Litter Box Happiness – For Cats of All Ages

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One of the leading complaints from cat owners is elimination outside of the litter box. Dr. Nicholas Dodman DVM, ACVB, of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University, reports up to 4% of cats in United States Households (3 million out of 75 million) urinate outside of the litter box weekly, with 1% urinating daily outside of the box. Up to 24% of all cats will have litter box aversion at some point in their life. Litter box aversion, or inappropriate elimination, can involve urination, defecation or both. It can be either a consistent or occasional problem. You may see the cat use the box for either stool or urine, but not both, and they may use the box, then “out of the blue,” not. The damage, smell, and distress of this behavior problem is serious. Many cats are surrendered, re-homed, or euthanized due to this problem. It is difficult to find data on rates of behavior problems in cats surrendered or re-homed since often people will not report this, or will under report this upon surrender. Some cats are turned outside due to this problem and may then be picked up as a stray.

There can be a number of medical, environmental, and behavioral factors that contribute to litter box aversion. I am going to cover some of the most important factors to address in helping a cat be happy about their litter box.


How can you keep your cat happy with the litter box?

Here are some of the most important factors for keeping a cat happy with the litter box at various life stages:

Make it easy for the cat to get into the box.

This may sound obvious, but most of the commercial litter boxes are not easy for cats to use. For example, if a kitten gets a litter box that is 6 inches or more in height to enter, it might be difficult for it to get into. So the kitten may start using the carpet or clothing to urinate on just to be able to relieve itself. Now the kitten is learning to prefer carpet or clothes at this early stage in life.

Older cats often have arthritis. In an FDA report by Dr. Carmela Stamper, DVM, (Osteoarthritis in Cats: A More Common Disease Than You Might Expect) there is a range from 28% of cats having arthritis in the elbow and skeletal joints up to 90% of cats with arthritis in the spine and body. This pain and inflammation makes it more difficult to get into a box. Again, our commercial boxes with high sides makes it difficult to enter so the cat has no choice but to go elsewhere. Also, this arthritis in the spine can slow the bowels down, aggravating constipation. So a cat may go in the box and try, but nothing happens. After a few minutes out of the box now they have the urge and may not be able to get to the box in time.

In general most cats like a box that they can walk right into with an entry lip no higher than 3 inches.

Finding a box like this to purchase is not easy. Litter box manufacturers have not kept up with feline behavior and preferences, so it might be best to make your own. The best litter box I have ever seen is using a Rubbermaid keeper where you cut the door out. You can see a demonstration on my YouTube channel DrSallyJFoote here: Make the Best Litter Box Ever.

Is the box easy to find? Is it behind the furnace down the basement steps in the dark? Put the box where it is easy to get to and the cat will not be disturbed by people walking by, dogs nosing in on them or another cat body blocking them. I cannot tell you how many older cats started using the litter box once it was moved upstairs out of the basement.

Five simple rules to keep your cat in the litter box

Keep the box clean – clean for a cat that is.

Cats want to put their urine and stool where there is no other. This is why they hop right in the box as soon as you clean it and put fresh litter in. Re-mark an area about every 3 days, so if a cat sees or smells stool or urine in the box, it is already marked to them. Scoop the box out completely of all stool and urine twice daily. Now when the cat comes to the newly prepared box, they see the need to go in there. A dirty box tells them to go elsewhere.

This is where the sharing problem comes in. Cats do not want to mark in the same place another cat has marked. That is why the suggestion is for a box per cat plus one. Now not all homes have the room for multiple boxes so cleanliness is extremely important here. I think it actually helps to have the box in the living area of the home. People are so concerned about the smell they keep the box clean – now the cat is happier too.

Litter type and amount.

Cats are not only selective about the where, they are also selective about what they eliminate on. This is called surface preference. While there are many types and brands of litter, most are designed to appeal to the humans, not the cats. The deodorizers and pellet type can be offensive to many cats. In a study by Dr. Jaqueline Nielson, DVM, DACVB, in 2009 (The Latest Scoop on Litter), scoopable litter with activated charcoal was preferred over litter with baking soda or citrus scents.

