Litter Box Training

Correcting your cat’s bad box behavior.

A cat that won’t use the litterbox is the most frequent concern cat owners discuss with veterinarians—and cats that aren’t litter-trained have a hard time finding a home. But with patience, diligence and time, this behavior can often be corrected.

Punishing a cat for failing to use the litterbox is only likely to worsen the problem, since emotional triggers and stress are likely what caused them to stop using the litterbox in the first place. But a few adjustments around the home will correct most instances of house soiling.

First, make sure an underlying health issue is not the cause of the litterbox issue. A simple examination and urinalysis can eliminate feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD) as the cause. If your cat’s water consumption has increased, ask your vet to check for kidney or bladder ailments. Intestinal parasites can cause a cat to lose control of his or her bowels—these can be treated with de-worming medications. If left untreated, any of these issues can cause your cat to associate pain and discomfort with the litterbox—and will make them even less likely to use it appropriately.

Marking or spraying is not the same as failing to use the litterbox. Marking can be done by both males and females and is almost always on a vertical surface. The cat will back up to a wall or a piece of furniture with its tail twitching and straight up. The cat will spray a small amount of urine and walk away.

If your cat has been given a clean bill of health and is not marking or spraying, try taking these next steps: Change the litter daily and clean the box twice weekly—cats are fastidious groomers and may not use a litterbox that doesn’t meet their cleanliness standards. You can try multiple litterboxes, too. And keep the litterbox area separate from your cat’s eating area—most cats will not tolerate having their bathroom and dining room in a shared space.

If you’ve recently changed the type of litter you use, try switching back to what you were using before. If you haven’t changed types for a while, it might be time for change. Most cats will use plain, unscented, clumping-type litter.

Cats prefer privacy when in the litterbox, but they also want to keep a look out for surprises. If another animal in the house has access to the cat in the litterbox, the cat will find refuge elsewhere. Some cats prefer covered pans facing into the room so they can keep watch for intruders; other cats will simply not use a covered pan. Experiment with different styles to see what works for your cat. Make changes slowly over several days—not suddenly—to give your cat a chance to decide what he or she prefers. Again, try providing several litterboxes at the same time.

Anywhere your cat has soiled in the home should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected to prevent your cat from associating that area with elimination. Don’t use an ammonia-based cleaner—cat urine is high in ammonia and the familiar scent will reinforce the association. You can also try covering the area with foil—cats don’t like how it feels on their paws and will avoid it.

For cats that are persistent in avoiding the litterbox, there are medications that can help—discuss the options with your veterinarian.

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