WHY CATS FAIL TO USE THE
by Eric Smith, Founder
Four On The Floor Pet Products, Inc.
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We're not veterinarians,
nor are we certified animal behaviorists. That said, though, we’ve
certainly fought our way through most of the common cat behavior issues
over the last quarter century. We’ve cared for and found homes for many
hundreds of animals over the years. We've also read extensively about
litter box habits and have attended numerous conferences on cat behavior,
so as they say, we have QBE ("qualified by experience") degrees in cat
litter box habits. Over the years, we've had our share of litter box
debacles, too, and have managed to work through them in one way or
another, so we hope our brief discussion here will offer you some hope
about dealing with the issues you’re going through.
Causes Of Poor Litter Box Behavior
When a cat chooses not to go potty in the place we want him or her to—the
litter box—the first thing we think is that there must be a medical cause.
Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on how you look at it—some experts
have expressed that in over 90% of cats, this is not the case.
Certainly some cats do get cystitis or Feline Urological Syndrome (FUS,
which is the formation of crystals or sludge, generally in the bladder,
which causes irritation, bleeding and sometimes blockage of the urethra or
ureter, making it difficult or impossible for a cat to urinate), so a
medical cause should always be ruled out. If a cat is going to the litter
box frequently or, once there, is spending a long time squatting in the
box—and perhaps is crying while in the box—a trip to the vet is definitely
needed. Frequent & large-volume urination can be a sign of diabetes;
squatting for a long time, straining & crying can signal FUS. Either of
these maladies can be quite serious and should be checked out promptly by
But what if the cat isn't exhibiting either of these characteristics?
This is where common sense and psychology come into play. It's time
to think like your cat. It's time to figure out what's
discouraging your cat from using the litter box properly. It's
time to implement, as we like to say, some "Dung Shui™."
The Litter Box Itself
Cats are quite finicky (duh), so any small change in their litter box
environment can be enough to deter them from using the box. Have you
changed the box's location? Have you switched brands of litter? Have you
begun using perfumed powders in the box, or have you begun using plastic
liners? Have you thrown out the old litter box and replaced it with a new
one? If you did implement a new box, is it covered or uncovered...and is
this different from the old one? Have you been too busy lately to keep the
box as clean as your cat would like?
Cats' sense of smell is estimated by scientists to be 1000 times
stronger than that of humans. As such, they're much more attune to changes
in appearance and scent than we are, which can sometimes be the cause of a
change of litter box habits. Cats have sometimes been known to exhibit
poor litter box compliance because of a new smell in their home, on their
owner or on a new visitor.
As is evidenced by our cats' behavior when inclement weather is
approaching or an earthquake is imminent, they're also much more sensitive
to vibration than we are. Think about it. Have you ever seen a cat "freak
out" when the furnace comes on for the first time in the fall? Cats spend
most of their time on the floor, where they're much more likely to feel
the rumble of the furnace than we are "all the way up here." What does
this have to do with litter box habits? Plenty, as far as some cats are
Many folks place their litter boxes in the basement, often near the
furnace or washing machine. Over the years, we've heard of cats who
wouldn't use the litter box if it was too near the furnace or washer due
to all the vibration and racket these machines can cause. We've also seen
cats who would use the box in that location for awhile, then one day
simply decide they were tired of the lousy bathroom ambiance and fail to
use the box any more. So, pay attention to where your litter box is...from
your cat's perspective. How would it seem to you if you were
Cats can also be skittish (duh #2) and are prone to feeling trapped, so
experts recommend that the litter box be positioned in such a way as to
offer more than one approach and/or escape route. This is especially
important if your household contains more than one cat, as none of us
wants to be sneaked up on while we're going potty. (I know I personally
hate it when that happens!) Putting the box in a far away corner that
leaves your cat no options is a no-no, especially if one of your cats
tends to bully the other(s). The litter box needs to feel safe to your
The surface that the box rests on also seems to be key to some cats.
