Litter box issues are some of the most common cat behavioral problems. They can also be some of the most challenging problems to solve because there are so many reasons why a cat may stop using the litter box (not to mention how frustrating it can be to live in a home where the carpet under the dining room table has suddenly become the stand-in litter box). Like all behavioral problems, the key to solving it is to see the environment (in this case, the litter box) from your cat’s perspective. Here are some tips for making your cat’s litter box experience as pleasant and stress-free as possible so she’ll want to keep going back.
While many litter box problems are behavioral, cats often avoid the litter box because of medical issues as well. It’s best to rule out a medical issue with your veterinarian if it becomes an issue.
#1 – Undesirable location Cats like a bit of privacy when they’re doing their business, but they also need their litter boxes to be easily accessible. Avoid placing the box in very high traffic areas of your home or in locations that are hard to get to. This is especially important for cats who have mobility problems. If your cat has arthritis or achey joints, for instance, you should find a place for the litter box that’s near where she spends most of her time rather than on the other side of the house or in the basement where she’ll have to walk up and down stairs.
#2 – In the dark
Though cats can see far better than us in dim light, they can’t see in complete darkness. It can make a cat very anxious to not know exactly where the box is or to not know if she’ll be ambushed by a hidden predator while she’s using it. If you must put the litter box in a dark area such as a closet, basement, or windowless room, plug in a nightlight nearby to help her navigate.
#3 – Covered box Covered litter boxes may seem like a great idea from our human perspective since they can eliminate a lot of smells, sights, and scatter, but they’re not always best for your cat. Cats who are anxious by nature or live in a multi-cat home can feel vulnerable in a covered box because it only gives them one way out with minimum visibility to see what or who is waiting for them on the outside. If you must use a covered litter box, at least consider one with a clear lid. Another option may be a box with high sides rather than a lid. Higher sides will help keep litter in the box while giving your cat more than one escape route.
#4 – Not enough or too much litter
Cats can be picky about things you’d never imagine could be problem, like the amount of litter in the box. Cats need enough litter to dig around and bury, but too much litter will be kicked out of the box when she digs. Most veterinarians, behaviorists, and litter companies suggest a layer of 2-4 inches.
#5 – Wrong type of litter Cats can also be very picky about the type of litter in their box. While some cats are easygoing and will use whatever litter they find in the box, others can be turned off if the litter isn’t the texture, weight, or scent they’re accustomed to. If you suspect your cat is picky and you must switch litters, try adding the new litter to the familiar litter a bit at a time over the course of several weeks until the box contains 100% new litter. Your cat is less likely to mind if the transition happens gradually.
#6 – Box liner
Like covered litter boxes, liners are made for our own convenience without taking a cat’s perspective into consideration. For a cat, feeling a flimsy plastic bag while she’s scratching and burying can be uncomfortable and may make her avoid the litter box altogether.
#7 – Sides are too high If your cat has mobility challenges (arthritic, overweight, etc.) she may have a hard time climbing in and out of a box with sides that are too high. Instead, choose a shallow box.
#8 – Not enough boxes
Cats are always competing for resources in multi-cat homes– even if they are friends and even if it’s too subtle for you to notice. A submissive cat may start avoiding a litter box if a more dominant cat is lurking around. To keep the peace in a multi-cat home, be sure to add several litter boxes in different locations throughout your home so each cat always has a safe option. The general rule is that you should one box per cat plus one more. So, 3 boxes for two cats, 6 boxes for 5 cats, etc.
#9 – Not cleaned often enough
Cats have incredibly strong senses of smell, so it’s no wonder that they don’t want to be in a litter box that’s filthy. Get into a habit of scooping the litter box at least once per day.