How can I get my cat to stop avoiding her litterbox?

CatChannel behavior expert, Marilyn Krieger, CCBC, gives us clues as to why cats sometimes urinate outside their litterboxes.

Q: I have two domestic spayed female cats. One is 6 years old and the other is 3 years old. They haven’t been together since they were kittens, but they get along fine. I have used two litterboxes at times and just one at times. It doesn’t happen all the time but occasionally one of them will urinate right outside of the litterbox. There seems to be no apparent reason for this because the box is always clean. I don’t know which cat does it because it is always done when I am not around. They both seem perfectly healthy and do not have any other problems. I hope you can help me with this problem.

A: There can be many reasons for cats to avoid using their litterboxes. The triggers might not be obvious to us humans, but for a cat they are significant. Before playing the part of a detective and searching out what the triggers might be that are causing the unappreciated behavior, rule out any possible medical conditions by taking the cats to the vet for a checkup. Once it’s determined it is a behavior problem, then it’s time to play super snoop and look for the triggers.

A couple of possible triggers that might be causing this behavior may be that you are moving the boxes around and that you don’t have enough boxes. It’s always a good idea to have one box per cat and one for the house. Three boxes are needed for two cats. The boxes should be located in different parts of the house and never moved. Cats do not like boxes moved around and/or removed.

The types of boxes are important as well. I recommend large uncovered boxes. I like using large translucent storage boxes with no top. Cats are vulnerable when they go to the bathroom. A cat can feel trapped in a covered box, having no way to escape a perceived threat. Cats want immaculately clean boxes and covered boxes can keep fumes inside. Additionally, many covered boxes are too small for cats.

Be consistent with cat litter. Many people buy whatever litter is on sale. Cats like consistency and changing litters can trigger episodes of not using the box. Additionally, I recommend staying clear of scented litters. Many cats will not eliminate in boxes with scented litters. Choose a litter and stick to it. If you must switch to a different type of litter, make the change slowly, gradually adding the new litter to the old litter. It usually takes about five days to change to a different cat litter.

A thorough cleanup is essential. Cats will continue to target the same areas unless you use a really good enzyme cleaner. Areas that are not cleaned up thoroughly may smell fine to our insensitive noses, but are very odiferous to a cat’s highly tuned smell sensor.

A cat usually has a reason for not using her litterbox. It’s up to us humans to find out the cause of the behavior and change or eliminate the trigger. Never punish a cat if she doesn’t use her box. Punishment usually results in escalating the behavior, other possible unappreciated behaviors or the cat avoiding her owner.

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