Cat Litterbox Issues

By Vanessa Williams

Many litterbox issues, especially if they are new issues or suddenly occurring issues, are medical. It is important that with any changes in potty habits, your cat is fully checked out by their veterinarian for things like GI upset, UTI, stones, etc. Pain of pottying due to these issues can be associated with the litterbox, making the cat not want to use it while they’re sick. If the issue is not medical, the two most common reasons for a cat to avoid the litterbox is either the litterbox itself is not up to par, or the cat is too stressed or fearful to use the box.

The Litterbox

People often take for granted how unique and wonderful it is that cats will poop in a box and cover it up and then we can take it away. However, just like people, cats have preferences with where they want to go. Often they will use a litterbox they dont like if they have no other choice, but not always. It’s like the difference between your porcelain throne at home and the nasty pit toilet outhouse behind that old creepy gas station in the middle of nowhere. Here are some guidelines to what MOST cats look for in a litterbox:

  • LARGE. At LEAST 1.5x the length of the cat. They want space to find the most comfortable position. Personally, I recommend cement mixing pans over comercially available litterboxes. Underbed storage containers are another good choice. Also, avoid covered litterboxes. many cats dont like feeling closed in and trapped when they potty. Plus, it makes the litterbox smell bad and that can turn them off too.
  • MANY. Especially if you have multiple cats, having an adequate number of litterboxes can prevent one cat from claiming the litterbox as off limits to another cat. They can do this without directly fighting for it, so many people dont understand that a territorial issue is even happening. Additionally, nearly all cats prefer one box for pee and a different one for poop. They may not pee in a box if it contains poop. The general rule is one more box than you have number of cats with at least one box on each floor of the home. So, if you have a two story home and two cats, you should have at least three boxes in the home with at least one of those on each level. Four cats you should have at least five boxes, etc.
  • PLACEMENT. Litterboxes should be in a quiet place away from where they eat that has good airflow. Too much activity and they may not want to use it. Too close to food can make them not want to use it. Too closed in and they may not want to use it.
  • LITTER TYPE/AMOUNT. Cats can be picky about what litter works best. You want something comfortable for their paws that is low dust and clumping. Most cats prefer a sand-like texture rather than a gravelly one. Do not use scented litter as that can turn a cat off. Make sure that the litter is at least 2 inches deep, preferably 3 or 4 inches. Not enough and the cat may not see the box as an adequate place to bury their leavings.
  • MAINTENANCE. Litterboxes should be cleaned at LEAST once daily and fully emptied and scrubbed once a week. How would you feel if nobody flushed in your home for a few days? Want to use that toilet with all the nasty floaters? Cats are fastidious animals. Not cleaning often enough is a common reason cats will stop using the box.


Stress, especially territorial stress with other cats, is a very common cause of cats not using the litterbox. Cats feel more comfortable in areas that smell like them, so they may urinate to make their environment feel more secure. Some ways to reduce stress directly related to litterboxes were mentioned above, but here are some general ways to reduce stress in cats:

  • Feliway diffuser. This is a pheromone diffuser that can help cats feel comforted. It is over the counter and not too expensive.
  • Mental enrichment. Cats are intelligent hunters. Many people think they just sleep all the time and dont need any maintenance like a dog would. While they do need a lot of sleep relative to people and even dogs, they are not no-maintenance animals. They need to hunt, whether that is a toy or watching the birds outside, or charging at your feet. A cat that cannot perform its natural hunting behavior and fulfill that need can become very stressed. Make sure the cat has places up high to go, windows to look out of, and lots of interactive play with you that really releases those hunting drives.
  • A natural routine. Play/hunt > eat > groom > sleep. Play with the cat and then feed meals right before you want the cat to sleep, like when you’re gone at work and human bedtime. Keeping a consistent routine will help the cat know what’s coming and reduce stress.
  • Fix your cat. Female cats are almost always in heat. Ovulation is triggered not by time past like ours is, but by the act of mating itself. This means they are almost always ready to go. It is very stressful for a female to have these raging hormones all the time. Plus, even if your female is indoor only, her scent will draw intact males from miles around to your home at night. They will scent mark the house, they will yowl, and their continuous presence will stress her out. Similarly, it is also stressful for a male cat to be unfixed. Their biology is telling them to constantly be out patrolling the territory, marking/spraying it, and looking for females. If they cant be doing that, they will be very stressed out and unhappy, especially if there are intact females that are nearby. Hormones can also cause both genders to spray, which while being potty itself, is not a potty act. It is a territorial act and not something that can be fixed by getting a nicer box. Removing those hormones will remove the reason for the spraying and solve that issue.
  • Safe places. Cats, as well as being predators, are also a prey animal. Changes in routine, new people in the home, animals in the home (especially dogs), etc can all cause a cat to be stressed out, especially if they have nowhere safe to go. Places up high where they can navigate a room without putting them close to the “dangers” can alleviate that stress. Cozy bolt holes, especially ones up high, can give them a place to hide and decompress when they are feeling really uncomfortable. Pottying is a very compromising position. It is easy to be attacked when you are focused on your business. If a cat doesnt feel safe moving around the house and especially pottying where the litterbox is, they wont use it.

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