Watch the labels on these litters. Recently, I noticed the fresh step litter now offered Febreeze in the litter, not charcoal.  The label looked very similar and one client noted her cat started going out of the box. This cat was managing well with his bladder inflammation, so it was perplexing until the client noticed that Febreeze was added not charcoal! Read the label to be sure it says only charcoal as the additive.

The amount of litter in the box makes a difference too. While the litter companies suggest 3 inches or more, just enough to cover the bottom of the box is what most cats actually like. Many cats dig to the smooth surface at the bottom and do not want the litter sliding back down. Also, with less litter, you will be adding in fresh litter which cats love! This new litter is fresh and clean … just what the cat needs. So, if your box has more than 1 inch of litter in it, dump it all out and put in much less.

Pain problems that cats love to hide.

Arthritis, constipation, and urinary pain are not displayed in ways you would think. Cats will just avoid going up and down stairs or using a box that is too high to easily climb into when they have back pain. So, if you have any litter box problems, have your cat examined. It can be difficult to determine the source of pain by exam alone, so give your veterinarian the approval for any blood, urine, and X rays to rule out medical problems. Tell your veterinarian all about what your cat is, and is not, doing to help diagnose any pain problems which might be aggravating the litter box problems. Then once a plan is made, follow it and stick with it. Often when pain levels decrease people start to slack off on giving medications or supplements, but then the problems return.

At least 50% of the time there is a medical problem aggravating a litter box use problem in the cats I see for litter box aversion. The signs of arthritis, kidney problems, or other health problems are subtle in cats. They will not cry out in pain and may avoid using their body as much. Some of the medications, especially pain medications, also help improve behavior, but your veterinarian cannot prescribe these unless you bring your cat in for care and approve the needed tests. Medication does not have to be difficult either as there are ways to medicate your cat that are easier than in the past, such as transdermal gels, pill pockets, and diets.

When there is a combination of a medical and behavior problem, the behavior cannot improve until the medical problem has been addressed. There are resources to help decrease the stress on your cat for travel to the veterinarian (Here Kitty Kitty – How to get the Cat to the Vet), or you might consider a house call veterinarian. Lastly, seek a veterinary clinic with Low Stress Handling® Certification to be sure your cat is handled in the most cat considerate way.

Litter box problems are common and there is a lot of information that can be confusing and overwhelming. It is embarrassing for many owners, and destroys the bond the owner has with their cat. Seek a veterinarian with expertise in behavior to help you with your cat if it is a recurrent problem.

Watch for our webinar (coming soon) on on Litter Box happiness.

Watch as Dr. Foote Makes a Simple Litter Box:

Further Reading:


Dr. Sally J. Foote

Five simple rules to keep your cat in the litter box

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20 responses to “Litter Box Happiness – For Cats of All Ages

  1. I don’t understand cats. My dearly departed spouse Wendy has been gone for almost 2 years now, and no matter how many things I try with her cat Nosey (male rescue kitty, age 8, 10 lbs., kind of pudgy, but good health overall), his potty habits are consistently messed up Nosey gets plenty of love and attention from us, but I can’t let this cat roam the house. He lives in the sunroom out back. It has a vinyl floor — by necessity! Nosey has his own shelf to look out the window at the birds all day. Plenty of toys, carpet covered stuff to hop on. But anything on the floor is pretty much his litter box. New bed for Christmas, and predictably he chews the edges and poops in it. What is wrong with an animal that makes him want to poop where he sleeps? I clean it up, he repeats overnight. Carpet squares from the ReStore shop? Yep, soaked with urine and he poops there, too. Old towel in his favorite bed on a cold night? Drags it out, and it’s soiled next morning. He uses his two litter boxes (2 inches of litter in two boxes with low sides, 20 x 30 inches), but still, he goes on almost any soft surface, bed, carpet remnant, towel, or soft pad that is placed on the floor for his comfort. (I put a carpet square on top of his wire cage and interestingly, no toilet activity there yet). Today, I rad this post, watched the video, and I bought two of these plastic tubs and will give the “Simple Litter Box” a try. I have never tried a covered little box with Nosey, but maybe that’s what he’s been wanting all along… One can only hope… Getting expensive and tired of throwing out beds and cleaning up after the cat every day!

