Solutions For Litter Box Problems

Few things are as frustrating as when your cat eliminates outside the litter box--peeing, pooping, or spraying in unwanted areas. Such inappropriate elimination can have multiple causes including medical issues, litter box aversion, and stress, and the root cause must be quickly addressed. The fact is, cats are creatures of habit, and the longer they eliminate out of the box, the harder it is to get them to quit.

In general, we consider urination on horizontal surfaces to be “inappropriate urination” and spraying urine on vertical surfaces to be “urine marking”. The difference can be subtle to an owner, but identifying one from the other is important when looking for cause. The best way to know if your cat is urinating inappropriately or spraying is to catch them in the act: a spraying cat will stand, lifts its tail and quiver, and then spray in several consistent locations. Too, cats don’t squat to spray as they do to urinate.

Why does my cat pee or poop outside the litter box?

The most common reasons a cat urinates outside of its box:

The most common reasons a cat defecates outside of its box:

The most common reason a cat sprays urine:

  • To establish or maintain territory
  • Because of a perceived threat such as a new cat in the home or nearby outside cats
  • Out of frustration such as insufficient playtime or restrictive diets
  • In response to the smell of new carpet or furniture
  • To advertise they are ready to mate
  • In multi-cat households, especially with 4 or more cats

How do I fix the problem?

When your cat is eliminating out of the box it's imperative that you find the root cause and address the issue as soon as possible, as the longer the behavior persists, the more likely it is to become a habit. The hunt for a cause involves ruling-out disease, litter box aversion, and stress or territorial behavior as the culprits.

Step One…Vet visit

The first step is a visit with your vet for a complete physical exam, a deep dive into the history of all stressors as well as the “what-where-when” of the occurrences, a urinalysis, sometimes a chemistry panel and, rarely, abdominal imaging.  Frequently a medical condition is diagnosed, treatment is started, and your cat goes back to using the box. Problem solved!

Step Two…Impeccable Litter Box Management

Sometimes a medical disease just isn’t found. This is when you want to be doubly sure that your litter boxes are attracting your cat and not running them off. The perfect litter box environment comes down to the right box, the right litter, and the right location.

  • Have plenty of boxes. The rule of thumb is at least one box more than the number of cats. For instance, a household with 2 cats should have 3 boxes.
  • Have plenty of room in the box. Cats like space in a litter box, especially if they have arthritis, so an ideal box is at least 1.5 times the length of your cat. An under-the-bed sweater box with the lid removed works great.
  • Clean the box. Be sure to scoop out the boxes twice a day, and use a scoop that gets to the bottom of the box to remove all of the clumps; cats have a keen sense of smell and can be turned away by offensive odors. Replenish the litter as needed in order to be sure there is always 2 to 3 inches of litter in the box. Then, once a week dump all the litter and wash the box with a mild, non-scented dish detergent, rinse, dry, and add fresh litter.
  • Replace the box. Because plastic retains smells even with the best of cleaning, replace your boxes every few months. Cats can detect smells a human can’t.
  • Make access easy. Older or arthritic cats may need a box with very low sides and easy to step into. Too, be sure you have boxes on each story of your house, at each end, and even in the middle. Cats are lazy—they don’t like to walk far to use a box.
  • Find the favored litter. The types of available litter are staggering: clumping, non-clumping, scented, non-scented, pellets, crystals, clay, corn, wheat, pine, etc. However, most cats prefer fine-grained, unscented litter. If you're not sure which to use do a “litter test” by placing a variety of litters each in their own box and see which your cat prefers, and then stick with it--cats don’t like change.
  • Location matters. Ideally boxes should be placed in peaceful, private areas away from stalking housemates (dogs, cats), noisy objects (appliances, air ducts, children, doorbells), doorways, and room deodorizers or air fresheners. No tight spaces, either, as cats need room to stand and move around. Some cats like covered boxes and some cats like a 360-degree view or multiple ways out of the box area, so be creative and provide choices. Boxes should be spread in multiple locations rather than grouped all in one location. Occasionally a cat has a preferred location to eliminate and can’t be deterred from that spot. The solution is to put a box in that exact spot and, after the box is being reliably used, move it a few inches each day to slowly relocate to another area. Alternatively, try placing food bowls and treats in previously soiled areas. Playing with your cat in that space and leaving toys there may also be helpful.
  • Clean areas of previous inappropriate elimination. Cats are creatures of habit so all areas or items that have urine or feces on them should be cleaned immediately and the odors must be neutralized. It's important to treat or replace all carpet (and associated padding), and eliminate bathmats and throw rugs where possible. Avoid ammonia and vinegar as it encourages repeat eliminations. Cover the cleaned areas with tarps or heavy grade plastic until the behavior stops. Don't forget, simply closing the door to a room that has been soiled (and cleaned) to prevent access is perfectly acceptable. 
  • Automatic litter boxes: Some cats like self-cleaning boxes and some don’t, so if you're using one, assume it could be part of the problem until proven otherwise. The key is to provide a regular box in a different location from the automatic box and check your cat's preference. 

