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Why isn’t my cat using her litter box?

Housesoiling is one of the most common reasons cats are abandoned or surrendered to a shelter, which often leads to euthanasia. Cats don't urinate and defecate all over their home out of spite, but rather because something is lacking. If your cat’s social, physical, or medical needs aren’t being met, housesoiling commonly is how she will indicate that something is wrong. But don’t despair if your home has become a giant litter box—many methods are available to treat, manage, and prevent inappropriate elimination.

What causes inappropriate elimination?

Your cat didn’t urinate on your new boyfriend’s sweatshirt because she’s jealous. Instead, she may be stressed that her home life has changed. Housesoiling is categorized as medical or behavioral—unfortunately, they often are closely intertwined, so differentiating between the two can be an extensive, frustrating process.

If your cat is inappropriately eliminating due to a medical condition, she may be suffering from one of the following:

  • Urinary tract infection
  • Cystitis
  • Bladder stone
  • Constipation
  • Kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer

Medical conditions are easier to resolve than behavioral issues, which may include:

  • Stress
  • Intercat aggression
  • Having an intact male or female cat in the home
  • Moved or new furniture
  • New family members or pets in your home
  • Perceived threats, such as stray or wild animals coming close to your home
  • Intact male or female cats marking their territory
  • A dirty litter box
  • Unhappiness with litter choice or type of litter box
  • Litter box location

Inappropriate elimination often has no single cause, which makes it difficult to accurately diagnose and manage.

Diagnosis of inappropriate elimination

Schedule an appointment with your AAHA-accredited veterinarian if your cat is eliminating inappropriately. Finding the root cause of housesoiling is challenging. First, all medical conditions must be ruled out before concluding that the reason is behavioral, which requires several diagnostic tests, including bloodwork, urinalysis, fecal examination, and potentially, X-rays and an ultrasound. If these tests are negative for medical conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, bacteria in the urine, intestinal parasites, bladder stones, or arthritis, your veterinarian will study your pet’s at-home behavioral history for environmental factors.

Stressful situations often lead cats to marking behavior, which is determined by these characteristics:

  • Spraying on vertical, upright surfaces
  • Targeting items that bring in new smells, such as suitcases, backpacks, and shoes
  • Spraying by windows and doors to indicate an outside threat
  • Spraying in hallways, doorways, or stairways to indicate an indoor stressor, such as new pets or people in the household, active children, or remodeling
  • Defecating in the litter box, but urinating outside the box
  • Urinating in the litter box only some of the time

Be aware that the diagnosis process can be lengthy and convoluted—the correct cause only can be established through trial and error.

How should I manage housesoiling?

Managing housesoiling can be as challenging as finding the cause, but don’t give up! There are many methods and a combination of treatments often is necessary. Depending on the root of the problem, you may need to try methods from each of the three categories of housesoiling management: medical, behavioral, and litter box-related.

  • Medical

    • Treat a urinary tract infection
    • Regulate diabetes or other metabolic or endocrine disorder
    • Manage kidney disease
    • Prevent arthritis pain
    • Calm bladder inflammation
    • Remove bladder stones
  • Behavioral

    • Ask about antianxiety medication
    • Investigate calming supplements
    • Use pheromones for intercat aggression or generalized anxiety
    • Block access to windows or doors if stray animals are nearby
    • Invest in environmental enrichment, such as cat towers, climbing trees, scratching posts, interactive toys, and food puzzles
    • Minimize drastic environmental changes
  • Litter box care

    • Change litter and litter box, and keep the litter box clean
    • Increase the number of litter boxes
    • Invest in a larger, shallower litter box
    • Change the litter box location
    • Retrain your cat to use the litter box
    • Clean messes thoroughly

Cats are extremely picky about litter and litter boxes. Create an attractive feline elimination station by:

  • Choosing fine, granular, sand-like clumping litter that is odor-free
  • Providing at least one litter box per household cat, plus one extra
  • Placing litter boxes in various locations and on different floors
  • Avoiding placing litter boxes in cramped corners, near noisy appliances, or in heavy-traffic areas
  • Keeping food and water dishes well away from litter boxes
  • Avoiding covered litter boxes, box liners, or strong-smelling cleaners
  • Ensuring litter boxes are large and shallow, ideally at least one-and-a-half times the length of your cat from nose to tail
  • Scooping litter daily and routinely cleaning the box with soap and water

Inappropriate elimination is one of the most common, frustrating problems to plague cat owners. Housesoiling can be an emergency if your cat has a urinary blockage or other medical condition. Contact your veterinarian at the first signs of inappropriate elimination and be patient through the diagnosis and management process to restore your bond with your beloved feline friend.