Why won't my cat use the litter box?

November 23, 2022 - 6 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
Fluffy cat falling out of cardboard box

When it comes to potty habits, cats have a reputation for being easy to manage. You just need to give them easy access to a litter box, scoop what needs to be scooped, then change their litter periodically. No fuss, no muss. 

That's the hope, anyway. But sometimes there's plenty of fuss and lots of muss, and the muss isn't left in the litter box where it belongs.

If your cat has been going potty in the wrong place, you’ll need to correct the problem. Read on to learn what you can do when your cat isn’t using their litter box.

Rule Out 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. The first thing you should do is take your pet to the veterinarian.

Speaking of vets, they often use the word “elimination” to describe a pet’s potty habits. (We'll occasionally use that term in this article.)

There are several medical conditions that can interfere with your pet’s elimination 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 inflammation might find that it’s painful to pee, and that they need to urinate much more frequently than usual. As with UTIs, bladder inflammation 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 painful noises while trying to pee, there’s a good chance 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). 

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Cleanliness Is Next to Catliness 

A clean litter box is absolutely essential.

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.

Location, Location, Location

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.

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.

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 cancause 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.

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

Speaking of which...

Change the Litter Type

Declawed or not, any cat might prefer one type of litter over another. 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.

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 scented litter, consider switching to an unscented one.

Consider Spaying or Neutering

Cats who haven’t been spayed or neutered are much more likely to mark their territory. This is often related to mating rituals. Unneutered 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 femalesdon’t engage in spraying and marking behavior.

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

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

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.

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.) 

More Than One Cat Means More Than One Litter Box

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

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Make sure you haveone 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, but it also creates a more sanitary environment for each of them.

Try Different Litter Amounts

Some cats may feel uncomfortable if there’s too much litter in their litter box, and others may feel uncomfortable if there’s too little. Experimenting with different amounts might help.

Make Their Preferred Potty Spot Less Appealing

If you notice your cat going potty in a particular spot in your home, you can 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.

...or Move Their Litter Box to Their Preferred Potty Spot

If your kitty simply loves to go potty in a specific area of your home, placing their litter box in that precise spot might just solve your problem. Admittedly, this is an impractical solution if their preferred spot is on your bed or behind your radiator.

Keep a Fixed Routine, Especially in Times of Stress

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.

So 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 potty habits in no time.

Hire a Behavioral Therapist

While canine behaviorists are more common, feline behavioral therapists do exist. If all else fails, a certified cat behaviorist 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 potty troubles. That means no rubbing their noses 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 during potty time; trying to give them treats could create a negative association with their litter box.

David Teich
Lead Editor

David oversees content strategy and development at ManyPets. As Lead Editor, he focuses on delivering accurate information related to pet care and insurance. David’s editorial background spans more than a decade, including a pivotal role at Digiday, where he wrote content and managed relationships with media and tech companies. As an Associate Editor at Cynopsis Media, David wrote the Cynopsis Digital newsletter and interviewed executives and digital marketing experts in the TV industry. His background also includes film journalism. His diverse experiences in journalism and marketing underpins his role in shaping content within the pet care industry.