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How to Eliminate Annoying Litter Box Problems

The most common behavioral problem for which cat owners seek assistance is housesoiling. In fact, housesoiling is a leading cause of cats’ relinquishment to shelters.



There are three main causes of housesoiling in cats: underlying medical problems [e.g. feline lower urinary tract disease, or feline urologic syndrome (FLUTD/FUS)], urine marking, and toileting issues. Toileting problems can stem from a variety of causes, including factors unrelated to the litter box. So, it is always critical to get a comprehensive history to correctly identify the motivation for the problematic behavior.

By getting the latest scoop on litter, you will be better prepared to prevent and resolve litter- and litter-box-related toileting problems in your feline patients. Factors to consider include:

  • Litter fragrance
  • Odor control
  • Litter box size
  • Texture of the substrate material (such as clay, recycled newspaper, corn cob, wheat or other organic pellet material)
  • Location

Every cat has unique preferences, and the best way to identify an individual cat’s set of toileting preferences is to experiment with a variety of litter choices and box styles. This article focuses on new research related to litter and litter boxes that may be helpful in preventing and treating toileting problems.


DVM 360 - March 1, 2009

American Veterinary Medical Association, U.S. pet ownership and demographics sourcebook. Schaumberg, Ill:AVMA, 2007.

Salman MD, Hutchison J, Ruch-Gallie R, et al. Behavioral reasons for relinquishment of dogs and cats to 12 shelters. J Appl Anim Welf Sci 2000;3(2):93-106.

Patronek GJ, Glickman LT, Beck AM, et al. Risk factors for relinquishment of cats to an animal shelter. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1996;209(3):582-588.

Dr. Becker's Comments:

Has your kitty been making unwanted deposits outside the litter box? Are you at your wit’s end trying to make sense out of your cat’s housesoiling behaviors?

 If so, you are not alone.

The most important point is to not assume that your cat is being “bad” if he urinates or defecates outside the litter box. There are reasons for this behavior, and your kitty is limited in the ways he can communicate with you when something is wrong. If you can view his behavior as a form of communication and not an act of defiance, you and kitty will have a better chance for finding a solution to the problem, instead of entering into a battle of wills, which will only make a behavior problem worse.

Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease

Urinary issues top the list of why cats visit vets. Urinating outside the litter box can sometimes be a sign of feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), also known as feline urologic syndrome (FUS) -- a collection of conditions that can affect the bladder and urethra of cats. In addition to urinating in inappropriate places, affected cats exhibit other recognizable signs, such as:

  • Frequent and/or prolonged attempts to urinate
  • Straining to urinate
  • Crying out while urinating
  • Excessive licking of the genital area, and
  • Blood in the urine

**Cats with a urethral obstruction will show the above signs, but will pass little to no urine, and will become increasingly distressed. Urethral obstruction is an absolute emergency, requiring immediate veterinary treatment.

FLUTD can be seen in cats of any age, but it is most often seen in middle-aged, overweight cats that get little exercise, have restricted access to the outside, and eat a dry diet. Environmental factors, such as his relationship with you and with other household cats, and changes in routine may increase your cat’s risk for FLUTD/FUS.

Details about the specific causes of FLUTD can be found in the article by Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, cited above.

A few cats with FLUTD will experience frequent recurrences of bladder symptoms, but most cats have only occasional or rare episodes. Although treatment depends on the exact cause, there are some steps you can take to help reduce the frequency, severity and duration of attacks:

  • Feed small, frequent meals
  • Increase moisture in your cat’s diet by weaning him/her onto canned food
  • Provide clean, fresh water at all times
  • Provide an adequate number of litter boxes in quiet, safe areas of the house
  • Keep litter boxes clean
  • Minimize major changes in routine
  • For cats with struvite stones, a special acidic stone-dissolving diet may be prescribed to eliminate the stones

Feline Marking and Spraying

If you are finding urine outside the litter box and have ruled out medical problems, your cat could be displaying urine-marking behavior. He does this to inscribe a pheromonal message for later passers-by. He’s posting a sign ... “Tigger was here. Keep out.”

Urine-marking can be performed by a cat from a standing or squatting position, on vertical or horizontal surfaces.

Spraying is the most common form of urine-marking behavior. In spraying, the cat backs up to a vertical surface, the tip of the tail quivers, and he delivers a fine stream of urine onto the surface.

Marking behavior is testosterone-enhanced, so non-neutered males have the greatest motivation to mark. However, both males and females can mark. Females can spray, especially when in heat, most commonly from the squatting position. Neutering and spaying will eliminate 90-95 percent of urine-marking behaviors in cats.

If your cat is stressed, he will have a much higher tendency to mark. Stress can come from many sources, but some of the more common sources are:

  • Arrival of a new person in the home--like a new baby
  • Departure of a key caretaker
  • Arrival of a new cat
  • Inadequate number of litter boxes for the number of cats in the house (the general recommendation is to provide one for each cat, plus one extra box)
  • Conflicts with another household cat
  • Moving to a new house, or renovation of the house

Sometimes your cat will urine-mark because he doesn’t like the location of the litter box, or the size. In fact, the place he marks is often where he would prefer to go! Of course, you can’t always accommodate such “suggestions,” so kitty will have to be encouraged to a more convenient location.

The solution lies in determining what is stressing your kitty. Your challenge is to think about what might have changed in his world at the time the marking began.

Cats will return to mark areas they have previously marked. Clean up all urine-sprayed areas with an odor neutralizer/enzyme product that naturally breaks down the urine molecules completely.

