by K Marie Alto June 22, 2022 14 min read
Having a kitty means having a litter box – well at least one (we’ll get into that later). Picture this, you pick out a nice box, some good litter, set it up and your cat decides going outside the box is better. What’s up with that?
Understanding the reasons why your cat is missing the litter box may be hard for most pet parents. I totally get it.
If your cat is pottying outside the box, there are several common reasons, some behavioral and some medical. Many of the issues can be solved with minor changes, so don’t feel discouraged if your kitty is missing the mark.
I’ve had this problem myself, so I can speak from direct experience about the frustration of a kitty missing the box. But don’t worry, in this post we’ll get into the most common reasons and how to address them. Let’s dive in.
The number one most common reason why cats start missing the litter box, especially if they've been perfectly fine using it before, is that they have some kind of illness. There are a few different common illnesses that can lead to this behavior, and it's often one of the first visible signs of the illness.
The first is FIC, or Feline Idiopathic Cystitis. FIC is an inflammatory disease of the bladder and urinary tract, and in addition to missing the litter box, it can be characterized by blood in the urine, small/frequent urination, or painful urination. It's very similar to a urinary tract infection, except there's no infection present. Indeed, it has no identifiable source and flares up when your cat is stressed.
"FIC is thought to account for around ⅔ of all cases of FLUTD (Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease). As these cats exhibit signs of cystitis but have no obvious underlying cause, it is possible that there is more than one (as yet unidentified) underlying condition that causes FIC. However, detailed studies of a number of cats with FIC have shown that they have many similarities to a condition in humans called 'interstitial cystitis.'" - iCatCare.
The second cause is a urinary tract infection. Both FIC and UTIs are diagnosed through urinalysis at the vet; for FIC, there's an elevated number of red and white blood cells but no sign of infection. For a UTI, a culture will show a bacterial infection. UTIs can be cured with antibiotics and care as directed by your vet.
You might be surprised to learn that UTIs can be brought on by stress. My angel Moosie would get a UTI every time I moved. He was an immaculate litter box user, so when he hopped into a storage container I had brought home from college and peed in it, I knew something was up. If there is a big change in your home the stress may be the cause of your kitty missing the box.
The third common cause is crystals. Urinary crystals are simply an imbalance of minerals that are normally present in the urine. Just like the two previous bladder issues, these crystals are painful for your kitty. The good news is crystals can often be managed by switching their food to a urinary tract health formulation.
Constipation or Diarrhea. Missing the box isn’t limited to urine, you may find that your kitty pooped outside of the box. A case of diarrhea is pretty obvious, but constipation may be a little hard (pun intended) to identify. If you find a solid poop outside the box, constipation might be the cause.
Here’s the tricky part about these health issues, your cat may continue to use the box, or they may not. If your kitty is experiencing pain when urinating or pooping, they may associate it with the litter box itself and begin going elsewhere. As every cat parent knows, cats are also super smart. If they aren’t feeling well, they may intentionally pee in front of you to tell you something is wrong.
A word of caution: If your kitty is ever trying to pee, but nothing is coming out, you need to head to the vet immediately. Your kitty may have a urethral obstruction, which is life threatening.
As with any major behavioral change in your cat, your first step should be to consult with your vet and rule out any medical issues.
Did you know that cats by nature bury their feces? They do this as a safety measure to hide their scent from predators. The act of using the litter box or going to the bathroom is an act of supreme vulnerability. There's a reason that we have the saying "Caught with your pants down," right? For cats, this is a moment where they feel like they are vulnerable to attack by larger predators. As such, cats prefer to find calm, out-of-the-way locations to do their business.
The trick is to determine what constitutes "safe" in the mind of your cat. It may take some trial and error to find the right situation for your fur baby. Consider:
Additionally, if you have more than one cat, one of your cats may have staked a claim to the litter box and bullies or disrupts the other while they try to do their business.
It’s always best practice to have one litter box for each kitty, plus one extra. This is surprisingly common and also a surprisingly under-recommended solution.
Having varied locations also allows your cat to choose to go where they feel most comfortable. You may find that one box never gets used, if so, it might be because of the location.
Make sure you also give consideration to changing needs. As your kitty ages, going up or down stairs to access their box may be too much for their aging joints, or in some cases they may not reach the box in time. If you have an aging kitty, keep a litter box on each level of your house.
