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WHY CATS FAIL TO USE THE LITTER BOX
by Eric Smith, Founder
Four On The Floor Pet Products, Inc.

Revised 8-23-14

(Note:  There's other info you might find useful on our Cat Behavior page, as well as perhaps other links you can find on our Downloads & Education page.)


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 your veterinarian.

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 concerned.

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 the kitty?

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 cat.

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.

Outside Influences
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 barrier.

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 Magic!®  A top veterinarian we know said, "I'm going to tell every cat owner I know that they have GOT to use this litter!"

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.

In 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.

We 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.

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 website 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 facility's population.)

The Recap
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 disagreeable.

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 (www.medicinehorsewoman.com) 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 issues.

Another Resource
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 www.swansonvitamins.com and www.LuckyVitamin.com.  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, etc.).

Added Information:

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 newspaper:

"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 plastic).
 
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.

Revised 10-31-08

 



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