Helping your cat to use the litter box each and
every time
 copyright (c) 2021 Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

How can you make sure your cat will use the litter box?  Litter box issues or
"inappropriate elimination" have been cited as the number one reason for
owner surrender at animal shelters and is no doubt one of the top reasons
cat owners consult with a behaviorist.  Should your cat be avoiding the litter
box and/or eliminating in inappropriate locations be aware that any number
of health related issues might be responsible.  Checking in with a vet is always
advised.  You want to make sure that a urinary tract infection or other
medical concern does not exist and need to be addressed.   If the issue is in
fact, behavioral, know you are not alone and also know that there is help for
you and your cat here.  With a little detective work and a little trial and error,
you can figure out how to create a loyal litter box user out of any cat.

Key to figuring out any animal behavior is figuring out the natural behavior
of the animal as a species and as an individual.  In their natural environment,
cats select separate areas for urination and defecation and prefer unsoiled
areas for "squat urination", spraying is more a communication for cats to
convey information to others and when this does happen cats, unlike dogs,
will not "overmark" or spray over another cat's urine. Cats are highly
territorial and in our homes,  appear most responsive to clean and
comfortable environments.  Individual preferences are an added clue.

One absolute universal cat litter box law is clean litter. Numerous
studies support cat preferences for clean litter. The cleaner the better.  Scoop
your cat's litter box on a daily basis, do a complete change of litter at least
once a week.  If you are using clumping litter you definitely want to be vigilant
about scooping --those clumps take up valuable litter box space and are hard
to maneuver around.  A good box rinse when changing litter and replacing
plastic litter boxes, which are porous and can hold odors, every three months,
will keep litter boxes to a feline clean standard.  

Types of litter boxes and litter material can also come into play.  
Most of the products on the market are designed to appeal to human animals
(cats don't ask for scented litters, we do) and may not necessarily be the best
choice for felines, especially older ones.  Choose unscented, finer grained litters
over scented and larger pelleted ones and avoid liners as the plastic may interfere
with natural burying actions used.  Sufficient litter has been shown to make a
difference to using the litter box, especially where defecation is concerned.  

Studies now indicate that cats that have had the misfortune of being declawed
are more prone to not using litter boxes, probably as manipulating litter in
the first place, is painful for these cats. A softer litter as  opposed to clumping
or gravel type litters are a kinder choice for these cats.

Is your cat trying to use the box and not being sufficiently contained either by
box design or physical limitations?  Make sure that box is long enough -
research shows  that cats prefer a box at least one and a half times the length
of the cat - no doubt makes necessary posturing easier once in the box.  Can
your cat get easily into and out of the box or is that swinging door getting in
the way?   Older and arthritic cats may have difficulty accessing boxes with
higher walls at the entrance, modifying this can help.  If your litter box has
a cover or a door (another human preference - cats don't need "privacy"
here - they actually want to see who's around when eliminating) removing
it adds to better sight lines for kitty when it matters to them, usable space
and can help pretty quickly or within days.  

Have you recently switched brands or types of litter?  Thinking of what your
cat has preferred in the past can give clues to preferences and help in
replicating it.  Research shows cats prefer finer grained litters to larger ones,
making pelleted litters a definite no.  A number of cat litters have been
developed with added attractants to entice cats to use them.  Scientists in a
2019 study blind tested a plant (corn) based litter with an added attractant
compared to one without an attractant and found the cats preferred using the
one with attractant added.  Adding a commercial attractant to your current
fine grained litter can also help.

Litter box location should also be considered.  It may be tempting to hide
that box in a closet or to centralize food and water bowls along with the litter
box but these choices are worth rethinking.  A cat using a litter box is in a
vulnerable position, avoid placing the box in a place where the cat might feel
trapped and cannot easily access.  Walkways and heavily trafficked areas
should also be avoided; when given choices to use boxes in the middle of a
room or against a wall, cats overwhelming chose the box against the wall.
In a natural environment, cats do not eat and drink where they eliminate,
relocating litter boxes away from food and water bowls can help.

Is there something else going that your cat is objecting to?  
Inappropriate elimination can also be a signal to communicate stress.  Think
of recent changes in environment; moves, new people, pets, caretakers,
schedule that may be troublesome for your cat and how you can address them.  
Make sure to clean those spots where the litter box has not been used with a
good enzymatic cleaner.  Cleaning with products to remove odors we may
object to are fine for us but do not remove the amino acids left behind that
our cats can still identify (and an enzymatic cleaner can remove) and may
continue to target.  Removing those deposits properly helps.  For more on
stress and litter boxes please go  

Multiple cat households can be an other issue for some cats.   A second
box plus one might help and is frequently recommended for this. Apartment
dwellers who are already dealing with a space premium may not find this
realistic,  and for those fortunate enough to have the space it still may not
work.  Because you simply cannot dictate which animal will use which box
and when.  Or whether or not territoriality issues may surface around the
box, especially with new
cat integration where the newcomer's use of the
box may be prevented by the resident cat.  If the issue is a dislike of anyone
else using the box it is challenging if not impossible to create an exclusive
litter box for one individual. To address these concerns, add the second
box in a location far enough from the first one to be and feel separate
and consider location just as carefully as with the first box.

Resolving the litter issue takes into account many variables:  
environmental stresses, litter box location, type of litter, type of box,
litter not fresh enough or feces present, multiple cat use, or other
individual preferences.  To further add to the mix there is often a latency
period when an animal may just keep doing what they were doing even
though you fixed whatever it was that was wrong in the first place.  And
then as individuals react to aging or different environments their triggers
may change too.  Knowing what to look for in determining the factors and
your cat's litter box preferences, can help the both of you to breath a lot easier.

Bradshaw, J.W.S., Casey, R.A., Brown, S.L. (2012). Undesired behaviour in the domestic cat. In
The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat (pp. 190-205). Oxfordshire, UK: CABI.

Frayne, J., Murray, S. M., Croney, C., Flickinger, E., Edwards, M., & Shoveller, A. K. (2019). The
Behavioural Effects of Innovative Litter Developed to Attract Cats.
Animals, 9(9), 683.

Ellis, J.J.; McGowan, R.T.S.; Martin, F. (2017)  Does previous use affect litter box appeal in multi-cat
Behavioural Processes, 141, 284–290. [CrossRef] [PubMed]

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your cat  
to use the
litter box
Litter box avoidance is perhaps the biggest behavior problem for cat owners
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Thinking about the litter box from the cat point of view can help
"Key to figuring out any animal
behavior is figuring out the
natural behavior of the animal
as a species and as an
individual.  Cats are both highly
territorial and appear most
responsive to clean and
comfortable environments.  
Individual preferences are an
added clue."
Frania Shelley-Grielen is
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813

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"Resolving the litter issue takes
into account many variables:  
environmental stresses, litter
box location, type of litter,
type of box, litter not fresh
enough or feces present,
multiple cat use, or other
individual preferences