add a spoonful of cat litter to let him know it’s a litter box. You can find these underpads from Target. These also can be taped to a wall where a cat might be spraying.

Helpful Hint

If your cat is declawed, try putting a litter box in the bathtub. Many declawed cats would rather scratch at the side of the litter box and bathtub than on rough litter. Be sure to protect the drain from litter and dust.

Last Resorts

If your cat is not declawed and he’s not white, you could keep him outside during the day. (White cats are easily sunburned.) Being outside and unsupervised is less safe but has worked as a last resort for many cat owners. If you must keep him outside, try to make your yard as safe as possible by finding a way to keep him inside of it, such as by installing a cat kennel or special guards on top of your fence. You usually can find these guards advertised in the back of cat magazines. Because he’s more at risk from animals and other dangers at night, bring him indoors and keep him in a confinement room before it gets dark.

One last resort we do not recommend is locking a cat in one room for the rest of its life. Many people say, “the cat lives in the basement now.” This is no way to live with a cat. And it’s no way for a cat to live.

Sometimes nothing works. A cat that continues to pee outside the litter box probably is suffering. Cats are very, very clean animals—it’s unnatural for healthy cats to spoil their living area and urinate outside the litter box. Cats that repeatedly urinate outside a litter box are sick, in pain, feral, abused, and/or suffering a physically disabled such as missing a limb or being declawed. Most often, declawed cats are the ones that continue no matter how many solutions you try. Although no one likes to bring it up, some cat owners have had no option other than putting a declawed cat to sleep. (See Moses’ Story.) Litter box problems of declawed cats are not likely to get better in a different home with a different family, and it’s too cruel and dangerous to keep him outside. This decision never is reached lightly. You must keep in mind that an unchecked urine problem poses a health hazard and can end up costing you a lot of money in home repairs. When suffering is suspected, euthanasia is the most humane alternative.

Just remember—happy, healthy cats don’t pee outside the litter box. Your next cat, if he keeps his claws, has an excellent chance of having good litter box habits for his entire life.

Shopping List

  • Visit to the veterinarian for exam; get tests
  • Cat urine neutralizer
  • Extra food bowl
  • Cat litter, different brands
  • Extra litter box or two
  • Homemade food
  • Lure toy
  • Tall, sturdy scratching post (clawed cats only)

Optional

  • Carpet runner, laundry basket
  • Large piece of cardboard or office chair mat
  • Corner litter box
  • Disposable litter boxes or cardboard boxes for litter test
  • Odor removing bags of zeolite rocks (search the internet on keywords)
  • Black light

See Cat Resources.

Shopping List for Declawed Cats with Litter Box Problems

  • Catnip
  • Different litter brands
  • Bach Flower Rescue Remedy or flower essence remedy to relieve pain and stress
  • Foods and supplements for stress and immune system (containing vitamins C, E, and B-complex)
  • Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) powder or crystals
  • Low sodium chicken broth
  • Night-light or light timer
  • Kitty Korner Komber Self-Grooming Aid for CATS
  • Underpads (see “Litter Alternatives” above)