Not using the litterbox is among the most common reasons cats are abandoned, rehomed, euthanized, or placed in shelters and rescue. It’s understandable that nobody wants cat urine and feces all over their home, but what some cat owners don’t realize is that cats avoiding the litterbox can usually return to regular usage with a little time and treatment.
Eliminate Medical Problems First
Any number of medical factors can contribute to a cat missing the litterbox. Urinary tract infections, kidney disease, age, certain cancers, and excessive stress can cause accidents. The first step upon finding multiple accidents outside the box should be to make a veterinary appointment to eliminate any medical cause for the behavior.
If you were forward thinking enough to have bloodwork done while your cat was using the litterbox and healthy, the vet will use your own cat’s prior tests as a baseline; otherwise, he or she will take blood samples and compare them to the average or ideal results to determine whether or not your cat’s organs and body systems are functioning properly. A urine and/or feces sample should also be tested, to rule out infection and parasites.
If the exam turns up an underlying, treatable medical issue, but you can’t put up with accidents until treatment is complete, consider isolating the cat in a room with a tile floor, or even putting her in a commercial cat cage or large dog crate until she is continent. Kitty won’t be pleased, but a temporarily caged kitty is better off than a homeless kitty.
Examine the Environment
Whenever a cat suddenly develops a problematic behavior, the first question is, “Has anything changed in the home recently?” For some cats, a change as small as rearranging the living room can shake up their whole worldview and create stress-based problems. If you’ve recently had visitors, gotten a new pet, had a baby, moved, remodeled, redecorated, changed cat litter brands, or even changed your work schedule, it’s a strong possibility that the cat’s accidents have to do with the change.
Another problem that can eventually result in litterbox avoidance is the litterbox itself. Too many people use covered litterboxes, shielding their homes and families from litterbox odor, but exposing the cat’s much more sensitive nose to an enclosed, unventilated chamber of stench. Cats don’t find their excrement any more pleasant than humans do, and the ammonia buildup in a dirty covered box can even cause respiratory illness if left unchecked. If a cat using a covered box starts avoiding it, try the largest open litterbox available.
Litterbox location is also a factor. Move the litterbox aside and kneel at kitty level where it’s usually located. If you can’t see a way out of the room in a straight line from where you’re kneeling, the cat may be concerned about escape potential. This is often the problem when cats urinate or defecate a few feet from, but not in, the litterbox. They want to use the litterbox, but are afraid of being startled and caught without an escape route. The room where the box is should provide privacy, escape potential, and quiet.
Finally, consider where kitty IS going to the bathroom. If it’s in a place where a litterbox wouldn’t be enormously offensive, consider just putting the box there. A little compromise on location is a small price to pay for keeping your family intact and the cat waste in its box.
If your cat doesn’t have a medical problem causing her litterbox avoidance, and you can’t identify any environmental factors responsible, you may never know what triggered the avoidance behavior. Perhaps a loud noise scared Fluffy out of the box and she hasn’t gone back since. Maybe she’s decided the litter isn’t as good for burying things in as the Berber carpet. The cause only matters if it produces a solution, however, and if you can’t find the cause of the behavior, start focusing on treatment.
Begin by minimizing stressors in your cat’s environment. Squirting with water, yelling, tossing, and flicking are all banned while treating a behavioral problem that can be caused by stress. In fact, all of these punitive methods of behavior modification should be banned from the household permanently; however, it’s essential to get out of the punishment habit when treating litterbox avoidance. Any fright or stress connected to elimination will encourage your cat to eliminate as far out of your sight as it can get: for example, behind the couch or under the bed.
Clean carpets fully with a cleaner designed to remove cat urine. Even if you can’t smell it anymore, chances are your cat smells old accidents and is returning to the “scene of the crime.” If your carpet has many severe stains, consider a steam cleaner with a special pet odor removing shampoo.
Don’t scold a cat caught using the carpet instead of a litterbox. Instead, gently lift the cat, praising him for his patience, and place him in the litterbox. Praise him if he finishes his business in the box. Additionally, praise your cat softly any time you see him step into the litterbox, whether he uses it or not.
You can also try changing litter brands. Declawed cats have a harder time with clay litters than with alternatives made from natural products like wheat and corn. Some cats prefer to avoid artificial odors like floral scents. I met one cat who would only use newspapers. Every cat is different. Give several things a try.
Lastly, repurpose areas of frequent accidents as play, scratch, or eating areas. After cleaning thoroughly, put food and water, an assortment of favorite toys, and a beloved scratching post in the area where the accidents happen. The visual stimuli should help remind your cat that he’s not supposed to be in the area to use the restroom. To make this tactic even more effective, buy carpet runners, the kind with little plastic feet on the bottom, and turn them feet-side-up over former accident spots, then scatter treats and toys on the plastic. The nubby plastic isn’t a comfortable place to squat for a bathroom break, and most cats will move on, at which point you can praise them for heading to the litterbox.
If all else fails…
If all the above measures fail, it’s time to call an Animal Behaviorist. Some litterbox problems can’t be solved without professional help.