One of the biggest issues cat owners have with their pets relates to toileting and litter box management. Although negative behavior around elimination can sometimes be traced to health concerns, a more common correlation is the toileting environment and setup itself.
Common litter box problems
What are the most common problematic litter box behaviors reported to veterinarians? We’ll delve further into the causes behind these issues and their solutions further on, but these are the top three.
Eliminating right next to or outside of the litter box
This could be due to an inadequate litter box or substrate, including the type of materials used for the litter box and the composition of the litter itself. For example, crystallized litter causes an unpleasant sensation under a cat’s paws.
Eliminating over the edge of the litter box
This is often the result of a litter box that’s overfilled with clumped urine and feces or too small for your cat. A rule of thumb is to purchase a box that’s about 1 1/2 times the cat’s length from nose to the tip of their tail when stretched out to their full length.
Weak hind legs or other mobility issues are also common causes. Mobility issues may inhibit your cat from squatting steadily. And they might eliminate over the edge as they wobble through the process.
Eliminating in other areas of the house
This could be due to lack of privacy and seclusion, but it could also be the result of an inadequate or dirty litter box. Make sure that the box is placed in a fairly quiet area of the home and set any additional boxes in their own space. Scooping and litter box cleaning should be a regular, consistent routine.
Getting to the root of the problem by eliminating other possibilities
In addition, toileting behaviors are sometimes related to the health, including the emotional well-being, of the cat or kitten. This is not to say that they are inherently just problem pets. However, they may be trying to get a message across in one of the only ways that they can communicate that something is bothering them.
For example, your feline friend could be telling you that they’re not feeling well or telegraphing an underlying health problem. Territorial marking is another issue that’s unrelated to the toileting environment.
Let’s examine these two conditions a little further.
Marking and spraying
This is typically a social construct used by cats to communicate with other felines. The behavior is characterized by scratching or rubbing to deposit a chemical trail, urinating on surfaces or objects outside of the litter box, or defecating on vertical surfaces outside or adjacent to the toileting area, such as walls. The latter process is also called middening.
Emotional problems unrelated to other pets could also be at the root of your cat’s behavior. For example, new family members, home construction or some other environmental disturbance, or your extended absence from the home due to activities like business trips or family vacations could manifest as toileting issues.
There are several medical conditions that could lead to elimination problems or cause problematic toileting behavior. The most common litter box-related health issues are urinary tract infections or bladder problems.
Though occasionally related to age or general infirmity, these health problems usually fall under umbrella terms such as feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC), feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), and urolithiasis.
Other possible medical causes include:
- Kidney disease
- Diabetes mellitus
Any of these conditions should be screened and diagnosed by your vet. Bring up any concerns at your cat’s next checkup if he or she begins to exhibit symptoms of an underlying health condition.
If none of these issues is at the root of toileting misbehavior, you should take another look at your litter box set up and management practices.
Are you meeting your cat’s toileting needs?
Barring underlying health conditions or marking, peeing and pooping outside of the litter box can usually be traced to the set up and maintenance of your cat’s toileting environment.
These topics are covered in more detail in other articles, but here’s a brief overview of each set of circumstances.
Litter box management
Before you consider getting a new kitten or introducing another cat to your household, it’s important to have their toileting, play, and rest areas set up in the most favorable possible ways and locations.
The first thing you should do is consider litter box placement in relation to the size and layout of your home. Make sure to put the box in an area where your cat will have privacy from other people and pets, and that includes disturbances from outside the home through windows or pet access flaps. The area should also be free from obstructions and easy to enter/exit.
Next, purchase a litter box that’s big enough to accommodate your pet and the litter without spillage or over-soiling. Make sure that it’s durable and easy to clean, too.
The litter should be unscented and about the same size and consistency as grains of sand. Scoop out solid material daily and clean the box completely once a week.
Cats and (anti-)social behaviors
Most felines engage in normal cat-to-cat communications in a multi-pet home. However, cats are like any other beings sharing a space. There are different personalities involved and the need for privacy.
Sometimes, this can lead to acting out in ways that drive cat owners crazy.
If your cats are marking their territory or engaging in other unfavorable (from a human perspective) behaviors regarding the litter box, the best thing to do is to limit interaction as much as possible, at least with regard to litter box access.
That could mean placing litter boxes in separate rooms or purchasing a box that’s large enough for multiple pets. Your veterinarian can provide you with further information about cat socialization and interaction.
Encouraging your cat to use the litter box
Now that you’ve discovered some possible causes of toileting problems, your next question likely revolves around how to encourage your cat to use the litter box. Although these guidelines are by no means exhaustive, they should go a long way towards diagnosing the possible reasons for litter box-related issues and provide some actionable solutions.
Use positive reinforcement
Cats are some of the easiest animals to house train. Their normal intuitive behavior is such that even tiny kittens will quickly take to the litter box once it’s properly set up and positioned, and you show them where it’s located.
If your cat begins to exhibit behaviors like toileting outside of their letterbox, please keep in mind that these are natural reactions and not vindictive or intentional. From a cat’s perspective, their behavior is completely warranted and appropriate.
