Why is my cat not using the litter box?

20 October 2023 - 6 min read
Fluffy cat falling out of cardboard box

There are many reasons your cat might be avoiding the litter box – from underlying health issues to location of the tray. But because the cause will determine the solution, it’s important to get to the bottom of the issue before taking action.

Read on to learn a few things that you can do if your cat isn’t using the litter box.

1. Medical problems

If you're finding pee or poop anywhere other than your cat's litter box, it might be because they’re suffering from a medical condition.

There are several medical conditions that can interfere with your pet’s toilet habits, including:

  • Urinary tract infection: If your cat is suffering from a UTI, there’s a good chance they’ll experience pain whenever they try to pee. This can cause them to develop a negative association with the place where they feel that pain — their litter box. As a result, they may seek out other places to pee. Treatment for a UTI generally involves antibiotics, and sometimes pain medication.

  • Bladder inflammation (AKA feline idiopathic cystitis): Cats with bladder inflammations might find that it’s painful to pee, and that they need to urinate much more frequently than usual. As with UTIs, bladder inflammations can cause cats to develop a negative association with their litter box. Treatment often involves anxiety-relieving medication and reducing or eliminating environmental stressors.

  • Kidney stones: Just like humans, cats can develop kidney stones or other blockages. If you notice that your cat is loudly meowing or making pained noises while trying to pee, there’s a good chance such a blockage is to blame. You may also notice that their abdomen is tender. Treatment can include surgery, medication, diet changes, and lithotripsy (a procedure that breaks up kidney stones using sound waves, which is pretty cool).

Solution: Visit the vet

With any change in bathroom habits, the first thing you should do is take your pet to the veterinarian. They’ll be able to determine if there are any underlying causes.

If there is a health issue at play, having cat insurance can help cover the cost of the vet treatment.

Pet Owner Cleaning Litter Box and Putting Remains in Small Garbage Bin.

2. Cleanliness Is Next to Catliness 

Just like us, cats are pretty fussy about their cleanliness. So if the litter in the tray isn’t changed as often as it should be, you may find your cat chooses other areas to go to the bathroom.

Solution: Keep it clean

Most experts agree that pet owners should scoop their cat’s litter 1-2 times every day. And you should replace their litter (and wipe down the litter box with soap and water) at least once every two weeks. Your cat will be less enthusiastic about using their litter box if you’re not doing enough to keep it clean.

Shot of a fluffy black and white kitten curiously checking out the kitty litter box

3. Location of the litter box

Cats are often inclined to eliminate in private, commotion-free spaces. That means steering clear of people and other pets. Children and dogs can be especially nerve-jangling for our feline friends. 

Solution: Keep things private

If your cat’s litter box location doesn’t fit the bill, move it to a calmer, more secluded area of your home. Or at the very least, place an additional litter box in a calmer location so your cat has options.

You can also leave treats and toys in the general area of their litter box to help them develop a more positive association with it.

If you notice your cat is going potty in a particular spot in your home, you can also take some humane steps to make that spot less attractive for peeing and pooping. One way is to fill that spot with things your cat values, like their toys or their pet bed.

Other tools, like repellent spray or furniture strips, may prove so annoying that your cat reverts to their litter box.

4. Declawed Cats Need Gentler Kitty Litter

First of all: Don’t declaw your cat. Veterinarians overwhelmingly discourage declawing unless it’s medically necessary (for instance, to remove cancer in the nail bed). Declawing can cause lasting pain.

That being said, you may be receiving this advice too late — or maybe you’ve adopted a cat that was declawed by a previous owner. If your cat has been declawed, you should be aware that litter particles can get between their toes and cause them pain. Then they may start eliminating in places where they don’t experience that pain.

Solution: Change your litter type

So if your cat’s been declawed, opt for soft, lightweight litters and avoid pelleted litters. 

Speaking of which…

Adorable little kitten scratching around in his litter box on the floor of his new forever home

5. The litter type

Declawed or not, any cat might prefer one type of litter over others. Many types of cat litter are available, including clay, wheat, pine, corn, grass, shredded paper, silica gel, and even litter made of walnut shells. Your cat may have a preference.

Solution: Observe your cat’s litter box habits - then make a change

Instead of simply trying every conceivable variety of litter until you find the right one, take note of where your cat has been eliminating, then buy the type of litter that’s most similar. So if your kitty has been peeing on the morning paper, they might prefer a paper-based litter. 

Cats can also be averse to strong smells; if you’ve been using a scented litter, consider switching to an unscented one. 

6. Un-neutered vs. neutered litter box habits

Cats who haven’t been spayed or neutered are much likelier to mark their territory. This is often related to mating rituals. Un-neutered male cats are the most likely to spray and mark outside the litter box, but females can do it as well. About 90% of neutered males and 95% of spayed females don’t engage in spraying and marking behaviour. 

Something else to keep in mind: Cats tend to have much more pungent urine if they haven’t been spayed or (especially) neutered. 

Solution: Consider spaying or neutering 

Getting your cat spayed or neutered might go a long way toward keeping their pee in the litter box — not to mention cutting down on odours. 

Domestic Cat Using Portable Litter Box.

7. Cover (or uncover) the litter box

Litter boxes come in both covered and uncovered varieties. Your cat might have a strong preference for one over the other. Some kitties adore their privacy, while others can easily feel trapped and anxious. 

Solution: Consider the type of litter box your cat uses

So if you have one type of litter box, try the other type. (If your litter box comes with a detachable cover, this should be a particularly easy switch to make.) 

High Angle View of Curious Devon Rex Kittens Examining Dirty Cat Sand in Litter Box

8. Too many cats, not enough litter boxes

The litter box situation gets more complicated if you have more than one cat. One cat can get defensive of a litter box and scare another away. 

Solution: Get one litter box for each cat — plus one more

For example, a two-cat home should have three litter boxes. 

Not only does this give each cat their own space — it creates a more sanitary environment for each of them.

9. Lack of routine

Cats are creatures of habit. New pets, new family members, moving to a new home, or other major life changes can throw off your cat’s equilibrium and cause inappropriate potty habits.

Solution: Keep a fixed routine — especially in times of stress

Do what you can to keep your kitty’s life stable. Even after big changes, maintaining your cat’s routines — like feeding and play times — can be a big help. If you create a calm environment, and keep your cat's routine relatively intact, they may get back to their normal toilet habits in no time. 

When to hire a behavioural expert

While certified canine behaviourists are more common, feline behavioural therapists do exist. If all else fails, a certified cat behaviourist might be able to help!

What not to do

First of all — and we really can’t stress this enough — you should never punish your cat for their toilet troubles. That means no rubbing their nose in their own waste, no newspaper swats, and no yelling. If you punish your cat, their stress and anxiety will increase, which will make it harder — not easier — to solve the litter box problem.

You should also never try to force your cat into their litter box. This will simply cause them to develop an even poorer association with it.

And be careful about using cat treats. It’s okay to leave treats in the area surrounding your cat’s litter box; it may help them develop a positive association with that spot.

However, it’s unwise to train your cat the same way you’d train a dog — that is, by giving them treats immediately after they’ve behaved correctly. Many cats hate receiving attention while using their tray; trying to give them treats could create a negative association with their litter box.

Scarlett White
Senior Copywriter

Scarlett is an experienced copywriter who’s worked within a variety of industries, including health, beauty and interiors. Before joining ManyPets as Senior Copywriter in 2022 to focus on pet health, she held in-house copywriting roles at MADE.COM and Liz Earle Beauty Co. She has a penchant for puns, a love of dogs and a degree in English Literature.