Experts have found that some cats prefer the box to be on a hard surface,
while some appear to prefer it on a soft surface. As we all know, some
cats have been known to go potty far away from the litter box on the
hardwood floor in the dining room, while others have been known to go
potty in the corner of the carpeted living room. Most of the times when
cats do this, they're trying to tell us that there's something wrong with
their litter box setup.
A greatly underrated cause of a change of litter box habits is jealousy of
an outside animal. As you can well imagine, if your friend were to come by
and bring her cat with her, you wouldn't expect your cat to be too
thrilled. Cats like to have what they perceive as their own territory, so
if a strange cat comes into that territory, the strange cat—no matter its
breed, size, coloring or temperament—is going to be perceived as a nemesis
and poor litter box habits might result. But this isn't the type of
outside influence I'm mainly speaking of. I mean literally outside.
Most of us have cats who love to hang around by the window watching the
world go by. This is by and large fine...until another cat, a dog, a
groundhog, a squirrel, a large bird or another small animal comes into
view. Then, our cats feel threatened and act as if their territories have
been invaded. Even though we as humans can differentiate between inside
the house and outside the house, to our cats the "intruder" is just
feet away and is perceived as a substantial threat. Experience has shown
us that cats seem unable to understand the concept of glass as a
If a strange cat comes by once and then never again, your housecat will
likely not begin exhibiting poor litter box behavior. However, if the cat
prowls by every night, sooner or later your cat is probably going to get
fed up and may show this displeasure in an undesirable way. Experts we've
heard speak have recounted quite a few stories of cats whose poor litter
box behavior was traced to outside animals intruding into the cats'
perceived territories. When the owners built tall fences, called Animal
Control to come pick up the stray cats or convinced their neighbors to
keep their cats (or dogs) in their houses where they belong, the bad
behavior subsided. Some owners have noticed their problems disappear when
they added on to their homes, thus occluding certain views from their
cats. A home with high windows a cat couldn't see out of might be
perceived by us humans as boring for the cat, but I can pretty much
guarantee that the cat wouldn't ever exhibit poor litter box behavior due
to outside influences.
Types Of Cat Litter
The odd "ground up corn cobs mixed with pea gravel and marinated with flax
oil" types of alternative litters aside, most of us have two litter
choices: conventional and clumping. There are some newfangled types of
litter on the market now which may seem cool to the pet owner, but which
may not be well accepted by the cat.
Conventional litter is less expensive to buy, but it quickly gets urine-soaked and must be thrown away every few days, lest your home begin to
smell like an outhouse.
Clumping litter is the type that forms into a ball when the cat urinates. This
type is inherently cleaner because we just scoop out the feces and urine
balls, throw them in the trash (NEVER flush clumping litter) and the box
is, in theory at least, as clean as it ever was. Not only that, because
we're not tossing all the litter every few days, we're saving money and
helping the environment. Clumping litter may be perceived as being more
expensive than conventional litter, but once you figure that you're not
throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, you'll realize that
it's actually a lot less expensive.
It bears mentioning here that not all clumping litters are the same.
Without getting too deep into the science of clay, suffice it to say
that we have done a L-O-T of research into clay and all the various
types that are mined in the United States, let alone the rest of the
world. Some brands of litter use the "off-fall" (waste) clay after
it's been used in the manufacture of other products; this is typically
why some less-expensive brands are so dusty. Some brands use clay
that's inherently more plentiful and less expensive, but which doesn't
clump as tightly when a kitty urinates. Both of these factors
yield results that are less than desirable. The looser the
clumping, the more the urine balls break up in the box, thus emanating
more odor and dissuading kitty from using the box.
DooDoo Voodoo Clumping Cat Litter is different. It features the
tightest-clumping, lowest-dust clay we know of. It is 100% natural
and is not bleached, colorized or fragranced like other brands can be.
