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Why Do Cats Stop Using Their Litter Box – The Definitive Guide

why do cats stop using their litter box

Ugh. You just found pee on the floor again, or worse yet, poop!  Fluffy was using the litter box habitually for the past year and all of a sudden she stopped! What happened? Why do cats stop using their litter box all of a sudden when they’ve never had problems before?  While this may sound uncommon, it really isn’t and you might find that you are the cause.

It is also important to note that your cat isn’t doing this all of a sudden to spite you or just to make you angry.  There’s usually a relatively simple reason your cat stopped using the litter box all of a sudden and you should be able to at least narrow down the cause on your own.  So let’s first take a look at some of the most common causes, how to identify them & then how to resolve them as well.


The Litter Box Itself Is Often the Problem

The most common reason a cat will stop using the litter box is the litter box itself.  If something has changed recently this can often drive a cat to stop using the litter box. Great examples of this are things like:

  • Cleaning: If the litter box is being scooped/cleaned less commonly than normal this can often cause a cat to stop using it. You don’t like using a dirty bathroom, your cat doesn’t either. Be sure to scoop your litter box on a consistent basis, especially if you’re in a multi cat household. If you can’t scoop it yourself then consider an automatic litter box.
  • Litter Change: If you’ve recently changed the type of litter in the litter box this can often have an adverse effect as well. Changes in the litter can include any of the following:
    • You’re trying a new scent – Cats have a highly developed sense of smell and a slight change can turn them away.
    • You’re trying a new type (wood/clay/crystals) – Cats have very sensitive paws and can find new types of litter uncomfortable to stand or walk on.
    • If there’s a distinct need to switch litters then be sure to do it gradually, consider this article from FloppyCats on how to switch your cat litters.
  • Declawing: While I’m personally very against declawing for a laundry list of reasons, it should also be noted that declawing your cat can cause litter box issues. Declawing leads to even more sensitivity in their paws and walking on litter can be incredibly painful, especially right after the surgery. If you’ve recently had your cat declawed and a litter box problem has developed then this is likely to be the culprit.
  • The Location: If all of a sudden a new person has appeared in the household and they are creating additional traffic near the litter box this can cause your cat stress. Common examples are long term house guests or a kid coming home from college for the summer. If your cat was used to a nice calm and quiet space and now it is noisy and filled with new scents and people this can cause them to avoid the space. Either adjust the location of the litter box or adjust the location of your house guest to ensure your cat has a nice quiet spot they feel is their own.
  • No Privacy: Cats in general tend to prefer their own litter box. While many will use a single box even when there are multiple cats in a household, if you’ve recently introduced a new feline to the household and there is only one litter box this can often cause your resident cat to take offense. The general rule of thumb is to have at least one litter box available for each cat in the household and if possible have an extra.
  • The Litter Box: If you’ve recently switched out your old litter box for a new one this might be the cause. If your new box has higher sides, is covered, is top entry or in any way different from the previous litter box this can cause your cat to change their tune on wanting to use it. Try switching back to your old litter box temporarily to see if this resolves the problem.

A few general rules of thumb to follow to keep your cat using their box

Keep these things in mind for any litter boxes you setup in your house:

  • Most cats prefer less litter as opposed to more (about 1-2 inches tops). Not only is this good to know for litter box use, but it tends to minimize litter tracking as well.
  • Most cats prefer unscented litter. Scented litter is for the benefit of humans.
  • Most cats prefer clumping litter.
  • Most cats don’t like lids on their litter box even though we humans often prefer them for scent control and litter tracking purposes.
  • Cats like their litter boxes located in a quiet location and don’t want to feel trapped when using it (another reason they don’t like lids). Cats prefer to be able to watch all approach paths.
  • The majority of cats prefer large boxes that they can enter easily. Be sure to buy one size appropriate for your kitty.
  • Most self-cleaning litter boxes have gotten smarter these days about building delays into the scooping function because it can scare cats. That being said, if you’ve recently switched and your cat stops using the litter box it is pretty easy to put 1 and 1 together.

Sickness

Another common reason a cat would stop using the litter box is due to some form of sickness. The most common sickness that would cause a cat to stop using the box is a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) which makes urinating incredibly painful for your feline friend. This makes your cat start to associate pain with the litter box and thus they start to urinate elsewhere not realizing that it isn’t the litter box causing the problem.

