How To Get Your Cat To Use The Litter Box

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There’s a reason so many TV ads for air fresheners feature litterboxes in the “before” scenes. When it comes to pungent odors, there’s nothing quite like the smell of cat urine. And if you’re ready to get rid of your cat due to litterbox problems, you’re not alone. Problems with feline elimination are the number one reported behavior problem in cats, and the number one reason they are surrendered to shelters.

Many people take drastic steps without exploring the many options for feline elimination problems. They assume the cat is being bad, or punishing them, or has simply become “untrained” to use the box correctly. This is never the case. There is always a reason why the cat has stopped using the litterbox, and while there are incurable cases, the overwhelming majority can be solved quickly and easily.

The First Step

If you have a cat who isn’t using the litterbox reliably, the first thing you need to do is take him or her to the veterinarian. The leading reason cats start eliminating outside their box is urinary tract infections (UTIs), urinary tract obstructions, or other health problems.

As anyone who has had a bladder infection knows, there is often a feeling of constant urging even when the bladder is almost empty, as well as pain and burning accompanying urination. And kidney and bladder stones are among the most painful of all conditions for any species. This pain and frustration – and exhaustion – can create such negative associations for the cat that he or she is basically being trained not to use the litterbox by negative reinforcement. Curing the underlying health problem usually ends the unwanted behavior.

Behavioral Issues

If your cat gets a clean bill of health, or if a health problem is diagnosed and treated but the problem still persists, it’s time to look at behavioral issues and training.

For the cat who has developed negative associations with the litter box due to pain from a now-treated UTI or obstruction, the best solution is to re-train your cat to use the box using a simple confinement process. Every kitten is trained to use a litterbox by his or her mother, and you can simply repeat this early education to train your cat to use the box again. Put your cat in a small space, such as a laundry room, bathroom, or other comfortable space. Ideally, it will have a window with a perch for your cat to sunbathe and bird watch and is a room where you can spend some time with the cat, too. Put in as many litterboxes as is necessary to completely cover all floor space, and keep them scrupulously clean – scoop them numerous times a day. It’s helpful to use a new kind of cat litter and perhaps even a different style of the litterbox, to help convince the cat that this is not the same as the box that “hurt” so much before. If soiling occurs, used special products made specifically for neutralizing cat urine odors. Most common household cleaners simply don’t do the job.

It’s essential that during this time you keep the litterboxes absolutely clean, even if it means scooping them ten times a day. Gradually reduce the number of boxes. When you get down to two litterboxes and no accidents, let the cat have access to one more room, plus the original space where the boxes will remain. After you are sure the cat is using the box reliably, you can gradually increase the amount of access she or he has. Make sure there are litterboxes in at least two areas of the house, and always have one litterbox more than you have cats. Continue to keep the boxes clean, cleaning them at least once daily. This is all it will take to eradicate this problem in nearly all cats.

It may be tempting to let up on the scooping after a while, but don’t do it. After health problems, dirty litterboxes are the leading cause of elimination problems. Think about how you feel when you go into a portajohn that’s overdue for service on a hot day, after being used by too many partygoers, all of them drunk, and you’ll get an idea of how cats feel about using soiled, smelly litterboxes. Have some compassion for these animals, whose sense of smell is much more acute than ours, and for whom godliness comes a very distant second to cleanliness.

Many people have found it helpful to experiment with different types of cat litter, and different types of litterboxes. Most cats hate scented litter (which is made for our benefit, not theirs. Control odors by cleaning the box more often, not by masking it with fragrances). If your cat might have arthritis, consider a cat box with one side that is lower than the others, to make it easier for him or her to get in and out of the box. Also be sure that the litterboxes are in out of the way areas, where the cat can relax and not feel threatened. Sometimes keeping a box in a laundry room with a baby gate or cat door, so that children and dogs can’t get in, solves elimination problems.

If none of these measures control the problem, then it’s time to dig a bit deeper. Do you have multiple cats, and is it possible that you have targeted the wrong cat in your re-training efforts? Your vet can use dyes to help you color the urine of your cats, and by a process of elimination, you’ll be able to determine which one is having the problem. You might be surprised.

Territorial Marking

Perhaps you’ve misunderstood the problem. Is your cat failing to use the litterbox, or is your cat marking territory? Cats who are marking territory will urinate on vertical surfaces, and if you actually see them doing it, you’ll see that their tails are up and they vibrate a little bit while spraying. Cats will spray when they are made anxious or insecure by a routine change, a loss of a family member (including other pets), moving, stray cats in the neighborhood who are marking your yard and doors as their territory, or any form of stress.

Territorial marking can almost always be eliminated when the cat is spayed or neutered, as well as by removing or minimizing the sources of stress. However, if it persists, or has commenced when the cat is already altered, it’s time to go back to the vet, who should be able to offer medical and behavioral solutions.

On the medical front, there are products that can help address this problem, such as Feliway, a pheromone spray applied to soiled areas, or anti-anxiety medication such as Valium, BuSpar, or even Prozac. Consult your veterinarian about these treatments, as dosages for cats are very different from human dosages, and fatal liver damage will occur if they are used incorrectly.

If all else fails, ask your vet to refer to you a qualified animal behaviorist. You can also contact the Cornell Feline Health Center at 914-473-7406 for advice and referrals. Don’t just accept that your cat’s house soiling is something you have to live with, because in nearly all cases, it’s not.