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Troubleshooting Litter Box Training

Not using the litter box is one of the most common reasons why owners return their cats to shelters. And tragically, about a third of the cats that are surrendered to shelters each year are euthanized, according to the ASPCA. We want to help you fix the underlying issue to help ensure you and your new cat can live happily ever after.

When your cat stops using the litter box, it’s to show her displeasure about something. Either she’s sick, or she’s reacting to something new or different in her environment by marking her territory. If there was a simple change, like moving her litter box to a new location, revert back to the previous situation if possible. If the behavior continues, or if you see any discoloration in your cat’s waste or other changes in her behavior, see your veterinarian to rule out any medical problems, such as a urinary tract infection.

Once your cat is confirmed healthy, it’s time to do some digging into what’s causing your cat’s distress. First, think about her litter box:

  • Is it in a location that’s noisy or difficult to access?
  • Did you buy a new type of litter?
  • When was the last time you added fresh litter, or thoroughly cleaned out the box?
  • Is your cat outgrowing the litter box she used as a kitten?
  • Does she share a litter box with other cats?

Next, remember that there has been a change in your home environment that could cause your cat stress. Bringing her to her new home is a joyful time, but also a stressful one as she learns to adapt to and feel comfortable in her new surroundings. This adjustment can take time, so try to be patient as you both get settled. In addition to adopting a new cat, many other changes can also cause cats to abandon their litter box habits:

  • Did you have a baby?
  • Did your teenager go away to college?
  • Did you adopt another pet?
  • Did you move to a new house, or renovate your current home?
  • Have you had a change in work schedule?

Be sure to give your cat as much comfort and affection as possible to ease her stress during times of transition like these.

Another factor is whether your cat is spayed or neutered. If not, cats are much more likely to mark their territory, and having males neutered and females spayed will help.

Whether your cat’s stress is caused by her litter box or a time of change, the following tips could help attract your cat back to the box:

  • Keep the litter box immaculate. Scoop the litter box at least twice a day. Replace the litter and clean the box with unscented soap and water once a week.
  • Location, location, location. Make sure the litter box is in a private, quiet area that your cat can easily access.
  • Check that the litter box is 1.5 times the length of your cat, so she has enough room to turn around.
  • Make sure the litter is 3-4 inches deep. No more, no less.
  • If the litter box has a hood, try removing it. Many cats feel more secure using an open box so they can keep an eye on their surroundings.
  • Check the litter itself. Litter should not be prickly or have sharp edges, as this can hurt the delicate skin on your cat’s paws. If you’re using a scented litter, try switching to an odorless one.
  • Make sure that you have one litter box for each cat, plus one extra. So if you have two cats, set up three boxes. Ensure these boxes are located in different areas of the house. If they’re all in the same place, it’s essentially the same as having one box.
  • If possible, cut off her access to her favorite spots to urinate. For example, if your cat tends to have accidents in your basement, keep her out by closing the door or installing a tall baby gate.
  • If you can’t keep her away, make your cat’s go-to urinating spots less appealing. Place a small bowl of food in these areas, because cats are less likely to go in the same place they eat.
  • Use special enzyme cleaning solutions to clean up cat urine. Regular cleaning products don’t remove the pheromones in cat urine. If cats smell those pheromones, they may continue to urinate in that area. Cleaners that contain ammonia will make the problem even worse, since urine contains ammonia.
  • Also, consider using Feliway, a synthetic replica of cats’ facial pheromones that they use to mark territories. Available as a spray or a diffuser, it can help calm cats and deter urinating in their favorite marking spots.

If you’ve done all of the above and your cat is still not using her litter box, it’s time for an intervention. Confine your cat to a carpet and rug-free room, such as a low-traffic bathroom or laundry room, with only her litter box, bed, food, water and a few toys. Be sure to place her food and water as far away from her litter box as possible. Keep her secluded in this room for 3-4 days, until she stars regularly using her litter box. Separated from her favorite marking spots and with nothing else to go on besides a hard floor, your cat will get re-acclimated to using her litter box. Confining her to a safe, quiet place may also relieve some of her stress from the household changes.

Litter box problems can be stressful for the whole family—most of all for your cat. Try to be patient and don’t give up. Your cat will eventually get back to the box, and you can both get on with your lives.

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