Cats are descended from wild animals, and even the most happily domesticated kitties still have a few of those old instincts at play in their adorable fuzzy little heads. That's why they get the urge to pounce on things that move, chatter at birds, or hunt prey, even if that "prey" is a laser pointer dot, a bug, or a stray leaf.
One of the less savory instincts is marking territory. Cats (particularly males) spray urine on surfaces around their territory as a way to scent mark their borders. You'll be able to tell if this is what they're doing by whether or not they seem to be aiming for vertical surfaces (like walls or furniture) or just finding places on the floor to target, such as a coat, a bed, or a rug. Sprayed vertical surfaces are indicative of territorial marking.
Spraying is primarily a behavior performed by male cats, though female cats may also participate, so don't rule it out entirely if you only have little miss felines. However, it's also primarily driven by hormones and is virtually eliminated when you spay or neuter your fur baby. There are several benefits to spaying or neutering your cat, and since territorial spraying is primarily driven by hormones getting your fur baby sterilized can help mitigate this issue.
"Fixed" cats can also spray occasionally, usually in response to a change in circumstances. If you've moved or remodeled recently, if there's a new cat around (even a feral outdoor cat), or if they've been stressed for other reasons, spraying can be a reactionary move. Try to identify the cause before you start trying to solve the problem.
This became a problem in our house when we moved a few years back. Our new neighborhood has several cats that pass by, including Stormy, the kitty that lives across the street. We would often see him through the door sidelights just sitting there as if he was waiting to be let inside.
We didn’t think much of it, in fact we were happy to have such a cute visitor. We were alerted to a problem when we began to smell urine by the door. We later found out our angel Beany girl was spraying the door, notifying our visitor that he was unwelcome. Aside from deep cleaning we put a frosted cling on the sidelights so she could no longer see our new furry neighbor and that thankfully was enough to resolve the issue.
Cats are very clean animals. They spend a lot of their time grooming themselves, and that cleanliness carries over in that they don't like to do their business in a dirty place. Keeping their litter box clean is extremely important to ensure they keep using it.
The level of cleanliness required will vary from cat to cat. Some are less picky about it, while others may be very sensitive to even faint lingering odors.
Many people hate cleaning litter boxes – but it's part and parcel of being a pet parent. You can alleviate some amount of work by investing in a self-cleaning litter box, but be careful if you do. These can be noisy and disruptive, and if they scare your cat away from their box, they won't want to use it. You also still need to clean and disinfect them periodically
Whatever type you have, the best practice is to clean your cat's litter box once a day. Keep in mind that scooping is only one part of the cleaning process. Most litter boxes and scoops are made from plastic, which is porous. Add to that the scratches that are caused by litter and your cat digging and you have a wealth of surface area that traps in odors.
As best practice, plan to empty your litter boxes completely and clean out the box itself at least once a month. A great option is to use your hose to clean out the box. An alternative is to get some good rubber gloves and scrub out any stuck-on residue. Vinegar is great at neutralizing the ammonia that makes urine smell, it’s also a good cleaner. Avoid any cleaning agents with a strong smell and do a quick wipe down with a damp cloth before letting it dry.
Cats can be surprisingly picky with the litter box. Everything needs to be just right – or at least within their range of tolerance – or they won't use it.
Unfortunately, there's no guidebook on how to get the litter box just right. Different cats have different preferences, and the only way to figure them out is through trial and error. One thing is for sure: if they're missing the litter box and you've ruled out the other options, this is your best bet.
The list that follows are some common reasons your kitty might not like their litter box:
While the five categories above are the most common reasons cats start to miss the litter box, there are a few other reasons you might want to consider as well.
1. Your cat is too young and hasn't been trained properly yet.
We mentioned earlier that the dig and bury potty behavior is innate, so technically your kitty doesn’t need to be trained to use a litter box. With that said, there are some techniques that you can implement to ensure your kitten uses a litter box instead of say, your potted plant. By the way if you kitty does use a plant, change out the soil to remove the smell and add some foil to cover the soil, the crinkle is a good deterrent.
Introducing a new cat or kitten into your home also means showing them where to potty. This includes:
If you’re adopting an adult cat, ask the rescue group what type of litter they use to ensure a smooth transition. If you want to switch types, do so gradually so your kitty gets used to the new option.
