I receive more questions about solving common litter box problems than any other cat behavior complaint. Young kittens won’t automatically know where to “go” and you’ll need to teach them potty etiquette. Adult cats understand the basics, but can get their tails in a twist over a variety of issues. Health challenges prompt cats to find alternatives to the legal toilet, and even after veterinary diagnosis and treatment, owners need to address the behavioral aspect to solve litter box problems.
Location, Location, Location!
Your cat wants privacy, so place the toilet in a low traffic area with the least amount of disturbance. Think about the location from a cat's-eye view, as well. Does the dog have access to this area, too? Will the clothes dryer buzz! just as your fearful kitty assumes the position? Unwelcome pets and obnoxious noises can send your cat to more private potty places. Cats also won't want to eliminate near where they eat or sleep (would you?).
Kittens and small cats won’t care, but those who grow into big-boned felines will need supersized toilets. Cats prefer litter boxes at least 1-1/2 times longer than their bodies. And most commercial boxes prove sadly inadequate. Bigger cats like Maine Coons may “hang over” the edge. Other times, they may hit the mark but don’t want to stand on top of their deposit to cover it up. You’ll see these frustrated cats scratch-scratch-scratch forever on the outside of the box.
I love the translucent sweater-storage boxes for these kitties. The clear plastic not only contains big cats, it also allows the cat to see if the toilet’s already occupied to cut down on surprises in the middle of (ahem) being creative.
The 1+1 Rule
Most cat lovers have more than one kitty. The 1+1 rule simply means you should have one litter box for each cat, plus one. While small kittens often share the facilities, adult cats can argue over this very important territory. One cat in the household may actually own the toilet and prevent the others from using it. Be sure that the multiple boxes are in different rooms or on separate floors so the facilities can’t be guarded by one determined cat. Even singleton cats may require more than one box because some prefer one toilet for liquids and another for solid waste.
Empty the Litter Box
Scoop daily, and dump/scrub regularly. Cats appreciate a clean toilet and will look for other places to empty themselves if the full litter box offends them. Put yourself in their paws. Do you enjoy using a dirty or smelly “port-a-potty" at the fairgrounds? A cat’s sense of smell is many times more acute than your own. Even a mild odor can be off-putting to your pet.
Fill the Litter Box
It really doesn’t matter what type of litter humans like, or if it’s on sale and you have a coupon. Cats don’t even care if it’s environmentally unfriendly or politically incorrect. To maintain litter box allegiance listen to what your cat likes; once you find that brand, don’t switch. Cats love the status quo, and any change of litter box substrate could prompt them to snub the box.
A variety of cat box fillers is available, from plain clay to pine pellets and recycled wheat, paper, or corn crumbles. The ideal material absorbs moisture, contains waste and odor, and suits the cat. If you have a particular product preference, you can indoctrinate from kittenhood. But adult cats have their own ideas, and you won’t win the battle. In comparison tests, cats overwhelmingly preferred fine-grained clumping litter products.
Some cats, though, decide they want something different. Try a top dressing of leaves or garden dirt over the regular litter to transition outdoor cats to an indoor toilet. Is the cat “going” on linoleum, wood, paper, carpet or cloth? Try less litter or even an empty box for the kitty that prefers a smooth surface. Or line with paper, add a carpet remnant, perhaps an old hand towel to see if that floats his boat. Pay attention to the surface the cat likes, and duplicate that in the box to help re-establish the idea of using the box.
Arthritic cats could have difficulty with stairs, or trouble climbing into high-sided boxes. Ensure there’s a toilet the old cat can easily access. Cut down the sides of the box, or offer a “step up” for ease getting in and out.
Cats May Blame the Box
Kitties that have a bad experience while in the box can blame the location or the box itself for the discomfort and avoid using it thereafter. Common causes include painful urination from lower urinary tract disorders. Constipation or diarrhea that's unpleasant might make the cat snub the box. Painful paws from declaw surgery can be an issue. In these cases, in addition to having your veterinarian diagnose and treat the cat, get a brand new box and place it in another location. That’s often all it takes to reestablish litter box loyalty.
To solve the most common litter box problems, owners must think outside the box (sorry, I couldn’t resist!). Some hit-or-miss problems can be stubborn to fix, but more often it takes a simple adjustment in the location, size or number of the facilities, or the cat litter itself for the cat to return to potty allegiance.