Step Three...Eliminate or Treat Stress

As charmed a life as most of our cats live it seems unthinkable they can be racked with anxiety. But it's true--cats quietly live high-stressed lives. There are anti-anxiety medications available through your veterinarian which may help alleviate some of their stress, but they aren't effective without concurrent changes in your household to de-stress the environment.

  • First and foremost understand the nature of your cat--they are unlike any other pet, and they have very special behavioral requirements.
  • Neuter and spay every cat in your household to reduce the influence of hormones.
  • When possible, don't add more stress by adding more cats. Relationships are complicated, even for cats.
  • If your cat lives inside, only, consider allowing your cat to have supervised and/or protected outdoor time.
  • Establish routines and keep them: same feeding times, undisturbed sleeping times and places, and quality play time with you for 10 minutes or more twice a day. Cats don't like change.
  • Have fresh food and water available in multiple rooms throughout the house, but away from the litter boxes.
  • Encourage a more normal range of behaviors in your cat with Environmental Enrichment and toys which occupy their time and reduces boredom.
  • Increase vertical spaces in your home by adding shelves on the walls, and tall multi-storied cat condos, in the rooms the cats spend time and where altercations occur.
  • Place collars with bells on all of your cats so they hear each other coming.
  • Give your cat a room of their own in order to retreat when desired. Even a closet or large crate works. FACT is an alternative way to provide a refuge for your cat
  • Identify the outside stimuli and diffuse or remove it. For instance, motion-detecting sprinklers can deter cats from entering your yard. In addition, discourage your cat from looking outside by limiting access to windows, closing blinds, using double-sided tape on windowsills, or using scat mats where needed.
  • Place  Feliway diffusers throughout the house, use calming collars, and give Bach's Rescue Remedy a try. 
  • Finally, you may need to separate feuding cats who live in the same household, and reintroduce them slowly.
  • Consulting with a veterinary behavior specialist is often the best place to start as they are a wealth of information on behavioral modification.

Step Four...Litter Box Boot Camp - Behavioral Modification

If you've jumped through all the hoops and completed Steps One through Three, and yet your cat is still eliminating outside of the litter box, then Litter Boot Camp may be the next step. Boot Camp combines a simple routine with an attractive litter environment to encourage the use of the box. Each level of boot camp last 2 weeks but if your cat fails a level, they go back to Level One and begins again.

You start camp by creating a "studio apartment" for your cat. A large dog crate works well. These are typically made of thick wire and have a removable plastic tray in the bottom. Place in the crate a litter box with litter, a food and water bowl, and an empty plastic cat carrier (the cat's bed). This gives the cat a place to eat, drink, sleep, and eliminate. It's no-frills but it provides all your cat's basic needs.

Level One: Your cat is confined in the studio apartment. He can come out only in your arms or on the end of a leash you are holding. When he has successfully used the litter box (no mistakes) for 2 weeks he graduates to,

Level Two: Confinement to the studio apartment unless he is within eyesight in the same room with you and you are awake/paying attention. With no mistakes for 2 weeks he graduates to,

Level Three: Confined to the studio apartment unless he is in the same room with you, or one room away, but still within eyesight and you are awake/paying attention. With no mistakes for 2 weeks he graduates to,

Level Four: Confined to the studio apartment unless you are at home and you are awake/paying attention. With no mistakes for 2 weeks he graduates to,

Level Five: Confined to "studio apartment" while you are at work or asleep. Loose in the house when you are home, even if you are not paying direct attention, and while you run short errands (less than a few hours). With no mistakes for 2 weeks he graduates to,

Level Six (a.k.a., "regular life"): No more confinement! Loose in the house at all times even when you are not home for more than a few hours/overnight.

Phew! You can see that when cats pee and poop out of the litter box it can be a complex problem, but it IS solvable, and most of the time in quick form. Give us a call with any additional questions, 281.351.7184, or reach out at kindvet.com.

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