Feline Behavior Problems: My Cat Isn’t Using the Litter Box
When cats won’t use the litter box, it can be very frustrating. It is important to work closely with your veterinary team in order to resolve the issue. We first must rule out any underlying medical condition in order to determine if there is an underlying behavior problem. A physical exam along with some diagnostic testing (usually blood and urine tests along with an x-ray) will let us know if there is a medical condition that is causing them to go outside the box. There are numerous diseases from urinary tract infections to arthritis that can cause cats to not use their box. In this case, behavior modification won’t help as we aren’t correcting the problem.
The good news is, if your cat is diagnosed with a behavior problem, with some behavior modification and sometimes medication, most cats can learn to use their box consistently again given time and patience. This information is recommended for all cats, even if they don’t have any behavior problems now since it’s always best to prevent behavior issues than to correct them.
To begin, the number of boxes and the location of the boxes are important. A rule of thumb is to have one more box than the number of cats. If you have 2 cats, ideally you would have at least 3 boxes (the more options the better). Most cats prefer unscented, clumping litter. However, you might want to provide a litter box “buffet” to see what your cat prefers. A litter box buffet is where you place a few boxes side by side with different types of litter and see which one they use the most then you know which type your cat prefers. In addition, the boxes should be large, uncovered and contain 3″ of litter. Most litter boxes aren’t big enough for our cats, so we encourage you to look in the container aisle for a large plastic storage bin that would work (under the bed sweater boxes are excellent choices). The boxes should be in different locations so one cat in the house can’t guard access to the toilet areas. Boxes should be in rooms without loud noises that may startle your cat (for example, not by a heater that could turn on and scare your cat from using the box in that location). It is best not to have your cat’s food and water bowls near their litter boxes. It is best not to add litter deodorizers or use litter box liners if your cat is not using the litter box consistently.
Litter boxes need to be scooped at least once a day. Once a week the boxes should be completely changed and cleaned with soap and water. Household cleaners are not recommended as your cat may not like the smell of the cleaner used. The litter boxes should be replaced annually with new boxes.
If your cat is using the same area of your house as a toilet, you can try placing a litter box in that area to try to get them using the box again. Sometimes this is a temporary situation, and we can slowly move the box to a more desirable location; however, some cats will continue to prefer the location and the box may need to stay there permanently to resolve the behavior.
If you have a senior cat, they may need a low sided litter box for ease of getting in and out. A lot of senior cats have arthritis and it may be uncomfortable for them to climb in and out of their box. If you are concerned about your cat’s mobility consult with your veterinarian.
Diet and Supplements
Feliway is a feline pheromone that can help cats with house soiling behaviors. Feliway comes as a spray and a plug in diffuser. The pheromone can help your cat feel more comfortable and have less stress. It is very safe and is a great idea to use while you are trying to figure out what type of litter box and location works best for your cat. There is also a supplement that works in a similar way called Zylkene. Zylkene is a capsule you give daily. You can add the capsule to wet food of give it to your cat directly.
Diet change may benefit your cat as well. There are many different types and brands of diet that may help your cat use the box again. Ask your veterinarian which diet would be the best option for your cat.
Environmental enrichment is the cornerstone of behavior modification. Keeping your indoor cat happy can improve their quality of life as well as reduce unwanted behaviors. This is the best resource for this information:
Finally, sometimes we need to help your cat with medication. Medications will not stop the problem, but they may help you cat be more receptive to the behavior modification. Medication is most often temporary and the pros and cons need to be discussed with your veterinarian.