New Mexico's Pet Resource WINTER 2006


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Oops…Missed the Litter Box
by Nancy Marano

Not long ago a friend told me two of her cats were not using the litter box consistently. They used the hall carpet or a spot near the litter box instead for their bathroom chores. This is not just a minor annoyance that will correct itself if you ignore it. In fact, it’s pretty difficult to ignore either the mess or the odor of misplaced deposits. Inappropriate elimination actually tops the list of reasons why people give up their cats to animal shelters.

If you live with a cat, you already know that reasoning with a cat seldom works. And if reasoning seldom works, punishment never does. Your only choice is to begin thinking like your cat. I know that sounds impossible, but it isn’t.

Remember your cat always has a reason for what he does. What you consider to be a terrible habit seems logical to your cat. You must become a feline detective and figure out what your cat’s reason is.

If your cat is not using the litter box, the problem might be medical, emotional, or territorial, but the only way to correct it is by some astute observation.


Rule out any medical problems by taking your cat to the veterinarian. Several potentially serious medical conditions can cause a cat to avoid the litter box.

FUS (Feline Urologic Syndrome), a buildup of struvite crystals in the urinary tract, causes irritation in the bladder. Without immediate treatment a life-threatening urinary obstruction can develop. The cat with FUS has the urge to urinate frequently. Some cats even associate their discomfort with the litter box and avoid using it. This condition is seen most often in either older or male cats.

Diabetes, tumors or renal failure can also cause urinary difficulties. If you notice a change in your cat’s litter box habits, make a trip to the veterinarian your top priority.

If your cat gets a clean bill of health, you will have to dig deeper for the cause.


Surely the saying, “cleanliness is next to godliness” was written with cats in mind. Cats are extremely clean animals who do not tolerate a dirty litter box. Scoop the box every day and change the litter once a week. If more than one cat is using the box, you’ll need to clean it more often. The box itself needs cleaning once a week with mild soap. Rinse the box thoroughly, and dry it before adding new litter. If the disinfectant odor is too strong, the cat may reject the box because it offends his delicate nose. Remember ammonia-scented products resemble the smell of urine and are likely to make the cat avoid the box.


What’s true for houses is true for litter boxes. Where you put the litter box is important to your cat. In the wild, cats bury their waste because they don’t want to defile their nest or let enemies know where their nest is. Use this natural tendency as a guide and don’t put the box too close to the cat’s bed, food or water. You want privacy for your bathroom chores and your cat does, too. The litter box shouldn’t be in a high traffic area of the house. However, be sure the box isn’t tucked so far away that it’s difficult for the cat to get to. If it is, he’ll find a more convenient spot.

The surface you put the box on makes a difference to a cat, too. Putting the box on carpeting may give a cat the wrong idea. He might not distinguish between the carpet under his box and the carpet in your living room.

Once you have the box in a location your cat likes, leave it there. Moving the box to different areas confuses the cat and can lead to accidents.


If you’ve cleaned the box, located it properly and your cat still isn’t using it, you should consider changing the brand of litter. Many types of litter are available. There’s clay based, clumping, newspaper pellets, sawdust, or even sand. The most popular types are clay based and clumping. It is a matter of experimenting until you find the right litter for your cat. Once you do, stick with it. If you need to change brands for some reason, make the changeover gradually by adding some of the new type to the old brand. Continue doing this until you are using the new brand exclusively.


Many things cause stress in your cat’s life. If you are going through a major event such as a move, a new baby, another pet, a divorce or a death, it affects your cat as well. Cats like routine and may feel threatened by something new in their lives. This often leads to a change in their litter box habits.

When you are going through difficult emotions, try to continue the familiar routines with your cat, even though you might not feel like it. Talk to the cat, play with him, and feed him at regular times so that he understands your feelings toward him haven’t changed.

Stress may come from outside, too, if there are cats coming through your yard or parking themselves on your windowsill. Your cat may feel he needs to mark his territory to keep the interloper out.


If your cat urinates outside his litter box, the spot must be completely cleaned and the odor neutralized. If not, the odor continues to attract your cat to the spot. Thoroughly clean the area. Many products are available at pet supply stores that will neutralize the odor once the area is clean.

You can also change the texture of the spot so that it won’t attract your cat. If he urinated on carpet, put a piece of plastic over the spot. If he went on hard wood, you can put a carpet there. Your aim is to make the spot unattractive for future mistakes.

Detecting the cause of your cat’s litter box errors takes time and effort on your part, but it will be well worth your efforts when you have a cat who uses his litter box every time.

Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who lives in Albuquerque and is owned by two cats, Sammy and Rocky, and a Westie named Maggie May.

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