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Top Three Reasons Cats Avoid Their Litter Box

Listen as Dr. Karen Becker discusses litter box issues, the latest research on the litter most cats prefer, and how to prevent or stop house soiling.
Dr. Becker's Comments:

Even though cats are the most popular companion animals in the U.S., at some point in their lives many kitties exhibit a very unpopular behavior – peeing outside the litter box. (Some cats will also defecate outside the box, but this is a much less common problem.)

House soiling is such a widespread problem that it is the number one reason cats are banished to the outdoors, dropped off at animal shelters, or even euthanized.

Most pet behavior problems have solutions, which is why today I want to discuss various types of litters and their substrates (the materials the litters are composed of), and why certain types can be more appealing to your cat than others.

If your cat is avoiding the litter box, take heart. There are things you can do to learn the cause of the behavior. Then you can take steps to correct the problem so you and kitty can continue to live happily together.

Top Three Reasons Cats Urinate Outside the Litter Box

  1. Medical condition. The first thing you should do if your cat suddenly starts peeing in inappropriate places is make an appointment with your veterinarian to investigate for disorders known to cause the behavior. Urinary tract infections, cystitis or feline lower urinary tract diseases (FLUTD) are all very common reasons why kitties urinate outside the litter box.

    Any change in your cat’s behavior, including a difference in litter box habits, should be investigated. Kitties are the most stoic of creatures and very often the first sign you’ll notice of a health problem is a change in your cat’s behavior.
  2. Feline marking. Some cats will mark or spray a certain area (outside the litter box) in order to communicate with other cats, or because they are stressed. Marking and spraying are different – a cat marks in a squatting position, urinating onto a flat surface. Spraying is done by backing up to a vertical surface like a wall and urinating while standing.
  3. Litter box aversion. Simply put, if your kitty is relieving himself outside his litter box he may not like the box itself, or the location, or the litter, or a combination.

There are other reasons why kitties urinate inappropriately, for example, aggression or behavior problems among cats in a multi-cat household. But the three most common causes are an underlying medical condition, a natural behavior such as marking, and an acquired aversion to either the litter box itself or substrates of the litter.

The World’s Biggest Cat Box

The natural history of domesticated cats began with desert dwelling African wildcats.

The entire desert was their cat box, and it is assumed today’s kitties developed litter substrate preferences from the sand their ancestors were accustomed to.

Cats instinctively bury their feces in their urine, which made the clumping action of wet desert sand a perfect repository. This is probably why clumping litter is preferred by most domesticated kitties.

As cats moved indoors to claim their rightful place as heads of human households, it became necessary to develop an indoor alternative for outdoor toileting.

Cat litter manufacturers, looking for a niche for their products, developed an amazing array of cat litter varieties to market and sell. Some of the different types of litter include:

  • Organic litter
  • Corn and wheat based litter
  • Newspaper based litter
  • Crystal or silica based litter
  • The old standby, clay litter (clumping or plain)

Isn’t Organic Always the Best Choice?

If you’re like me, the thing you’re most interested in is providing a litter that is non-toxic to your cat.

Non-organic cat litters can cause gastrointestinal problems if consumed. Clumping litter often gets stuck in cats’ pads, and they ingest it when they groom their paws. Also, many cat litters on the market today contain silica dust that can cause respiratory problems for kitties.

A big frustration for me and perhaps you as well, is the organic litter I’d like to use because it is both non-toxic and environmentally friendly, isn’t the litter my cats prefer.

The Type of Litter Most Cats Favor

A cat litter study conducted in the early 1990’s uncovered the fact that hands-down, kitties preferred clumping litter (also commercially marketed as scoopable litter) made of very small granular material similar to sand over large granule litter made from, for example, recycled paper. The kitties in the study also preferred clay based substrates over other types.

More recent research can help cat owners and caretakers narrow down even further the kinds of litter most kitties would choose given a selection.