    1. If you have not had both a urine and stool check with a physical exam for your cat in the last 3 months, please do so now. While I cannot diagnose from only the above description, I can say that he prefers a flat surface – common with back arthritis which makes crouching difficult.
      If this flared up after your wife passed ( my sympathy) it can also be a chronic anxiety that then causes the litter box problems.
      If your veterinarian would like to discuss the case with me to help with the behavior, that would be fine.
      Please have them contact me through the office.
      Dr Sally J Foote

  2. I have an 8 month old kitten who has not mastered the litter box. I got her from a veterinarian where she was being fostered until she was old enough to eat on her own etc. Her first litter boxes was card board box tops or pads because she was too small to climb into anything. She seems to have a penchant for wanting to poop on hard surfaces. She urinates in the litter box but prefers to defecate on hard, smooth tops such as laminate flooring and earlier on in the tub; at least now she only goes on the laundry room floor next to to the litter boxes.

    I did have her consistently going to the litter box for about a month but then I was out of town for 3 weeks and had a house sitter and she reverted back to her former behavior. Now it’s hit or miss but mostly miss. I have another cat and they both have the same sized litter boxes, I use pine litter and I add cedar bedding to it. She uses both boxes although the older cat only uses one. The boxes are scooped daily and thoroughly cleaned/washed one time per week. I am sure that there is not an issue with the older cat bullying because she actually bullies him especially around meal time.

    I plan on taking her for an examination but I never imagined it would be so challenging to litter train a cat.

    1. The kitten learned to use the box based on the type of litter, and the box itself from the vet clinic. use the type of litter they used – not many cats really like the pine and other litters. if she is near the box, she may be getting in and coming out or hanging over. This is often because they do not like the litter, or have pain with defecation.
      Be sure to tell your vet all about where, when and how the litter box is used, cleaned and any sharing or staring by the other cat
      Dr Foote

    1. Hi Dr. Willie,

      Over the years there has been a lot of debate, sometimes heated debates, about the subject of whether cats like litter boxes with lids or not. The truth of the matter is that cats tend to be just as fickle as humans sometimes and that some prefer lids, while other can’t stand them. The only safe way to truly know for certain whether your cat likes or dislikes lids is to give them the choice. The great thing about most litter box lids is that they can be completely detached from the box itself if you find that your cat does in fact dislike the lid. I hope this helps.

  3. my cat for the first time pooped outside the litter box, but it was on a welcome mat. to me that was strange for my cat to do so.

    could you please enlighten me on why she would do this? she has also gained weight over the last couple of months. that also has me puzzled.

  4. My cats are 12 yrs. and sisters. One cat is pooping and peeing all over the place every day! We have a 3 story house with a business on the main floor. Litter boxes in basement and top floor. She has loose bowel movements with blood always. Now she’s taken up peeing on my bed and wherever she wants. The vet said there are no crystals and because it’s impossible to give her pills she gets a shot of antibiotics for a u.t.i also she’s very low in b12. I’m at a loss and fed up! Help!!!!!

  5. my family has a year old cat named Abraham. he will not stop pooping on our floor. we have tried everything, new litter, bigger and smaller litter boxes, new food, and we put him in a confined area, still he pooped outside of the litter box. we are contemplating euthanizing him because he is too much to handle.

  6. It really helped when you mentioned how most cats like a little box with an entrance. I can understand that a little box like this would be easy for them to get in and out while keeping all its contents inside. My brother was talking about how ne was getting a litter box for his cat and for his dog, do you have any suggestions as to what’s best for a dog?

  7. My female 13 year old cat has a fluted bladder and is on daily Gabapentin, Prozac, and Chlopheniramine. She still marks curtains and on vents in the kitchen, and even on my stove. I have one cat and three litter boxes which are kept pristine. I would love any suggestions of what I could try to assist with my situation. I want both of us to be happy.

