Why Won’t My Cat Use the Litter Box?

In addition to middle-of-the-night yowling for food, feline inappropriate elimination is a chief complaint of cat owners. When your cat fails to use the litter box appropriately, you likely become frustrated, which damages the bond you share with your feline friend. However, once you understand the reason behind your cat’s behavior, you can put effective solutions in place to resolve the issue and restore the relationship with your cat.

Identifying feline inappropriate elimination causes

Feline inappropriate elimination can stem from various underlying medical, behavioral, and environmental factors. You should first rule out potential health issues by scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian, and then you can explore other causes.

Potential causes of house soiling in cats include:

  • Litter box issues — Cats are particularly finicky about their litter boxes, from cleanliness, to litter type, to box placement. Your cat may find a different elimination spot if the box is dirty, in a loud or busy location, or occupied. They may also prefer a certain type of litter and may refuse to use other types.
  • Stress — Cats are highly sensitive creatures and can be susceptible to many environmental stressors, such as moving to a new home, changes in family structure, routine disruptions, and inter-cat conflict, that can result in house soiling. Boredom because of inadequate environmental enrichment and social interaction can also lead to stress and inappropriate elimination.
  • Aging — Senior cats or those experiencing cognitive decline may struggle to remember their litter box habits or find accessing their litter box difficult because of mobility issues.
  • Medical issues — A range of medical issues can cause discomfort or increased urgency to urinate or defecate, so a thorough veterinary exam is always the first step in solving your cat’s house-soiling problem. Your cat may avoid their litter box because of common medical conditions, including feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC), urinary tract infections (UTIs), urinary crystals or stones, kidney disease, diabetes, and osteoarthritis.
  • Territorial marking — Most house cats are spayed or neutered, so territorial marking behavior is lower on the list of potential causes for inappropriate elimination. However, if your cat is standing while they spray urine on a vertical surface (e.g., wall, furniture), they may be marking territory, announcing their presence, or signaling to a mate. Territorial marking generally occurs when you introduce a new cat to your home, stray cats are nearby, or your cat feels uneasy or stressed about a changing environment.

Addressing feline inappropriate elimination through veterinary care

Once your veterinarian examines your cat and discusses the signs you’re seeing at home, they will perform diagnostic testing. These tests, including urinalysis, blood work, and X-rays, may identify a medical problem as the cause. Treatments for medical issues that trigger inappropriate elimination may include antibiotics, anti-inflammatory or pain medications, anti-anxiety therapies, prescription diets, and management of chronic conditions like diabetes or kidney disease.

Addressing feline inappropriate elimination at home

If your cat is still house soiling after a medical problem has been ruled out, treated, or successfully managed, help your feline friend get back to the box by:

  • Evaluating litter box hygiene — Ensure the litter box is as appealing to your cat as possible. Ideally:
    • Scoop all litter boxes twice a day and clean them regularly with mild soap and water.
    • Avoid strong-smelling disinfectants.
    • Replace old boxes, as potent odors can turn your cat away.
    • Use a fine, granular, clumping, odor-free litter, unless your cat prefers a different substrate.
  • Choosing the right litter box — Cats generally prefer shallow, uncovered litter boxes that are at least one and a half times their nose-to-tail length. While self-cleaning boxes are useful, they can startle skittish cats who may then avoid them.
  • Positioning litter boxes appropriately — Ensure you have at least one box per cat in your household, plus one more, and place them in quiet spots throughout your home. Don’t place boxes next to loud appliances, food and water dishes, busy locations, or in cramped corners.
  • Addressing stressors — Minimize your cat’s stressors by maintaining a consistent routine, creating safe spaces, and preventing bullying from other household pets.
  • Increasing environmental enrichment — Ensure your cat is physically and mentally stimulated with interactive toys, scratching posts, climbing towers, and food puzzles. Use your home’s vertical space to help satisfy your cat’s instinctive behaviors, like climbing, hiding, and surveying their territory.
  • Investigating calming products — Soothe stress and ease anxiety with calming products. Pheromone sprays and diffusers, calming supplements and treats, and prescription diets may help mitigate your cat’s stress-induced inappropriate elimination.

Inappropriate elimination is a common issue that can cause a great deal of frustration and potentially damage the bond you share with your cat. If your cat is avoiding their litter box, seek help by contacting your local AAHA-accredited veterinary hospital.



Subscribe to Your Pet