The best way to remedy the situation is to refrain from yelling, scolding, or physical punishment. The cat won’t understand your reaction, and such actions on your part will lead to confusion, aggression, or fear from your cat.
That’s no way to treat a cherished family member or any living being. It could also lead to them urinating or pooping in hidden areas of the home, such as behind furniture.
A better way to handle the situation is through positive reinforcement of proper behavior and a pleasant tone of voice.
Block or remove temptation
The fastest way to prevent soiling your shoes, clothing, and carpets or rugs is to remove temptation. Place shoes, boots, and toys or other items in a closet or storage container. Put the litter box in a dedicated area away from carpeting, rugs, and drapes, and place a washable mat beneath the box to protect flooring materials.
Clean soiled areas thoroughly
Pet elimination areas are at least partially encouraged by chemical cues, so these should be eliminated completely. Clean any soiled areas thoroughly to reduce built-up odors, and clean the litter box on a regular basis.
When cleaning out the litter box, mild, unscented soap and water will do. This should be done once a week in normal conditions, and more often if there is excessive soiling due to multiple pets or a health condition. Any solid waste should be scooped daily, topping off the litter as needed with fresh material. Avoid scented litter and cleaning products.
As for cleaning flooring, curtains, furniture, and other soiled items in the home, you’ll need to put in a little more work. The following procedure is very effective for cleaning pet-soiled areas of the home.
In preparation, have three spray bottles ready, one that contains a 10-repent solution of biologic or mild cleanser and water, one containing plain water, and a third containing isopropyl alcohol or an ethanol-based solution like surgical spirit.
- Remove solid matter, such as feces, and blot any fluid with paper towels and discard
- Spray the soiled area with the solution from bottle A
- Blot area with paper towels and discard
- Repeat as often as necessary to remove traces of urine and/or feces
- Spray area again with the plain water from bottle B; repeat until any detergent is rinsed away
- Blot with paper towels until damp
- Mist area with the solution from the third bottle and allow to air-dry
Test a small area first to make sure the products won’t cause any damage. Heavily soiled or stained surfaces should be removed and replaced.
Remove any stress triggers from the environment
Much like people. pets have trouble using the bathroom when they’re under stress. Keep the litter box away from high-traffic areas or noisy appliances within the home. It should also be kept away from patio doors, pets flaps, and doorways that face yards or noisy streets. If you have small children or other pets, make sure that they don’t have direct access to the toileting area.
Sometimes, the presence of another cat’s feces or urine is the problem. Try to have at least 2 litter boxes, and scoop them out as soon as they’ve been used. If you have more than one cat, purchase separate boxes for each and locate them in separate areas of the home. When that isn’t possible, at least try to place them in different areas of the room.
Get a little help from science
In addition to eliminating the scent of urine and feces when your cat soils outside the box, scent can be used to direct them to areas where it’s appropriate to use the bathroom.
Pet supply stores and veterinary clinics often carry pheromone-based drops that you can add to the litter and pheromone-laced wipes. This will provide a chemical trail that tells them where to go.
Arrange a wellness check and health screening
If you suspect that your pet’s behavior is due to a health problem, schedule a visit with his veterinarian as soon as possible. The most common culprits are urinary tract or bladder infections, which cause symptoms like pain, bloating, and hair loss in the area above their bladder.
After asking a few questions about your pet’s diet, living environment, and any other changes in their routine or home, your vet will conduct a health screening and run some tests to rule out or confirm any serious medical conditions.
These could include:
- Urinalysis, including cultures and a urinary sediment examination
- Abdominal radiography and ultrasound
- Digital rectal examination
- Fecal examination
- CBC and biochemical profiling
Sometimes, cats can appear to act out because they’re stressed or frightened. When adding new family members, whether they be pets or people, allow your cat to be introduced and interact in their own time. Make sure to give them plenty of love and attention so they don’t feel neglected.
If you’re going to be away from home for an extended time or your work schedule outside the home is changing, try to arrange for pet sitting at home so that their routine experiences as little disruption as possible.
When marking behavior occurs around entryways, such as doors or windows, it could be that your cat perceives a threat from outside. This could be from a barking dog, kids playing, or nearby construction.
Make sure to locate the litter box away from doors and windows whenever possible. Limit or eliminate any activities that the cat would find stressful, such as administering medications or bathing near the litter box location.
Final thoughts about litter box problems and solutions
An educated pet owner makes for happier pet-friendly households. By following the above guidelines regarding toileting behavior, you should be able to turn any negative behaviors around and enjoy the positive benefits of pet parenting.
Carney, H. C., Sadek, T. P., Curtis, T. M., Halls, V., Heath, S., Hutchison, P., … & Westropp, J. L. (2014). AAFP and ISFM guidelines for diagnosing and solving house-soiling behavior in cats. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 16(7), 579-598.
Ellis, S. L., Rodan, I., Carney, H. C., Heath, S., Rochlitz, I., Shearburn, L. D., … & Westropp, J. L. (2013). AAFP and ISFM feline environmental needs guidelines. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 15(3), 219-230.
Heath, S. (2019). Common feline problem behaviours: unacceptable indoor elimination. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 21(3), 199-208.