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Litter Box Avoidance in Cats

Litter Box Avoidance in Cats

House soiling is the most common behavior problem reported by cat owners and is a frequent reason cats end up surrendered to animal shelters. The solution to this problem depends on the underlying cause of the behavior; working with your veterinarian to determine the reason and treatment strategies will maximize your chances of resolving the problem.


There are several medical conditions that can lead to inappropriate elimination. Before the problem is treated as a behavioral one, a complete physical examination (and appropriate diagnostic testing such as a urinalysis) should be performed to look for medical issues such as lower urinary tract inflammation/irritation, excessive urine production, or diseases that impair mobility or cognitive function. If no medical problem is identified, then the problem can be approached from a behavioral standpoint


Most cats have a natural preference to eliminate on the type of surface provided by most commercial litters; but some cats have more specific preferences. They may prefer one type of litter to another (for example, a coarser vs a finer type of litter); or they may prefer an entirely different type of surface (for example, hard surfaces such as tile).

For cats that exhibit substrate preferences, interventions include experimenting with different litter types and amounts to see if one type is more attractive to your cat. For cats that prefer surfaces different from litter, you may be able to modify the box to match their preference (for example, putting tiles in the box). When possible, limiting access to the substrate your cat prefers outside of the box is also helpful – this may mean limiting access to the bathroom if your cat prefers tile-like surfaces; or being more vigilant about leaving clothing lying around if your cat prefers these materials.


In addition to the type of litter used, some cats may have preferences for specific litter box types (enclosed vs open, high walls vs low walls); experimenting with different litter box types may help. Also, many cats that are not regularly using the litter box prefer a box that is clean over one that is already soiled; frequent cleaning of the litter boxes can increase the attractiveness of the box and make your cat more likely to use it. And in multi-cat households, the interactions between cats may limit one cat’s willingness to use a specific box. To help limit this concern, there should be at least one more box than there are cats in the house.


For some cats, the problem isn’t that they dislike the litter box, but that they simply prefer another location or locations. If so, you can try placing a box in the preferred location; once the cat starts using the box, you can try gradually moving the box (just a few inches a day) to a more acceptable location. If the preferred location is one that can be blocked off, you could try this as well. 


Spraying is a normal behavior where cats mark territory with small amounts of urine. This is mainly a behavior of intact male cats, but intact females, and even spayed and neutered animals can still spray. If your cat is intact, altering may resolve the problem. There are also medications and pheromone products available which may be of benefit – you should discuss options with your veterinarian.


House soiling can be a difficult and frustrating problem; to maximize chances for successful resolution, early intervention and a thorough evaluation of the specific causes and appropriate treatments are necessary.