If you’re rescuing an outdoor cat, you may need to incrementally train them to recognize litter. A common recommendation is to use dirt or soil from outside in the litter box, and once they get used to using it, slowly replacing it with litter.
2. You don't have enough litter boxes.
I mentioned it earlier, but it’s worth mentioning again in more detail. You should have a unique litter box for each cat you have and then one extra. This means if you have two cats, you'll want three litter boxes. Some cats prefer to urinate in one box and defecate in another and other cats just wanted a litter box of their own without having to share with a sibling.
While having multiple boxes may seem like more work, the benefits are definitely worth it.
If both kitties end up using the same box, great! But if they decide they need their own option, you’re already setup to meet their needs or should I say demands?
3. You moved the litter box.
Cats are creatures of habit, so if your kitty was using the litter box and stopped, ask yourself, did I make any changes? If so, that might be the problem and you’ll need to revert back to the old way of doing things.
Scents can be left behind, so if your kitty goes where their litter box used to be that could be why. If you need to reposition the litter box, get a second one identical to the first, show your cat where it is, and gradually remove the old one.
4. Your cat's claws were removed.
Declawing a cat is generally considered an unethical and harmful practice these days, it's compared to cutting off your fingertips to prevent your fingernails from growing. It's painful and unnecessary, especially if you learn how to trim their nails yourself.
Moreover, cats never really heal from this surgery. Their toe tips will always be sensitive after their claws are removed, and that includes sensitivity to small particles, like litter. Since cats need to scratch around in their litter to do their business, it becomes a strong aversive stimulus, and they won't want to do it.
If you've adopted a cat that is already declawed, they may not display it, but they are likely in pain, and it's not a behavioral issue. You might have to cut your kitty slack and understand that it's painful to use their paws to cover up their business after using the litter box. If you suspect hurting paws are the cause, avoid clay litters and look for something with softer pellets or newspaper.
5. Your cat has cognitive dysfunction.
As cats get older, they may start to experience a decline in cognitive ability. Feline cognitive dysfunction is similar to Alzheimer's disease in humans, and an older cat can essentially forget where the litter box is or how to use it properly.
Unfortunately, there isn't much of a way to solve this particular problem; it's par for course with loving an elderly cat. Simply give them the best remainder of their life you can and be gentle with the mistakes they make. They're doing their best, and they appreciate the love you give them, even if they aren't who they once were.
6. Your cat has a behavioral issue.
After health issues have been ruled out and litter box adjustment options have been exhausted you might be left the most frustrating cause, a behavioral issue. You’ve tried all the tips above and still no solution – I’ve been here too.
This category could really include anything under the sun, but it often boils down to stress or anxiety. Let’s face it, as much as we may will it to happen, not all cats get along. While many will just avoid one another, in other causes you may end up with a bully and the cat receiving the brunt of the harassment may result to poor litter box habits.
Even solitary cats can experience anxiety, whether it’s separation related or something with their environment. Feline pheromone diffusors are a great option to try in this kind of situation. You could also try something like CBD for your kitty. If all else fails, you could talk to your vet about prescription options that might help.
One more little story before you go, my Sosa fell into this category, and it was an on again off again problem for years – yes years. I stuck by her knowing there must be something I could do to get her using the box consistently. I feel like I tried everything, even anti-anxiety meds, but nothing worked.
My life saver was when I found a specific cat attract litter. It’s not cheap, but it works (there is also an additive that can be sprinkled onto any other litter)! Once I started using it, Sosa started to use the litter box regularly.
The only problems that I saw after using this litter was the occasional, not so accidental accident. I realized it would happen after the hubby and I had an argument – I think the loud voices stressed her out – and that was her way of telling us. If problems are inconsistent in your household, try to identify an issue that may have occurred around the same time – a storm perhaps? Your answer is out there.
Well, there you have it. As I have covered, identifying the reasons why your cat is missing the litter box is a delicate process of trial and error. It requires a good sense of observation, knowing your cat or cats and of course a lot of love, patience, and devotion to making sure your cats live the best life they can live.
Have you ever had a kitty that misses the litter box? What was the cause and your solution? If you’re in the middle of a potty issue as you read this, being safe and taking your kitty to the vet will always be the right call, but if you ever have any additional questions, please feel free to leave those down in the comments section below! I'd love to assist you in all things related to your furry friend however I possibly can!
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 30K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).
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