Before jumping to the conclusion that behavior is the reason for not using the litter box, underlying medical problems should be ruled out first. This is best accomplished starting with a thorough history and physical exam followed by a urinalysis, fecal test and possibly other lab work. Examples of medical problems include urinary tract infection or inflammation, bladder stones, arthritis, pain, fleas, tapeworms and other parasites, and dietary intolerance to name a few. Often a medical issue is the underlying problem when a cat quits using the litter box but even when the medical problem is corrected, the behavior issue persists. For this reason, behavioral modification is also part of the treatment plan as well as addressing the medical problem. Either way, the quicker you intervene, the quicker this can be resolved and avoid potential long term problems.
Use the following tips to reestablish appropriate litter box habits:
- Have 1 litter box per cat plus 1. For example, if you have 3 cats, you need 4 litter boxes.
- Place litter boxes on all levels of the house.
- Keep litter boxes out of major traffic areas or areas of increased activity. Cats need to feel safe when using the litter box.
- Avoid fragrant litter types. Plain clay or those with baking soda or charcoal are the universal favorites.
- Use uncovered, large litter boxes. Cats don’t like body parts touching the sides of the litter box.
- Try a variety of litter types to see which one your cat prefers. In multiple cat households, you may need 2 or 3 different litter types. For instance, some cats prefer cloth so washable throw rugs can also be used to line litter boxes then just toss them in the washing machine and reuse them multiple times.
- Line litter boxes with newspaper, put 1-2 cups of litter in the box. Once the cat has used the box, empty the whole thing and start over. If you prefer using more litter, scoop the box 2-3 times daily and empty the box weekly. An unclean box is the number one reason cats quit using the litter box.
- Clean litter boxes with a mild soap once a month or more. Rinse thoroughly. Cats do not like chemical smells.
- Replace litter boxes every year or two.
- The large plastic storage bins that slide under beds make nice large boxes that have sides not too tall for our arthritic cats. Some of the lids on these storage boxes can be used as well.
- For cats who urinate standing up and hit vertical surfaces, make a "wall" around the box with plastic or part of a shower curtain or take the litter box lid from covered litter boxes, turn it upside down for a short doorway to enter but tall walls to catch urine.
- Commercial pheromones such as "Feliway" can be plugged into outlets. We don’t smell anything but the scent is calming to cats. Catnip can also be calming in some cats.
- It may help to confine your cat in a small room with 2 litter boxes and his food and water for a few to several weeks to help retrain. Once your cat is using the box routinely, he can come out of the room under supervision then gradually transition back to the rest of the house. In some cases, medications may need to be used in the beginning to help retrain.
- From a behavioral perspective, the magic number of cats per household tends to be around five or six before a cat will start spraying urine to mark territory. (Yes, neutered/spayed cats can and will spray urine.) The larger the cat population, the more creative we need to be to keep everyone happy. Make sure all cats have safe havens where they can escape such as perches or under/on top of beds or shelves. Rotate kitty toys to stimulate exercise and general activity. Use water fountains for an ongoing source of fresh water. Take the dry cat food and hide it throughout the house so the cats have to "hunt" for their food.
In summary, call as soon as an issue develops. We will rule ou t medical issues first and then establish a comprehensive plan to get your feline back on track!