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Help! He’s Not Using the Litterbox

Elizabeth Teal and Micky Niego, Companion Animal Services, ASPCA

Contrary to popular myth, Garfield wasn’t born using a litter box, he was drawn that way! Cats do not come into this world ‘knowing’ how to use a litter box, that is, a colored plastic box filled with sterilized clay gravel. Cats learn what and where the “bathroom” is from their mom at about four weeks of age. Learning can happen so quickly that the casual observer may be unaware that any active instruction has taken place. In the case of orphan kittens, the caretaker must introduce the box concept otherwise the kittens will randomly choose a spot and imprint on the texture (cloth towels, dust balls, carpeting, etc.). The kitten should be placed in the litter box upon waking, after meals and vigorous play. The front paws can be dragged through the litter to simulate digging/covering. Most kittens take over and successfully use the box. The trick is to keep watch to make sure that the box is the only spot the kitten uses. An unsupervised kitten can easily lose track of the litter box; if nature calls, the kitten will use whatever is nearby.

Strays and Feral Cats

Help! He's Not Using the Litterbox


If the kitten was born outside, mom may have designated a clump of leaves or soft garden earth as the bathroom. Imprinted on that texture, recently homed feral and stray cats may have to be actively trained to use a box filled with clay litter. While some strays catch on quickly, others don’t. Try a fine grained sandtype litter rather than gravel textured clay. In some cases it may be necessary to start off with the substance the cat was used to (soil, sand, newspaper) and gradually make the switch by changing the proportion of old type to new type over a period of several weeks. Clean the solids out of the litter box daily; completely change the litter and wash out the box as often as necessary to keep it clean and dry. Remember, a cat who lived outdoors had many sites to choose from; a dirty box will drive the cat away from the box to a cleaner, drier spot (the back of your closet!). If the cat refuses to use the box at any stage, back up to the last stage at which he was successful.

Is She Spayed… Is He Neutered?

Sexually mature cats use urine and feces to mark territory and advertize for a mate. If your cat is over 6, months of age, it should be spayed or neutered; male cats are neutered, females are spayed. This is a relatively simple surgical procedure preformed on an anesthetized cat by a veterinarian. Call your vet or your local SPCA to get more information. An intact cat that does not use the litter box is very difficult to train; the behavior is hormonally influenced.

Spraying… What Is It and WHY!

Is the urine puddle up against the wall or along the side of the sofa? If so, the cat is not urinating out of his box, he is spraying. When a cat squats, he is emptying his bladder to get rid of bodily waste; a cat does not squat when he sprays. He is standing with his tail straight up when he sends a stream of urine sideways; it hits the wall and runs down onto the floor. It is not clear whether spraying claims territory or warns trespassers to stay away, but it is clear that is has nothing to do with ‘having to go to the bathroom’. It commonly accompanies stress. Although -both males and females spray, males tend to do so more frequently, and unneutered males almost always do it. The good news is if the cat has just started to spray and is an unneutered male, very often neutering will put a stop to the behavior. Unfortunately, if the cat has been allowed to spray for some time, as is the case with many rescued tom cats, neutering may not solve the problem. Once the behavior becomes habitual, the cat may continue to spray. It may be necessary to work with a professional behavior counsellor in order to modify the behavior.

Clean Box… Clean Cat

Cats will often refuse to use the litter box if it isn’t kept clean. For some cats this means cleaning out the box after each use, for others once a day is more than enough. If the cat thinks the box is dirty, he may use the area around the box (throw rug, sink or tub), especially if he kicks litter out of the box and it scatters,

Is He Really Box Trained?

Some cats can become oriented to-the location of the box. You may think he is trained to the box when he is really trained to use the space in which you have placed the box. In this case, the cat will continue to eliminate where the box used to be. If you must change the box’s location, move it a few feet each day until it reaches the new location. If you have moved into a new home, actively show the cat where the box is after he’s eaten and when he wakes from napping or at times when you know the cat ‘has to go’.

For some- cats changing litter texture (clay to cedar chips or stripped newspaper) or switching to a scented litter may cause the cat to go elsewhere. Switching back to the former litter usually solves the problem. Changing the size/type of box (covered/uncovered) can also send the cat elsewhere. After all, that’s not what his bathroom looks/feels/smells like!

He Uses the Box… Sometimes!

Now we come to the cat who is ‘box-trained’ but has “accidents”. Has the cat ever used the box reliably for any length of time? Does he have accidents once a week, once a month or once a year? A cat who has frequent accidents is not box trained. This cat is demonstrating that he doesn’t know that there is only one place to eliminate. . . the box!

Use close supervision or confinement (see following pages) to train the cat to use the box and ONLY THE BOX. All previously soiled areas must be cleaned and treated with an appropriate odor neutralizing product. Whenever possible, visually change the areas most frequently soiled. Add a chair, an end table, a garbage can or umbrella stand! If it doesn’t smell or look like the ‘old bathroom’, he will be less likely to return. If you see the cat sniffing or scratching around a forbidden area, gently but firmly direct him towards the litter box. If your cat has infrequent or predictable (‘he always does it when I come back from vacation’) accidents, this may be stress related behavior. Read on.

Don’t Yell… Clean It Up!

Never hit or become aggressive with a cat for not using the box; punishing the cat after the act will not teach him to use the litter box when he’s “got to go’. Shouting, hitting, and general stomping around will only serve to damage your relationship with the cat; it will teach him to watch out for you, that you are an unpredictable and frightening human.