It is mined, dried and bagged. That's it! We've used it
exclusively since 1988, which is when we began to sell it.
Just like DooDoo Voodoo Earth-Friendly Pet Odor & Stain Remover, when we
describe our litter we say that It's Science, But It Works Like
A top veterinarian we know said, "I'm
going to tell every cat owner I know that they have GOT to use this
In addition, clumping litter offers a benefit that is important to talk
about in a discussion of litter box habits: it is significantly softer
under a cat's paws and feels more like the earth he's used to "in the
wild" (even if he's been an inside cat all his life, he's got eons of "in
the wild" in his genes). Studies have shown that, given a choice, most
cats—especially declawed cats—prefer clumping litter to conventional
litter—both for its texture and for its inherently increased degree of
cleanliness. If you've had some outside-the-litter-box activity lately,
perhaps you should give clumping litter a try.
Even the best clumping litter can get gnarly after months of use, so
even if you only have one cat in your household, dump all the litter if
your nose or your cat tells you to and disinfect the litter box. Your cat
will thank you for it. We dump our DooDoo Voodoo Clumping Cat Litter
(available through our website) twice a year—but we have lots of cats in
our rescue facility, many with special needs.
August of 2014, we coaxed into our home an ear-tipped, spayed little
female kitty we originally named Dexter, but then renamed Ashley when we
were able to ascertain that he was actually a she.
It took seven weeks to earn her trust to the point that she could be
lured into a hallway off the back of our garage, and then into our guest
bedroom, but she finally took the bait and we were thrilled. We
got her checked out by the vet, put Revolution on her and began to
introduce her to our rescued housecat. Everything was going great
until the new kitty squatted and peed on a blanket and poofy bed on our
couch, soaking the cushion with pee. We subsequently discovered
that she has an aversion to using the litter box. Ouch. The
honeymoon came to a screeching halt.
did a bunch of online research and discovered that this type of aversion
isn't uncommon among feral cats who've been brought indoors. Some
people reported success with a couple of Dr. Elsey's litters,
Touch Of Outdoors and
Cat Attract, when trying to get
ferals to acclimate to using the litter box, so we purchased some of
each. My wife even put some leaves and twigs in the boxes to make
them seem more like the outdoors, as shown to the left. (Click the
photo for a larger version.)
The green box is Touch of Outdoors; the blue box is Cat Attract and
the brown box is DooDoo Voodoo Cat Litter.
The jury is still out on whether the kitty is going to acclimate to
using the litter box and, if so, which litter will attract her.
[Update: She did and she is a total lovebug. We're really
glad to have her in our family. She causes us no troubles
whatsoever, except she wants to be petted all the time.]
Even if you're not trying to tame a feral like we are, these two Dr.
Elsey's litters might help your cat decide that the litter box isn't
such a bad place to be.
Other Factors That Can Influence Your Cat
Some cats have been shown to be quite persnickety about their owners'
habits. Changes in occupation (do you smell different?), changes in
schedule (did you switch from working days to working nights?) and changes
in behavior (did you used to come home every night and brush your kitty,
but now your friends come over to play poker?) can all trigger a change in
litter box habits. Did you used to let your cat sleep with you, but now
you throw him out of the bedroom and close the door? All these can affect
your cat's litter box habits, not to mention his personality as a whole.
And let's not forget...anyone who's read a women's magazine has heard how
a girl's cat "doesn't like" her new friend/boyfriend and has turned into a
demon. So, again, think like your cat and you'll realize how your actions
may be perceived as hostile.
