9539 Liberty Road, Frederick, MD 21701
Phone: 301-898-4009 ~ Fax: 240-668-3664
Gentle, complete veterinary care for the felines in your family
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Why Did My Cat Stop Using the Litter Box?

Most cats need very little training at all to use a litter box. They see other cats doing it and build upon instincts to bury their waste in a sand-like material that will cover their odor so that potential predators are less likely to discover them. It is quite common, however, for cats to urinate or defecate outside the litter box at some point. It is only the very fortunate cat owner that has never had to deal with "inappropriate elimination".

When this occurs, something has changed, broadly speaking. A change has occurred either with your cat, with the house, or with the family (relationships this cat has to people, other cats or other pets). Before solving this problem, we need to figure out what that change is so we can address it appropriately. There are many possible solutions, and often a combination of approaches is needed, but there is not a single magic answer to this problem. Before fixing the problem, we must view the world from a cat's perspective.

Changes to Your Cat:

Your cat had been using that litter box perfectly, but suddenly isn't, and maybe there is something that changed with your cat, a medical issue that needs veterinary attention. Diabetes, kidney disease, cystitis (bladder inflammation) and urinary tract infections are common reasons for increased urine output. Increased urine output means the box becomes dirtier more quickly. Your cat might then seek a cleaner place to eliminate.

Painful urination can lead a cat to try a different location. Your cat could be experimenting with a new spot hoping that the pain will go away. Increased frequency of urination is commonly associated with an increased urgency to urinate right now, and the box may be on another level or in another room and is just too far away for right now.

Gastrointestinal problems including diarrhea and anal gland impaction often lead to defecation outside the box for some of the same reasons as with urine; it may be painful, it may be urgent, the box may be dirtier and your cat is doing its best to solve the problem Aging cognitive changes (sometimes called kitty Alzheimer's) can interrupt normal litter box use.

Changes in Your Physical Home:

This category includes the total litter box set up as well as the entire home itself. If the box is not being cleaned often enough, your cat will find a new spot to eliminate. A simple change from daily to every other day may frustrate your cat with the cleanliness of the box. Usually, this leads to elimination right next to the box itself.

Is there a different litter box? Different type of cat litter? Different depth of litter? Different location of the litter box? Different activities around the location of the litter box?

Changes with the litter box setup results in a "litter box aversion". They want to go in the box but something has changed enough that they will no longer tolerate it as it is. Cats like variety when it comes to playtime and meals. They do not like variety when it comes to their bathroom. They want a clean box in a quiet, predictable location.

A recent or imminent move to a new home is a challenge for cats. They don't want their home to change. Think how a cat views a home environment as they would the outdoor world before they were domesticated. Cats see furniture as they do trees; they are reliable presences and if they suddenly are lifted overhead or are gone, that is a natural disaster. Anything that can remove a tree (e.g. a tornado) is not good. They see toys and other small items like leaves; these things always move around, and it is more interesting and stimulating when they do, but not a cause for concern. So, when moving, cats are very distressed to see large items going overhead, but are very curious when there are new boxes to inspect. Home renovations are in the same category as a move because of the large physical disruptions and possible noises in their environment. Anxiety in cats often causes bladder inflammation, and anxiety also interferes with compliant litter box use.

Changes in Your Family:

Cats are social animals with strong bonds to people and other pets, and any change can be very upsetting. Cats get upset when we are leaving on a trip because they miss us, and they can read the cues in our behavior as we get ready to go away. They don't know how long someone will be away, so any change in the family dynamic can be problematic, whether their humans have gone away for a weekend or someone has gone to college for the semester. A more permanent change such as a death or a divorce can also cause anxiety.

Similarly, newcomers bring change, whether a baby or a significant other or another cat or a dog, there is another individual to relate to, and possible competition for time and affection. You may not view a stray cat coming up to your windows as a member of your family, but your cats, for better or worse, automatically include them in the social structure. Even without touching, interactions occur, and this can cause cats to react. A common reaction is elimination outside the litter box.

Addressing the Problem:

There are often several changes that led to the problem, so addressing it usually requires several approaches. It is always helpful to make the litter box situation as ideal as possible to avoid any reasons for the cat to choose a different place in the house. But, actually determining the ideal litter box arrangement can be a challenge and take a long time. Offer a "litter box buffet", so that there are choices in litter type, litter depth, a box with or without a cover and different locations. It is often most practical to experiment with one variable at a time, but wait at least a week before drawing a conclusion. This approach will allow your kitty to communicate preferences over time.

Visit this link for more litter box setup tips: http://www.frederickcatvet.com/toptenlitterbox.html

If there is a specific medical problem, such as an infection, that of course, needs medical treatment. However, most cases of poor litter box compliance involve some stressor to the cat. This can be challenging to identify and remedy, especially in cats that seem quite laidback, in which case the stress may be intermittent and undetected by you. Most cases involving bloody urination are not an infection but rather inflammation (without bacteria) secondary to stress.

Environmental enrichment is helpful for all cats, but especially those cats that are stressed to the point of having litter box problems. Enrichment involves making a home more stimulating, both mentally and physically. The more vertical space they have with many areas to hide in and explore, the more they have a healthy outlet to diffuse overall tension. Check out these links about environmental enrichment for cats: