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Litter box problems

Litter box problems are very common. Often, you will hear people referring to this as a pure defiance. When the cat is lucky, humans will try to find out why the cat acts "defiant", those who are less lucky will be punished, abandoned or even put to sleep (Sounds too dramatic? Well, maybe, but I know about such a case).

When I'm speaking of litter box problems, I'm referring to urinating outside the box. It also happens that a cat poops all over the place, but this is rarer. It's also important to know that unneutered tom cats (and even females!) will start spraying once sexual maturity sets in. This is a natural behavior and there isn't much you can do about it. So this is one of the many reasons why a cat should be spayed or neutered at young age.


The disaster has happened ...

One thing is for sure, litter box problems are indeed a challenge for the human/feline relationship! It's hard to get the scent of cat urine out of the couch or the carpet (you can get some good results with baking soda or enzyme cleaners). But no matter how annyoing it may be: Please don't scold your cat! And never listen to those who will tell you that you have to stick kitty's nose into the mess!! You will hear this antiquated, horrible advice all the time, but it's as false as it's traumatizing for the cat! You won't get far with scolting and punishment, you're only risking the good relationship that you have with your cat. No cat will pee or poop outside the box just to annoy you! They're doing it because they're uncomfortable or desperated, and you shouldn't hesitate to find out why.


But what can I do?

When a cat that has always used the box suddenly stops doing so, the first thing you should do is to take a urine sample to the vet to have it tested. The most common cause of litter box problems are bladder- or urinary tract infections and/or struvite- respectively calcium oxalate crystals in the bladder (please read also Nine lives - really?). This is a very painful condition and very dangerous as well since it can become chronic. There's also a risk of developing bladder stones or a urinary tract blockage, which will be life-threatening. Especially male cats are affected by this due to their longer urethra.

When a cat is losing small amounts of urine, and when there's blood in it, it's easy to see that there must be a bladder infection. But it doesn't have to be like that! From my own experience I know that cats with bladder infections would still use their box occasionally, and that the urine amount and its color may still look normal. The cat may only have occasional "accidents", which makes it look like a behavior issue - and yet the animal has been sick.

Just imagine how painful urination is when you have a bladder infection! The cat will associate this discomfort with the litter box and choose another place next time. Well, that's feline logic!

It may sound a little mean... but when litter box problems are caused by bladder infections, you're almost lucky because when this is treated, the problem will usually disappear. It's more problematic when you really have to deal with a behavior issue because now you have to find out what's bothering the cat.


Not medical-related - what can I do now?

The vet examined your cat and told you it's healthy - what can you do next? Once again: Your cat doesn't mean to annoy you, but it needs your attention! Something is upsetting your friend, and you have to find out what it is. Sometimes it's easier when you're trying to look at your place through kitty's eyes...

You have to keep in mind that some cats react strongly to changes. Sometimes there are only small things that you don't even notice but which will make kitty's world break apart. That's why you should try to recall which things have changed in your cat's life before the litter box problems occurred. This could be:

  • a new cat has moved in
  • a baby was born
  • a new spouse has moved in
  • a family member has moved out or has died
  • a befriended pet has died
  • you're in a crisis and kitty reacts to that
  • the cat is depressive
  • you've moved with your cat
  • the place has been remodeled
  • there are new furnitures
  • you started using room refreshers or perfumes
  • one of the cat's favorite places has been removed or changed
  • you're using another brand of cat litter


The right place for the litter box

Not only the cat litter must be something you have to look at as a possible triggering factor, also the position of the box should be checked. When a cat doesn't like the place where it's supposed to do its "business", it may look out for spots more suitable. For example, cats don't like it when the box is too close to their feeding place (it's easy to understand why!). Or the box is placed in a spot of the house which is extremely busy. In a multi-cat-household, a cat may be molestered by another cat while doing its business. If this has happened, the cat may stop using that place and look for one where it's feeling more safe. So when you have more than one cat, the box shouldn't be placed in a corner from which kitty can't escape when the only exit road is watched by another cat. Especially problematic are boxes with domes. When another cat is blocking the entrance, kitty is trapped inside! There's also another reason why some cats don't prefer these kind of boxes: They can get very smelly inside!

So the perfect place for the litter box is a spot where the cat is undisturbed but with a good view all over the room. Some cats like to have two boxes, one for poop, one for pee. Leaving poop on the floor could be an indication for this. When you have more than one cat, there should be at least one box for each cat. The rule goes one box per cat plus one more.

Besides, cats also stop using the box when it's too smelly and messy. Litter boxes need to be cleaned at least once a day, better twice. Even when you're using a scoopable litter, the entire amount of litter in the box should be disposed once a week. And before you're filling in the new litter, the box should be disinfected or at least well cleaned.


Feliway & Bach flower remedies

When you think that you know what your cat's problems are, you should remove the cause. If that's not possible, there are still some things you can try to put your cat's mind at ease.

Feliway is a spray that's available at your vet's office. Some good results have been made with that one by spraying it onto the spots your cat is misusing for its "business". Feliway is made of synthetic feline facial pheromones, it's the scent that cats rub onto objects (door frame, chair) with their cheeks; it makes cats feel comfortable and safe. In the first place, Feliway is used to prevent spraying (a spot smelling that familiar doesn't need to be marked), but it's also successfully used for litter box problems in general. By the way, Feliway also helps cats to accept new furnitures or a new environment after a move.

Bach flower remedies are another good choice to help a cat with behavior problems. Many cats do react very strongly and positive to the remedies, and when you weren't able to remove the cause of your cat's frustration, Bach flowers are worth a try. It's also a good supportive therapy when the cat is already getting another treatment. The remedies are a mixture of several Bach flower essences and it's important to find the individual composition for your cat. To explain the basics of Bach flower therapy here would go too far, but I would like to recommend the book "Emotional Healing for Cats" by Stefan Ball & Judy Howard.

Some cat friends have recommended another little trick to make a cat stop peeing outside his box: They're putting a bowl of food onto the spot the cat has soiled. This is making some sense since a cat won't pee or poop where it's eating. But I did not try this myself so I cannot confirm wether this is really working or not.




Eventually I would like to point out once again that a medical cause has to be ruled out before trying anything else to deal with litter box problems. Please don't give up on your cat!! A couple of years ago, I saw somebody giving her cat to the shelter because it had a severe peeing problem. There's no doubt that the situation was unbearable for the family, but as far as I know, the cat has never been checked by a vet! Most likely a simple antibiotics treatment would have made the problem stop! Here you can see how much awareness still needs to be raised when it comes to this matter.