Call Me Mr. Obvious
It probably goes without saying...but here goes anyway. If you have
brought home a new pet and introduced it to your cat in the wrong way,
you're more than likely going to be cleaning up your share of messes
around the house. If introduced to each other properly, cats can become
friends MUCH more quickly than you would ever assume they would. If you're
thinking of getting another cat to add to your household, please take the
time to consider this change carefully and also read our article How To
Introduce A New Kitty To Your Household, which is available on our
here. Collected from nearly two decades of
trial and error, reading, speaking with vets & discussing the issues
involved with behaviorists, this short article has helped a lot of people
introduce new cats to their homes without all the trauma normally
associated with putting strange cats together. Please check it out when
you have a chance, and feel free to share it with others you think might
benefit from it.
In our house (not our rescue facility), our Alpha Cat (the cat all the
others acknowledge as being dominant and in charge) is a gray female DSH
(domestic shorthair) named Gracie. Gray DSH females have a reputation for
being dominant, and Gracie, although generally sweet, does her best to
live up to her reputation. For a while it was just Gracie, Heidi (our
rescued Terrier/Chihuahua mix who was rescued from the middle of a busy
intersection during Friday evening rush hour traffic the day after
Thanksgiving) and Simon (a frail, very feral white male we would see
streak past once a week or so) and everything was fine as far as Gracie
was concerned. But then we rescued some other cats who ended up living
with us, two of whom were perceived by Gracie as being dominant types.
Even though we KNOW the right way to introduce new cats and really tried
to shower Gracie with praise and affection, she took offense and urinated
outside the litter box, then one of the new cats did so, too, and the
peeing contest had officially begun. What to do...
We began paying even more attention to Gracie than we had been. We
closed off the rooms of the house where she'd done her business—except the
living room, which was impossible to restrict access to. This was back
before we perfected DooDoo Voodoo’s formula, so we pulled the carpet back,
cleaned the areas with strong mixtures of readily-available household
cleaners, sealed the subflooring with BIN by Zinsser (a
KILZ-type product we’ve found to be more effective), replaced the carpet
pad & tack strips, then had the carpet professionally steam cleaned on
both sides. In these areas, we applied our odor neutralizer, the formula
for which didn’t work nearly as well as DooDoo Voodoo now does, then
reapplied it, then reapplied it. After a while, the urine odor was gone
and all that remained was a faint aroma of the odor neutralizer. Our
technique worked so well, as it has for many people we've advised over the
years, that for the last few years we've given the cats access to the
previously-soiled areas and they no longer urinate there. (You can see
pictures of the soiled areas in our brochure and on our website.) Visitors
to our home have no idea that there has ever been urination on our carpet.
They don’t see it, and they don’t smell it. Luckily, now that DooDoo
Voodoo’s formula has been perfected, all the work we went through isn’t
necessary for most folks.
Years have passed and, largely due to the way we make it a point to
interact with Gracie and the other cats (all of whom are still living in
the house with us, by the way), the cats have not re-soiled the areas, and
they all now get along great. Gracie and the two other females in the
house are now quite good friends and often curl up together; Gracie has
convinced the males that she is, indeed, the Alpha Cat and they've agreed
to her terms and conditions. Whereas many people would've relinquished or
euthanized Gracie and possibly some of the other cats, we stuck it out,
showered Gracie with kindness, cleaned up the messes to the best of our
abilities and, lo and behold, everything turned out as well as it possibly
could have. Never give up.
Backed Up Against The Wall
We once had a cat named Edison who was the first ever of our rescued cats
to urinate outside the litter box. Once, while Edison was still alive (he
passed away a few years ago after having lived through a dramatic
reconstructive renal surgery and many years of highly managed kidney
failure), Julie gave me a birthday card that showed a bunch of cats at a
party waiting in line to use the restroom. One of the cats was obviously
stepping out of line and heading the other direction, so Julie drew an
arrow to him labeling him "Edison," added a balloon above his head and in
it wrote, "I'll just use the wall."