First on the list of litter options is the scent. Scented cat litter is very common, since manufacturers know most cat owners want to control litter box odor as much as possible.

Recent research in the last two years has revealed that many kitties dislike litter with a floral or citrus scent. And since most of the floral or citrus-scented litters on the market today are synthetic, I recommend steering clear of scented litters altogether. That way you can avoid litter box aversion and exposing your kitty to non-natural materials at the same time.

Now here’s the downside to using an unscented litter. Your kitty, like all kitties, doesn’t like a dirty box. Even if you’re removing all the fecal material and clumps of urine daily or more often, the scent that remains in the box can be enough to deter your cat from using it.

Cleaning the Litter Box

Especially if you use unscented litter, which I recommend, you must be fastidious about scooping the box. I recommend twice a day scooping of all feces and urine clumps.

I also recommend you dispose of all used litter and clean the box at least weekly. It’s important to wash the container thoroughly to remove as much odor as possible so that your kitty does not become averse to using her litter box due to a lingering smell.

Wash the box with plain hot water. If you use soap, choose a natural, fragrance free variety. Avoid any cleaning product that is scented or contains potential toxins.

Odor Control Additives

Another study concluded that odor control additives can also create a littler box aversion in many cats.

Most commercial litters contain one of two odor control additives, either baking soda or activated charcoal or carbon.

Kitties in the study preferred carbon to baking soda additives. So if you’re using a litter with a baking soda based odor control additive and your cat is not using his box appropriately, it could be he’s reacting to the additive.

My recommendation is to switch to a litter with no odor control additives in order to provide your kitty with as natural an environment as possible in which to do his business. Again, remember to keep the box very, very clean to eliminate a lingering smell of urine and feces.

Alternatively, you can try a litter with a charcoal or carbon based odor control additive and see if your cat prefers it to the brand with the baking soda additive.

Litter Box Sizes

A third recent study was done on cats’ preferences for certain sizes of litter boxes.

Kitties in the study were given access to small, medium and extra large size litter boxes. As you might guess, the cats preferred the largest size boxes and used them more frequently than the smaller ones.

Many cat parents have had great success eliminating litter box aversion by switching to the largest box they can find. Rubbermaid makes an extra large litter box. You can also find other brands of large boxes at pet specialty stores.

Another option is to create your own large litter box.

Another very important factor to consider is the number of litter boxes vs. the number of cats in your household. If you have a kitty that is soiling your house, you need to make sure you have at least one box per cat and that all boxes are kept very clean.

My Recommendations

So to review – you must remember your cat is an individual with her own litter box preferences. If you have more than one feline in your home, each will have his or her own inclinations regarding litter box size and location, and the texture, smell and feel of the litter.

If you’re having problems with a kitty that is urinating inappropriately, I recommend you provide several litter boxes representing a variety of options (different sizes, placement, type of litter) so you can determine what your wayward feline prefers. This is also a good idea if you bring a new cat or kitten into your family.

The small additional expense and trouble caused by trying out different options will be well worth it to solve litter box aversion problems and prevent future or potential house soiling.

As a general rule, I recommend unscented clumping litter with no odor control additives and as large a litter pan as you can find. However, your kitty might prefer otherwise and you should follow his lead.

Regardless of what type of box and litter you decide on, the most important feature for your kitty will be the cleanliness of the box. It’s crucial that you keep all litter boxes fastidiously clean to encourage your cat to use them without fail.

Think about your own reaction when you’re forced to use a dirty restroom. Now imagine how it would feel to have no choice but to use that dirty restroom every day. Eventually, you’d find an alternative – right? Another bathroom in your home perhaps, or the locker room at the gym, or maybe the restroom at the coffee shop on the corner.

Same principle applies to the feline members of your family. If you take the time to discover your cat’s toileting preferences and you keep her "bathroom" very clean, you can prevent or eliminate most if not all litter box aversion problems.

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