Thinking Outside the Litter Box


When people think of potty training, they often tend to think about either newborn babies or puppies, but not cats. This may be due to the fact that cats tend to be inherently “litter box” trained even when they are kittens.

While cats rarely need to be taught how to use the litter box, it is not uncommon for cats to urinate or defecate outside of their litter box which could be a sign of illness, stress, or even (unintentional) human error.

Here is the inside scoop, pun intended, on how to keep your cat’s litter box habits healthy!

Let’s start with the easy things that cat owners can do to ensure litter boxes are up to their cat’s standards. If all of the steps below are followed, it can help a veterinarian determine if the litter box avoidance is behavioral or medical in nature more readily.

  • Have one more litter box than you have cats – For example, if you have two cats you should ideally have three litter boxes in the house. This can be easier said than done, especially in D.C. where square footage is precious. Why is this important? Some cats prefer to urinate in one litter box and defecate in the other and if they aren’t able to separate them in the litter box cats will take it upon themselves to find somewhere else to urinate or defecate. Cats can also be territorial of their litter box and might not want to share with their brother or sister cat.
  • Variety – Cats like to have choices with their litter box scenery so I recommend providing one litter box that is covered and one litter box that is uncovered. If you have a senior cat, it is also important to consider possible arthritis and jumping in/out of the litter box could be stressful on the joints. Providing a low entrance litter box can be beneficial.
  • Litter type – Unfortunately, cat litter marketing is starting to focus on humans rather than the cats. Scented litter can actually be irritating to cat paw pads. As much as I loved the scent that came with the Hawaiian Aloha Febreze litter, my cats definitely had other thoughts.
  • Location – Cats can be incredibly independent creatures and can enjoy privacy with their litter box habits. I recommend keeping their litter box away from noisy rooms (laundry rooms, i.e). It’s also advisable to have litter boxes in separate parts of the house. If you have multiple floors, it would be great to have a litter box on each floor especially for older pets that might have arthritis. Additionally, cats do not like to have their food and water by their litter boxes. I recommend keeping cat and food bowls in a completely separate room than their litter boxes.
  • Liners – There are plastic products that you can line litter boxes with to help with the cleaning of the litter box. The noise created by the liners can cause cats to avoid using the litter box.
  • Cleaning – Litter boxes should be strained at least once a day. While some cats are more tolerant than others about adhering to this schedule, it is also important for their overall health. Cat urine has ammonia in it – which is what causes the potent smell. If ammonia builds up, it can be harmful for cats and humans alike. Additionally, litter boxes should be deep cleaned once a month. This means all the litter should be removed and the box itself should be scrubbed down with soap.

If you are doing all of the things above but your cat is still not using the litter box, there could be a medical problem to blame. Here are some of the medical conditions that can cause litter box avoidance.

  • Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) – This is a common source of litter box avoidance especially in female cats. UTIs are caused by bacteria that can cause inflammation leading to pain when urinating, increased frequency to urinate, blood in the urine, and straining to urinate. Cats can associate the pain from urinating with the litter box so they try to avoid the litter box to help prevent the discomfort. UTIs require appropriate antibiotic treatment to ensure resolution of the infection.
  • Urinary Blockage – This is more common in male cats that are two-five years of age. A cat can become blocked with a bladder stone/crystal or even just a plug composed of protein, cells, or debris. This is a medical emergency and can be life threatening if not treated promptly. If your cat is blocked, he may visit the litter box multiple times and produce little urine or your cat may posture to urinate outside of the litter box and still not produce urine.
  • Feline Idiopathic Cystitis (FIC) – This is a fancy way of saying when your cat gets stressed the bladder becomes inflamed and irritated. This can cause discomfort just like a UTI but without the bacterial infection. Pay attention to when your cat stops using the litter box: is it when you leave for a trip, furniture is moved, or guests come over? These can be stressful events for cats.

Litter box avoidance has several causes and can have several solutions. Please contact your veterinarian if you notice your cat is not using the litter box so we can help ensure your cat’s health and provide an appropriate treatment plan. We hope this gave you an inside look on what your cat wishes they could tell you, aside from asking you to fill up their half-empty food bowl.

Dan Teich, DVM is Medical Director at District Veterinary Hospital Eastern Market.