Unfortunately, there are some cats—and not all of them are male—who
will just seem to consistently go potty outside the litter box. When this
occurs, it's our opinion that one of a few things is happening. (1) Either
the cat lives in a multi-cat household and will forever WANT to be the
Alpha Cat even though he or she ISN'T the Alpha Cat, or (2) one of the
other stimuli talked about in this article is having an effect, or (3)
there was another animal—most likely a cat—in the house before and the
current cat can still smell the previous cat's scent (sometimes this could
be urine-related, but it doesn't have to be). In our highly cleanable
rescue facility, we have had two males who perpetually urinate(d) outside
the litter box in what is, quite literally, a peeing contest. One was with us for over 16 years and had
kidney failure, heart disease and diabetes, so we just got used to cleaning up after him.
(He passed away not long ago.) The
other is younger and you'd never guess he'd so badly want to be the Alpha
Cat, but he does. If we were to place him up for adoption and find him a
good, single-cat home where he could be the king, we'd bet you a case of
DooDoo Voodoo that he'd give up his undesirable behavior. (Note: after writing
this article, we did find him a home, and he never again exhibited his
behavior. Unfortunately, the adopter lost her job and made the decision to
move cross-country, so she brought JimBob back to us, where he now, again,
pees outside the litter box. She absolutely swears he did NOT do this at
her house. We pushed and pushed her to see if she was telling the truth,
and she swears he did not pee. This is a testimony to his only
peeing when he feels as if he's not the Alpha Cat, such as in our rescue
Medical problems can certainly cause a cat to exhibit a change in its
litter box habits, so never poo poo (pun intended) your cat's changed
behavior; something serious could be occurring. But, if you get the cat
checked over and the vet pronounces him or her fit as a fiddle, look to
other changes in the cat's environment as possible causes. Chances are
that once you really get to looking around and thinking about it, you'll
come up with more than a few things that might be causing your kitty to
exhibit poor litter box behavior. One at a time, try to alter the stimuli
and I'll bet you'll finally figure out what's been making your cat so
If you've tried everything you can think of and you're still having no
luck, we urge you to set up an appointment with a certified animal
behaviorist. Their fresh perspective and training can sometimes lead them
to a solution you've never dreamed of. Another option we suggest is
talking with an animal communicator. We've worked with Mary Marshall
and have had some astonishing readings. A good communicator will get
so much right during a reading (over the phone, not in person where they
could see the animal) that you'll come to feel, as we do, that there's no
way they could be faking it. Even if this sounds "out there" to you,
we urge you to consider it as a viable option. Give yourself and
your pet(s) every opportunity to figure out your indiscriminate urination
We had success with Gracie and with a kitty in our rescue facility by
putting them on a very small dose of
Paxil, the human antidepressant
that's often used in cases of indiscriminate urination. Having said
that, though, we thought you'd like to learn of a natural option that's
also working well for us now: Calming Treats For Cats, made by
Pet Naturals Of Vermont.
Whereas we had cats in our rescue facility who were about to tear each
other apart, now we give them each a Calming Treat or two a day (like
medicine, more may not be better, so don't go overboard) and now they lie
together and eat/drink together without incident. You can buy these
treats at major pet stores nationwide and online at places like
Swanson Vitamins and
Lucky Vitamin. They also
have Calming Treats For Dogs, which would be helpful with house soiling
and separation anxiety. The Calming Treats For Cats and for Small
Dogs are the same, I think. (A recent batch of Gracie's Paxil wasn't
working correctly and was deemed to be faulty by the pharmacist, and we
found that a Calming Treat worked well to help smooth Gracie out a bit
without overly sedating her.)
A Final Word Of Encouragement
Please, if you truly love your companion animal, DON'T give up
and relinquish your animal to a shelter, a stranger or the pound. To do so
is more than likely sentencing your cat to, at best, a ton more unfriendly
stimuli that will NOT be pleasant for your animal and, at worst, euthanasia
or torture. Stick it out. Work to give your
companion the environment and the life he or she deserves and even expects
from you. You'll get paid back in more ways than you can imagine.
