We sometimes take for granted how easy cats are to train to use a litterbox. Most take to it instinctively due to their desire to cover their urine and feces. However, for various reasons, there may be times when a cat avoids the litterbox and instead chooses other places to do their business. This can often be on carpeting, on piles of clothes or other less desirable areas.

So, why do cats decide not to use their litterbox? Despite what it may look like to us, there is always a reason behind this behavior and contrary to popular belief cats don’t do this to make us angry or “get back at us” for a perceived wrong. Trying to find the reason however can take some detective work and an ability to look at things from the cat’s point of view.

Whenever a cat starts urinating or defecating out of the box, the first thing that should be ruled out is a medical issue. When cat’s experience pain or discomfort when in the litterbox, they do not have the understanding to know that it is a medical issue causing their discomfort. In their mind they may think “when I go in the litterbox, I hurt. I will try to find a different place to go that does not cause discomfort”.  Having an exam, urinalysis and possible bloodwork done to look for a physical problem is the first step in trying to solve litterbox issues. Starting with the assumption that it is a behavior issue will do nothing but frustrate you and your cat if a medical problem is the underlying cause.

If a medical issue is determined to not be a likely cause, the next step is to look at the possibility of a behavioral or other issue. Below are some possible factors that can cause a cat to avoid their litterbox:

  • The box is not kept clean enough. Cats are very clean animals and a dirty box can be offensive to them. Think of yourself going into a dirty or stinky bathroom. Might you not want to find a different place to go?
  • Not enough boxes offered. The general rule of thumb is 1 box per cat and 1 extra. This means 2 boxes for 1 cat, 3 boxes for 2 cats, etc.. Some cats do not like to urinate and defecate in the same box, and some don’t like to go where another cat went. Offering plenty of choices can be helpful with some cats.
  • Litterbox placement issues. Is the litterbox located next to a sump pump, furnace or other appliance that may on occasion make noise and scare the cat? If a cat is startled or scared while in the process of eliminating, it can cause a negative association with that spot. Sometimes even a large thunderclap at the wrong time can cause this negative association. The cat only knows “I got really scared when I went in the litterbox. I don’t want that to happen again, so I am going to avoid that area”.
  • Subtle animosity between animals in the household. A more timid cat that has gotten “ambushed” by another cat (or a dog) while eliminating may have felt vulnerable, causing a negative association with that area. Sometimes owners may not realize this has happened or is going on. Young children can sometimes accidentally scare the cat at the wrong time. Teaching children to steer clear when the cat is in the box is ideal and keeping the box in an area where young children or dogs don’t have access can be helpful too.
  • Covered litterboxes. While humans like the idea of keeping the litterbox covered to help reduce litter being kicked out of the box and to contain odors, to many cats a cover can make them feel trapped and also can keep odors contained making it more offensive. Litterbox size can be an issue as well. Bigger cats may struggle to be able to posture comfortably in a box that is too small. Bigger is generally better. You can use a Sterilite container with an entrance cut into it if a big enough box is hard to find.
  • Scented litter. We might like scented litter, but cats usually don’t. Their sense of smell is much more developed than ours and perfumes and strong odors can be offensive to them.
  • Changes in litter or a litter they don’t like. Some cats can be very particular about the feel of litter on their feet, or the smell of the litter. Most prefer clumping litters over clay litters but with some cats you may need to do a bit of experimenting. Try offering different litters in different boxes to see if your cat has a preference.

The bottom line is that cats typically prefer to eliminate in a litterbox, however may feel they have no choice but to go elsewhere if the conditions are not right for them. If we do a little detective work and try to look at things from the cat’s perspective, we can often correct this problem. Sometimes working with someone who specializes in cat behavior can be invaluable in figuring out the problem. Many times we have the tendency to look at things from a human perspective and can miss important information that can help us to correct things that are a problem to the cat. Starting with a call to your veterinarian is the first step in getting kitty back on track with using the litterbox.