Why Is My Cat Not Using the Litter Box

Grey cat walking towards the camera

If your cat is not using the litter box all of a sudden, there can be many reasons for this problem. Get insights from a Purina expert on why your cat won’t use the litter box, and what to do if it happens. 

What Are the Causes of a Cat Not Using the Litter Box?

Cats are sensitive to change. Their surroundings and many other factors can affect their relationship with the litter box. Determining a cause can be challenging because, according to Purina animal behavior scientist Jean-François Savard, Ph.D., “There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer.” 

Health Problems

If your cat suddenly stops using the litter box or starts eliminating in other areas of your house, a health issue could be to blame. Dr. Savard recommends checking with your veterinarian to be sure. “Once you rule out a medical problem,” he says, “then it is easier to look at other things.” 

Litter Box Overcrowding

When it comes to litter boxes, cats don’t like crowds. If you have multiple cats, too many of them trying to use the same litter box can cause problems. 

“The rule of thumb is the number of litter boxes you should have should equal the number of cats, plus one,” advises Dr. Savard. So if you have two cats, for example, you should have three litter boxes available for them to use. 

Another overcrowding issue can occur within the litter box. Cats prefer clean litter boxes, but in multi-cat households this may be less about the presence of odor from other cats, and more about elimination “obstacles.” 

In fact, a study funded by Nestlé Purina on litter box appeal in multi-cat households demonstrated that the physical obstructions created by cat waste in litter boxes, and not odor from that waste, determined litter box preference in multi-cat environments. 

So if you want your cat (or cats) to use your litter boxes, keep them clean!

Litter Box Location

Like people, cats prefer a bit of peace and quiet when they “do their business.” So be sure to locate litter boxes in quiet areas with fewer obstacles and less traffic. 

As an example, Dr. Savard says that while the laundry room might seem like a good “non-public” space to hide a litter box, your cat might not feel comfortable with the noise of a running washer and dryer. If this is the case, the litter box may go unused.

Also, if a cat develops a negative association with an area where her litter box is placed due to a negative experience, you may need to find a new home for that box if you want her to continue to use it. 

Other Litter Box Issues

Other reasons a cat might start eliminating outside the litter box could have to do with the box itself. “One thing to consider,” according to Dr. Savard, “is whether your cat might not be aiming well because the box isn’t big enough, or the sides of the box aren’t high enough.” 

If you’ve recently switched to a different type of litter, your cat might not be happy with the change. Switching litter back might be an easy way to restore proper litter box behavior. 

How Can You Tell if a Cat Is Stressed?

Any of the above issues could cause your cat stress, which can affect her relationship with her litter box. Stress can also result from changes in her life or environment, such as a move to a new home, someone special moving or passing away or the addition of another pet to the family. 

Any of these events can be stressful for cats. If you know what is normal for your cat, you can be alert for signs of stress. 

Signs of stress can be more varied than improper elimination. Dr. Savard recommends looking for:

  • Changes in habits or actions
  • Reduction in appetite
  • Sleeping in unusual areas
  • Asking for attention in different ways
  • Vocalizing more

If you’re seeing any of these indicators of stress, try some extra affection and attention. Your cat may also need the comfort of more consistency in her environment.  

How Do You Get a Cat to Use the Litter Box?

When bringing a new cat into a home, Dr. Savard tells owners to “create a small, quiet space with a litter box and items like a scratching post. Put them in the litter box so that they know where it is. They should have a desire to go in that clean litter box when the need arises.” 

For a cat experiencing stress due to a move or other trauma around a certain location, try confining her to a space with her own litter box and food for a few days, then gradually reintroduce her to the rest of the house. While she’s getting used to the change, make sure to give her extra love and attention. 

Get more cat litter box tips from our experts, or visit our Pet Expertise page.

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