We at Four On The Floor appreciate your willingness to do the right
thing. You’re to be commended for not taking the easy way out at the
expense of your pet. Thank you.
P.S. Mrs. DooDoo Voodoo reminded me today that some cats have a
strong aversion to the scent of those fabric softener sheets you throw in
your clothes dryer. This can cause some cats to urinate on a pile of
laundry even if they don't have issues with the litter box, the litter,
the location of the litter box, etc. If this happens to you,
remember that you can use DooDoo Voodoo in your washing machine in lieu of
your regular detergent. Don't mix DooDoo Voodoo with any other
product (such as laundry soap, pre-spotters, oxygen boosters, bleach,
On 10-31-08, we received an e-mail from a customer who had
questions about why her cats were not using the litter box reliably.
Here's my response. She was using plastic litter box liners and
"Yes, I believe that there are a few possible things going on here that
are dissuading the cats from using the box. They're trying to tell you
that they don't like something about their litter box, nearby
environment, litter, etc. We'll get to the bottom of it, so to speak.
One could be location, as detailed in our article,
Why Cats Fail To Use The Litter Box.
I've seen cats acutely develop an aversion to the box location, even
after a long period of no such aversion. This could be due to the
furnace, washing machine, toilet, etc. Another, often overlooked,
aspect is the surface the box is on. Hard surfaces are better than soft
(carpet), as cats prefer soft surfaces to poop/pee on. Your kitties may
actually prefer the surface surrounding the box to what's inside the
box, hence their behavior of voiding right beside the litter box.
Another could be the litter you're using. I suggest an all-natural
clumping litter that is not bleached or fragranced. Keep 2.5-3" of
litter in the box. Scoop often. Smooth out the top surface of the
litter after scooping (it helps!), either by gently shaking the box side
to side or by smoothing out the litter with your litter scoop. Buy a
very tight-clumping litter, not a cheaper one that allows too much urine
to stay in the box due to the clumps breaking up. A litter that is 100%
bentonite clay is preferable to one that is a blend or another type of
clay. Scoop at least once a day.
Another is likely that the cats don't like the plastic liner, which most
cats don't. I suggest not using a liner OR the newspaper, which has a
very strong scent and is a deterrent to many cats' using their litter
boxes. I and many other people are averse to the smell of newsprint, so
given that cats' sense of smell is estimated to be a hundred times
stronger than humans', I bet the cats are averse to the smell, too, and
telling you so by exhibiting the behavior they are.
We always suggest one more litter box than the number of cats, so I'd
add one [the customer has two cats and was using two boxes]. I bet
you'll find that the cats pee in two and poop in one.
Since you won't be using liners, I suggest periodically cleaning the box
out with DooDoo Voodoo, letting it dwell for at least 10 minutes, then
wiping it out with paper towels. Setting the box in the sun to fully
dry helps with odor eradication after the DooDoo Voodoo is wiped out
(don't wipe the box quite fully dry before setting it in the sun to dry
and "bake"; the ultraviolet light helps maximize DooDoo Voodoo's
effectiveness at eradicating the odor-causing organic material in the
I am confident that following these guidelines will yield the results
you're looking for by giving the kitties the secure, comfortable
elimination environment they desire. Let me know how it goes!"
Eric and Julie Smith are the founders of two federally-licensed animal
charities and for some time operated a nonprofit, low-cost, feline-only
spay/neuter clinic in Indianapolis. They have lectured on feral cat
management and early-age spay/neuter at a statewide veterinary conference
held at the Purdue School of Veterinary Medicine and were the founders of
the Indy Pets ALIVE! coalition. Because of their work on behalf of
animals, they have been featured many times in newspapers and magazines,
as well as on television and radio. They founded Four On The Floor Pet
Products, Inc., in 1988. Up to the limit allowed by federal
charitable-giving laws, profits from the sale of Four On The Floor’s
products are funneled back into work on behalf of needy animals.