How to Help Avoid the No. 1 Reason Cats Become Homeless

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

litterbox aversion

Story at-a-glance -

  • Eliminating outside the litterbox is a significant behavior problem in cats, and is also the number one reason people abandon their feline companions
  • One of the most common reasons for inappropriate elimination is litterbox aversion; the good news is there are many things you can do positively influence the situation
  • It’s important to choose the right type of litterbox, and let kitty select the litter; the location and especially the cleanliness of the box is crucially important as well
  • Other reasons for inappropriate elimination include an underlying medical problem that requires a veterinary exam, and a natural behavior known as urine marking

Feline inappropriate elimination, the scientific term for "missing the litterbox," accounts for about half of all reported behavior problems in cats. It's also the reason pet owners give most often when they drop their kitty off at an animal shelter because they feel they can no longer deal with the situation.

Kitties who eliminate outside the litterbox once a week are 4 times more likely to wind up at a shelter. If the behavior happens every day, the odds increase to over 28:1. About 4% of kitties urinate outside the box weekly; 1% do it daily.1

Estimates are that 10% to 24% of all cats have an inappropriate elimination problem at some point in their lives. There are several reasons this occurs, some having to do with natural feline tendencies, and others involving the environment. Often there are both natural and situational factors underlying a problem with inappropriate elimination.

Let's take a look at perhaps the most common cause for feline inappropriate elimination — litterbox aversion — since there's much you can do to resolve the issue.

Litterbox Aversion

Normal elimination behavior for indoor cats typically involves approaching and hopping into the litterbox without hesitation. Once inside, they behave much like their wild counterparts. They select just the right spot, do a bit of digging, turn around and relieve themselves, review the result, and then cover it with litter.

Cats who aren't comfortable with their litterbox tend to approach it tentatively. They may balance on the side of the box or put only two feet in. They may actually use the litter, but immediately leap from the box when finished. Worst case they may walk to the box, sniff at it, turn, walk away — and eliminate elsewhere. Pooping outside the box, but very close to it, is almost always a litterbox aversion problem.

Your cat can decide she doesn't like her litterbox for any number of reasons. Perhaps it isn't being cleaned frequently, or not frequently enough for her comfort. Maybe she's sensitive to a chemical used to clean the box, or perhaps she's not fond of a box with a hood. The box may be in a noisy or high traffic location, or where another pet in the household can trap her in there.

Solving Your Cat's Litterbox Aversion

Make a wise litterbox choice — While most cats are less picky about the actual box than the litter it holds, some do balk at covered boxes. The good news is that if you purchase a box with a cover, you can simply keep the lid off if it seems to be a problem for your cat.

Your best choice in a litterbox is one that's easy for you to keep scrupulously clean, since box cleanliness is a critical component in ensuring your kitty uses it (and only it). She should be able to comfortably get in and out of the box, and it should be large enough for her to turn around inside.

A box with high sides may seem like a good idea if kitty is a litter-kicker, and that's fine as long as no matter her age or physical condition, she can easily get in and out of it. If yours is a multi-cat household, remember the rule for the number of litterboxes needed: one for each cat, plus one extra.

Also, since almost all boxes are plastic, you should plan to replace your litterbox at regular intervals, because while plastic boxes are inexpensive, lightweight and easy to clean, there are downsides, including the fact that they get scratched up.

When kitty digs down through the litter to cover her pee or poop, her sharp claws scrape the bottom and sides of the box.

After a while, these nicks and scuffs attract germs and odor that can remain even after you disinfect the box. It's a good idea after cleanings to check your litterbox for scratched or abraded plastic. Budgeting for a new box each year is a good idea.

Let your cat choose his litter — Cats have individual preferences that extend to the type of litter they favor. Studies on the types of litter kitties prefer show they're quite choosy about particle size. Their evolutionary substrate, for potty purposes, is sand. When we brought our feline friends indoors, clay litter came along and most cats were okay with it. But clay has its own issues, as do corn- and wheat-based litters.

These days, there's a mind-boggling selection of organic and natural types of litters on the market, but many of them feature big particle sizes, which don't appeal to most cats. Kitties also don't like synthetic scents or odor control additives in their litter.

You can discover your kitty's litter preference by buying the smallest amount available of several kinds of litter, and several inexpensive plastic litter pans. Place the pans with different litters (about 4 inches deep per pan) side by side and see which gets used most often. Once he's made his decision, consider donating the unchosen litter and (cleaned) litter pans to a local shelter or cat rescue.

Find the best location for the litterbox — Cats evolved as both predator and prey for larger animals, which is why they feel most vulnerable when eating and eliminating.

For this reason, it's important to choose a location for the litterbox that is somewhat out of the way, in a non-high traffic area of your home, and away from noisy household machinery and appliances. Choose a warm location in the house rather than the basement or garage. And make sure the box isn't too close to your cat's food or water bowls.

Keep the litterbox meticulously clean — Cats, from the tiniest kittens to the geriatric set, are fastidious creatures. Since your feline BFF can neither scoop nor scour her own litterbox, she depends on you to keep it up to her cleanliness standards.

It's important to note that many kitties, particularly as they get older, can develop an aversion to a less-than-pristine litterbox. You must be disciplined about scooping the box. This means twice a day scooping of all poop and urine clumps.

After scooping, I also recommend removing any litter stuck to the sides or bottom of the box with a damp paper towel. Dry the area thoroughly with another paper towel before scooping dry litter back over it. Keeping the sides and floor of the box clean and dry may help extend the time between full box clean-outs.

Dispose of all used litter and clean the box as often as necessary, but definitely every two weeks, minimum. It's important to wash the container thoroughly to remove as much odor as possible so that your kitty doesn't become unwilling to use her 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. As I mentioned earlier, plastic litterboxes should be replaced every year or two. The secret to controlling cat box odor, for the benefit of all family members, including your kitty, is to keep the litterbox in pristine condition.

Never punish your cat for litterbox mistakes — If you catch your cat about to eliminate outside the litterbox, gently scoop him up and put him in his box. If you find a mess he left behind, simply clean it up using these tips.

Please don't raise your voice, yell, handle him roughly, or rub his face in his accident. You'll just frighten him, and he won't make the connection between his mistake and your behavior. All he'll take away from being yelled at or roughly handled is that he should fear you.

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Other Common Reasons for Feline Inappropriate Elimination

Even if you suspect your kitty's bad bathroom behavior is due to litterbox aversion, it's important to recognize that an underlying medical problem could be the cause, or urine marking.

If your cat suddenly forgets her manners and starts peeing or pooping outside the litterbox — especially if she decides to use the bathtub or a sink instead —the first thing I recommend is a visit to your veterinarian.

There are a number of potentially serious medical conditions that can contribute to inappropriate elimination, all of which require prompt diagnosis and treatment. These include feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), urinary tract infection, cystitis, obstruction of the urethra, diabetes, cognitive dysfunction, and hyperthyroidism.

Urine marking can be hormonally driven, but it's most often the result of a natural system of feline communication, or stress. Both male and female cats spray, as do both neutered and intact cats. However, neutered cats spray less, and neutering can reduce or eliminate spraying in some cases.

Kitties who urine-mark generally use the litterbox normally, but also perform marking behaviors. Some cats do both house soiling and urine marking, but it's easy to tell the difference between the two once you know what to look for. You can find more information on this behavior here.

It's important to note that urine marking can be difficult to manage, as often the root cause, if determined, can't be resolved completely. And sometimes despite addressing all possibilities, cats still mark.