It is important to clean the soiled area thoroughly with an enzyme based cleaner that will remove the source (urine/feces) of the odor as well as take out the stain. If you can’t get to a pet supply store, an adequate substitute can be made from equal parts of seltzer and white vinegar. Never use ammonia or ammonia based products to clean up; they will attract the cat back to the spot. Frequently soiled foam-backed carpets or carpet padding can “breakdown” emitting an ammonia-type odor; when this happens, enzyme cleaners may not work. In these cases, remove the padding and replace it. Follow package direction carefully; make sure you are using the product best suited for your type of clean up (old, dried spots; new spots; spots previously cleaned, etc).

Is It Spite? No, It’s Stress

Environmental stress takes its toll on house cats. Studies indicate that there is a high correlation between ongoing stress/stressful events and house soiling. Cats are as individual as people. Some are bold, outgoing and adventurous; they’re resilient and forgiving. Others lack confidence; they’re timid. They slink from room to room and run from strangers. Most cats thrive on the predictability of a daily routine. Personal crisis, a new family member (spouse/baby) or redecorating are significant events from the feline point of view. A dinner party (a bunch of noisy strangers all over the place), going away for the weekend (isolation/change in routine and/or care giver) or having the plumber come in to fix the sink (trespasser) may cause the cat to feel threatened and become anxious. Anxious cats may spray or urinate/defecate outside the box.

Take the time to learn who your cat is and how you can meet his needs and minimize his stress. Whenever possible, insulate the sensitive cat from stressful events. Create a sanctuary for the cat now; bed him down there during the big party or when you’re using power tools. Prepare the cat well in advance of a change in routine. Have the cat sitter come and feed the cat several times before you leave on vacation.

Dealing with stressful situations can be more difficult than the retraining exercises. Both objectives should be worked on simultaneously. The cat may continue to avoid the box and/or urinate on personal objects like bedding, clothing and your favorite chair in the presence of unresolved ongoing/escalating stress. This is not to say you must eliminate the stressful element but you must alter the cat’s perception of that element through socialization or desensitization. Consider working with a professional behavior counsellor to modify your cat’s behavior.

The Multi-Cat Household

It is known that cats have a social hierarchy that includes not only dominant and subordinate roles, but pariahs or outcasts as well. It is perhaps important to note that there are no hard and fast rules; that structure is dependent on the individual personalities and characters of the cats involved. This is most applicable in the case of the outcast cat. These cats hide most of the time or spend their days on the highest spots they have access to, rarely touching the floor. The other cats may fight with them regularly; they rarely fight back. If you find that the house soiler is an “outcast’, the best thing may be to find the cat a new home where he can be the only cat. A cat who was a outcast in one group, may fit in well with a different or smaller group.

Ongoing stress within a multi-cat household can drive one or more members to spray (mark territory) or urinate/defecate out of the box. If the presence of a new cat is causing the existing cat to house soil, confine the newcomer. Make every attempt to keep the first tenant’s life as stable as possible. Other solutions for the multi-cat household include multiple litter boxes placed in separate spaces, and creating more ‘cat places’ with multiple levels (scratching posts with hideout/lookouts, carpeted shelves etc.).

Retraining… Can He Be Helped?

The first step towards a solution is to rule out any, health problems (worms, cystitis, intestinal disease) by having the cat thoroughly examined by a veterinarian. Once is has been determined that the cat is in good health training can begin.

The combination of confinement and supervised freedom is the method of choice. The cat starts the program in confinement. Most cats do well in small rooms. The bathroom is recommended as it typically has non-absorbent tile flooring and offers privacy. Since the bathroom is an essential one for humans, the cat is not isolated for extended periods of time. In addition to those necessary trips to the bathroom, you should make time for 3 to 4 twenty minute sessions with the cat either playing, grooming, talking or feeding. Put a bed for the cat in the room along with some toys. Remember to place dishes and bedding in the corner of the room farthest from the litter box.

Some cats may require a space smaller than a room (with no opportunity to choose the wrong spot) in order to learn to use the box. For these cats, a cattery cage or vari-kennel is useful. It must be big enough to accommodate the cat bed at one end, and the litter box at the other. If the cat urinates on the cat bed, it must be removed. Feed the cat two meals a day, leaving the food down for approximately 20 minutes. Keep a diary; note when the cat uses the litter box.

When the cat has been using the box and ONLY THE BOX for 2 weeks, you can begin to allow him access to other rooms in the house a room at a time. Observe from a distance; make sure that he has not fallen prey to old habits! The best time to let him roam is right after he’s used the box, returning him to confinement before his next scheduled ‘pit stop.’ Do not leave the cat out when you are not home. Only when you observe the cat reliably returning to the litter box on his own, can you begin to cut back on the supervision. Do not leave food out all day; nibbling all day increases the chance of a misplaced bowel movement! The cat cannot attempt to urinate/defecate outside of the box without being observed and directed toward the box. It is best to proceed slowly and build a strong foundation than to rush through the procedure because it is inconvenient or time consuming. In order for effective learning to take place, the cat must be watched carefully and encouraged to use the box; consistency is everything.

The complexities of cat behavior become quite evident when dealing with the cat who does not reliably use his box. The solutions often require patience, and always require consistency. Be sensitive to your cat’s needs. Your investment of quality time and attention will be well rewarded.

Courtesy of
aspca pet shelter logo
424 East 92nd Street
New York, NY 10128-6804

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