UTIWhile UTIs are one of the most common reason there are a multitude of other potential sicknesses like bowel disease, diabetes, arthritis, kidney, liver or thyroid malfunction and many more that could all impact your cat. Bowel disease, constipation, diarrhea and UTIs will typically be easily treated with medication. If this does happen to be the problem then she should return to using her litter box as soon as her discomfort fades away.

On the other hand if you determine that your cat is suffering from a more permanent issue you might need to make some adjustments to ensure your cat can comfortably use the litter box.  A good example might be an arthritic cat, you might need to get a litter box that has far lower sides so it is easy to get in and out of it.


How do I Identify The Problem

The easiest way to help you identify the problem causing your cat to go outside the litter box is to separate your cat into their own space and observe them.  You can use the process of elimination to knock out all of the easy ones, particularly those associated to the litter box itself and any recent changes in it.

You’ll want to provide a well cleaned litter box that is in the form your cat was using before the problems started. If you have to pull out an old one that you’ve recently changed then go ahead and do so.  Be sure it is in a quiet and secluded space so your cat is comfortable and doesn’t feel like their space is being invaded.

veterinarian visitIf in this new space your cat continues to avoid using the litter box then you can start to narrow down the causes based on what is happening.  Observe the cat and notice if she is straining to go and/or crying out while eliminating.  If she is it is definitely a medical concern at this point and you should talk to your vet as soon as possible.

If you’re unable to identify the specific reason, but it is clear your cat is in pain then you should get your cat to a veterinarian as quickly as possible to get a full checkup. Not only can your vet help you identify potential reasons for the lack of litter box use based on your cat’s behavior, they can also provide more pointed recommendations on what might help provide relief for both you and your cat.


It Is Important To Note

you must have patienceAs soon as you recognize your cat isn’t using the litter box you should do your best to narrow down the reasons why.  Keep in mind your cat isn’t doing this to cause you trouble, they are trying to notify you that there’s a problem. Cats often don’t understand what is happening and they are just trying their best to be happy and avoid pain so this can be a bit like solving a puzzle for us humans.

You must have patience with your cat to ensure she can get back to full health and start using the litter box again normally.  Note that just like anything with cats, punishing your cat by yelling at him or her isn’t going to help the problem, it will just make it worse.  To add onto the yelling thing, here are a few other notes you should keep in mind about punishing your cat as well:

  • While you may have been told when you were younger that rubbing the nose of your pet in their accident can help them ‘make the connection’ to the problem before you put them where you want them eliminate, this has been proved to not work at all. Animals simply don’t connect things the way humans do and you’re likely to just scare your cat if you do this.
  • Don’t try to put your cat into the litter box after an accident. She will not make the connection and may instead think she isn’t supposed to use the box because your cat will think the box is someplace where she gets punished.
  • While I’ve mentioned this in numerous other articles, squirt bottles are not a great way to teach your cat. Your cat is far more likely to simply be scared of you as opposed to stopping whatever she was doing when you squirted her.
  • While confining your cat to identify the problem is a good idea, confining your cat long term is not a solution. It doesn’t solve the problem that caused your cat to start going outside the litter box anyway.
  • Never put your indoor cat outside because of a litter box problem. Indoor cats should be indoor cats and suddenly placing them outdoors can expose them to a multitude of problems both health related (fleas/disease/etc.) and danger related from predators and things like cars! You need to work to solve the  problem.

Spraying and Litter Box Issues Are Not the Same Thing

Spraying is a separate issue from regular litter box issues and is typically caused by territory issues. If your cat is constantly peeing on your furniture or in the same spot over and over your cat is spraying.  There are a multitude of great resources that can help you resolve issues with spraying, here are some the most well regarded:


A Quick Recap:

So why do cats stop using their litter box and how do I solve the problem? For anyone who doesn’t want to read the whole article or wants a quick overview, here are a few bullet points that cover the highlights:

  • The most likely reason a cat has stopped using the litter box is a recent change in the litter box we humans made: litter, location, traffic, cleanliness, etc.
  • Be sure to make any changes to the litter box gradually so you can monitor the progress of your cat
  • If you’ve eliminated all litter box related issues your cat may need medical attention, take her to a vet right away
  • Don’t punish your cat for accidents, not only will she not learn from this, you will likely make the problem worse

If you have any other thoughts on the litter box issues you’ve encountered with your cat then please leave a comment below or send me an email at Craig@StuffCatsWant.com so I can update this article.

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Craig

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