Cleaning with an enzymatic product might not eliminate future urine-marking in some cases. However, there is a product called Feliway that can be helpful—it’s a synthetic pheromone designed to mimic feline cheek gland secretions.

Since cats also mark with their cheek glands (which is why they rub their cheeks against you), spraying Feliway onto the area where they have urine-marked encourages them to rub with their cheeks, decreasing the likelihood of additional urine-spraying.

Feliway is also helpful anytime you want to calm your cat, such as before a trip to the vet, and before introducing a new cat into the household.

Make sure your cat’s environment is not overcrowded. Cat trees are one way to increase kitty’s territory, since they include vertical space as territory.

Make sure the litter box is large enough for your cat. Kitties want some privacy, yet they don’t want to feel vulnerable when inside the litter box. Keep it very clean, since cats are meticulous creatures. Do not place any litter boxes next to their food and water since that is a turn-off for most cats.

Make changes gradually since cats are creatures of habit. You will only discover what works by changing one thing at a time.

And never punish your cat!

Speaking in harsh tones or using physical punishment can cause your kitty to avoid you, which will only make the problem worse. By offering your kitty some extra affection, taking a nap together, or a sharing a grooming session, or just letting him be close, you can greatly reduce his level of stress and sense of competitiveness with other members of the family (unless of course he is not a lap cat -- closeness only works for the cuddlers.) 

Litter Aversion

Cats have lived in the desert for thousands of years, using fine sand for their toileting. This practice has continued to modern day housecats, which is why the litter box has become the kitty potty standard.

Even though commercial cat litter is generally a pretty fair substitute for desert sand, sometimes cats develop a litter aversion—not liking the odor or feel of the litter -- resulting in urinating or defecating in inappropriate places. Or, sometimes a kitty has learned to associate the litter with something unpleasant, such as pain, or being cornered by another cat, or being caught to give medications there.

Besides housesoiling, some other common signs of litter aversion include:

  • Scratching at the sides of the box, on the floor, or other nearby objects instead of in the litter
  • Using the litter but shaking his paws a lot during and after use
  • Not digging in the litter before eliminating
  • Straddling the box, trying to avoid touching the litter
  • Jumping out of the box quickly
  • Meowing at the litter box

Some cats are fussy about how much litter is in the box. Too much or too little is aversive to them. A few cats have even been known to dislike the litter box if it is too clean!

So, it might take some trial and error to discover what it is your kitty likes and doesn’t like.

Choosing a Safe Litter

Now, more than ever, there are a variety of litters available; however, not all litters are safe. Many contain chemicals to mask odors, and many create dust than can cause respiratory issues.

So, it’s a matter of finding a litter that is safe and appeals to you--and your cat.

In choosing a cat litter, keep the following suggestions in mind:

  • Select the least toxic litter for your cat, as free of synthetic chemicals as possible. Look for one made from synthetic ingredients such as clay, wheat/grain fibers, corn, or recycled newspaper, for example.
  • Some cats find deodorized or scented litter objectionable.
  • Use plain hot water to clean the litter box. Cleaning products leave a lingering smell, which many cats may find distasteful.
  • Don’t use plastic box liners since kitties can get their claws stuck in the plastic when digging, which discourages them from using the box.
  • You might give your cat a “litter buffet” for a week or two, with separate boxes, to see which product your cat prefers.
  • Some cats prefer to have one box for urine and one for stool.
  • Make changes gradually. To change the type of litter, first use an additional box with the new litter, and gradually take away the old litter once your cat is happy with the new one. (The same applies to changing to a new type of box or a new box location)

The Scoop on Clumping Cat Litter

To clump or not to clump ...

If you are a long-time cat owner, you might be aware of the controversy about clumping cat litter. The first cat litter was developed in the 1940s by Edward Lowe, but it took another 40 years for “scoopable” litters containing sodium bentonite to appear in the marketplace. Although the convenience of not needing to completely replace the used litter seemed like a great idea, questions have arisen about the safety of these immensely popular clumping litters.

Arguments can be found on both sides, so it is difficult to pin down the truth about the safety of sodium bentonite clay clumping litter. That said, the arguments about their potential hazards DO seem logical and worth mentioning:  

  • Cats repeatedly inhale dust from clay litter, as well as ingesting it while cleaning their feet. This is even more of a problem with kittens, who will sometimes eat litter out of curiosity.
  • The powerful clumping ability of these litters can result in the formation of a solid mass when combined with liquid. It follows, if a sufficient quantity is ingested or inhaled, it could result in a clogging of the respiratory or digestive tract.
  • Clay contains silica. Therefore, the dust contains silica dust, which is known to be toxic to both human and animal lungs.
  • The clumping material can coat the digestive tract, causing retention of fecal material, increasing toxicity, and prohibiting proper digestion and assimilation of food. This could result in stress on your cat’s immune system, making him more susceptible to viral, bacterial, parasitic and yeast infections.
  • Dogs are sometimes inexplicably drawn to “litter box snacks”

The lack of scientific studies makes it hard to offer an objective recommendation about the safety of clumping litter. Use common sense.

If you see your cat eating it, then don’t use it.  If you have a kitten, then it’s probably not worth taking any chances when there are safer options available. If your cat develops stomach problems, constipation or diarrhea, urinary or respiratory issues, make sure you mention to your vet the fact that you are using clumping litter.

Until there is better data, you will have to exercise your best judgment about how much risk is worth the convenience.