  8. I am working on a project to develop a green chemistry based cat litter. What kind of regulatory approvals do you need to get to commercialize a new cat litter

  9. Dear Dr,

    My family’s beloved Ragdoll cat Mr. Coco has developed a habit of peeing outside of his litter box. We keep 2 litter boxes – one outside and one inside. He consistently uses the boxes for number 2’s, but for some reason, not for pee most of the time. Inside our house, he pees on walls, windows, curtains, new objects we bring from outside and also on the floor. Outside, he pees on the walls, our pot plants and BBQ set. Due to this problem being accompanied by erratic behaviour (such as excessive meowing and running around in the afternoon), I believe he might the cause might be anxiety. Is he “marking territory” by peeing on things? Who knows! Just wondering if you can you recommend anything to help with this issue? It is taking a toll on our family (and our home/furniture!)

    Any help/advice in regards to this will be much appreciated 🙂

    Thank you,

  10. My 5 year old rescue cat has been pooping in a kitchen corner 3 or 4 times a week for many months. I tried moving her litter box from the bathroom and placing it where she poops, but then she chose another corner. I don’t believe it is the type of cat litter in her box because she only poops outside of it occasionally. I bought a larger box and she only used the litter box for 5 days, now she’s pooped in the entryway twice in 3 days. I live in an apartment with linoleum floors, no carpets at all. The areas where she poops is cleaned with vinegar and water. I sprayed the areas with a cage cleaner today. I mentioned this problem to her vet. Is there something else I can do? I love my cat, what is she trying to tell me?

  11. I have 2 female cats, 11 years and 13 years old. They get along fine. The problem we’re having is with the 13 year old, she poops and pees on the floor, same spot every time- but seldom on other spots. I think she’s possessed or have an attitude problem, she does it when she’s angry because we don’t let her out or don’t pay attention to her. She also has diabetes and takes insulin on a daily basis. Her doctor suggested we confine her to 1 room and lock her there until she learns. We have an enclosed front porch but live in NYC and it’s getting cold and don’t want to leave her out. We’re now tie her close to the food and little box so she doesn’t go to the dining room to do her business there overnight which we have to clean when we wake up in the morning. We don’t know what else to do and my wife is getting to the point she wants to get rid of her but I don’t- but, she’s the boss.

  12. We rescued a large 4 yr old Ragdoll-type female 3 years ago and ended up keeping her since she got along so well with our other cat and three dogs. Only problem was peeing outside the litter boxes (we ended up with 5 in as many locations as our small house could accommodate). To my disappointment, she peed on my bath mat every time I put it down. My husband wanted me to take her to the local Shelter but then it was also his very helpful suggestion that maybe she wanted something soft to pee on. Now she has her own special box (uncovered) filled with a layer of soft animal bedding (soft cardboard-like clumps used for gerbils, etc., padded down). She doesn’t cover and her pee leaves a dark spot so it’s easy to see. She poops in an adjacent covered box on a thin layer of regular clay – doesn’t cover that either. Strange arrangement but it’s saved all of us from a lot of aggravation and her from the Shelter (which I’m not dissing since I volunteer there but I do know that housebreaking (for dogs) and litter box issues (for cats) are major obstacles for adoption.

  13. So after you change the litter you have to wash out the plastic tub??? GROSS & I have no place to wash it. I’ve used plastic liners since these cats came to my home. They never seemed to mind. The big female fatty is now peeing right at the opening of the box.😩. I am using a large commercial litter box. I have been using “puppy pads” (better known as Chucks). But all that does is save the floor. It still creeps under the box and I still have to take the whole thing apart, clean it, and put it back together. What a PITA. Thinking of rehoming.

  14. Are there good chances that my elderly cat that has been slowing down just got over the cat flu trying to help limit the activity of the steps is that a good chance she will adopt if I bring the kitty litter upstairs

  15. Sometimes a rescue cat comes with issues that you have no way of knowing. Our rescue cat was adopted at the age of 2; she had spent a year in a cage with minimal contact, care or exercise. She coped & survived. She had dog habits – begging for food, following me like a faithful dog & using the paper next to the litter box. Our other (perfect) cat patiently taught her to clean herself, use the box & cover her stuff. When stressed, she reverts to her old habits. The paper is still next to the box. She’s still a good cat & doing the best she can.

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