Why Isn’t My Cat Using the Litter Box?

If your cat is urinating or defecating outside the box, it's hard not to take it personally and think, “What did I do to deserve this?”

But we have to move past the idea that our cats are punishing us. Cats aren't wired with the cognitive complexity that would lead to the vengeful scheming we imagine. We have to remember, too, that cats don’t share our repulsion to urine and feces -- that's a human thing. Just like the mouse head she left on the doorstep is disgusting in our minds, yet a gift in her mind, we have to try to understand our cat's actions on their terms and make some adjustments.

So if it's not revenge, what is going on? If your cat is soiling somewhere in the house, it's important to address the situation immediately, as there may be something serious going on, and even if not, the occurrence can be habit-forming. Causes usually fall into three basic categories:

  • Medical issues
  • Litter box distress
  • Spraying

Medical Issues

First and foremost: Rule out a medical condition! A medical issue in a cat can be difficult to recognize, so sometimes going outside the box is your only clue that something is wrong. Cats will associate pain and discomfort from elimination with their litter box and start avoiding it. He could be suffering from:
• Urinary tract infection (UTI) or crystals - A bladder infection or the development of crystals can block a cat from urinating, which causes pain and kidney damage, and can be quickly fatal in males. You may notice your cat is frequently straining, crying, or has blood in his urine. Don't delay to see your veterinarian. Feeding them wet food to increase their moisture levels, or providing them with urinary support supplements can help to prevent this issue.

• Kidney, thyroid, or liver disease is often linked with increased drinking and urination, which increases the urgency to urinate and can lead to soiling the house.

• Intestinal parasites, tumors, or inflammation of the colon can cause painful defecation, causing your cat to associate her litter box with the irritation.

• Age-related issues including arthritis may affect your cat's ability to get to the box in time or climb into the box properly. 

What You Can Do:

• Take your cat to the vet and get the necessary tests to make sure all is well. You may have to leave him there for monitoring or to obtain a urine or feces sample.

• If your cat is diagnosed with a condition, follow your veterinarian's recommendations. Remember, though, that even if your cat has recently recovered from an illness that caused soiling in the first place, she still may associate her box with the discomfort, or have developed a habit of using the inappropriate site. In this case, try some of the tips listed below.

Litter Box Distress

Litter Box

Once you have eliminated all health-related conditions, it's time to bust out the some checklists. It could be that there is something about the litter box itself, its location, or the litter that is off-putting to your cat.

First, is your litter box:

• Clean? Many cats will object to an un-scooped/unclean box.

• Too small? Large or overweight cats don't like a box they don't fit in, or may simply miss the litter and soil the floor instead.

• Too high-sided? Older cats and kittens can have trouble getting into a high-sided box and will choose an easier place.

• Hooded? Some cats don't like an enclosed space when they need to go. Also, a hooded box will keep smells in, which may be distasteful to your cat. On the other hand, cats who are used to a hooded box may reject an open one.

• The only one in the house? If you have multiple floors, make sure there is a box on every level. If you have multiple cats, get a box for each cat, plus one, so they don't have to compete. What about placement? Do you keep your litter box:

-Near your cat's food? Cats don't like to eliminate near where they eat or drink.
-In a fearful place? Make sure your cat feels safe where his litter box is. Being bombarded by dogs, kids or other cats when he needs to go can cause him to soil elsewhere.
-In a dark or dank place? Your cat may simply want to avoid that area.

• Lastly, the litter itself. Is the litter you use:

-A new brand? Your cat may not like the new litter.
-Too hard, too soft? Cats can be picky, especially if they expect a certain texture.
-Scented? Most cats prefer scentless litter.

What You Can Do:

First: Get rid of the smell. Cats will often re-soil a spot if it smells of urine, so you've got break the cycle. Cats smell much better than we can, so the odor needs to be neutralized, not just deodorized. Use an enzymatic cleaner (ask a staff member!); not anything with ammonia or vinegar, as those smells will likely attract the cat to the same place again.

Next: Who dunnit? If you have multiple cats, you must first determine which cat is not using the litter box properly. You may want to separate them (keep in mind that if the problem is stress-related due to the other cat's presence, separation may temporarily cure inappropriate elimination and leave you puzzled!)  You can also request additives from your vet that will change the color of urine or feces of one cat.

After you've cleaned up and identified the kitty culprit, try these tips:

• Place the litter box where your cat is inappropriately eliminating. Slowly move (an inch a day!) the box back to its proper location.

• Try a new litter, you may even put multiple boxes next to each other with different litters and see which your cat prefers. Vary textures and brands, and avoid scented litters.

• Have you noticed your cat prefers a specific texture when not using the box? Is she going on carpet or the bathmat? Try putting a carpet or clothing remnant in the litter box, with only a little bit of litter. Then increase the litter slowly over time. Alternately, if your cat prefers tiles, put loose tiles in the box with only a bit of litter, and increase the amount of litter slowly.

• Keep your box in an appropriate place. Somewhere quiet, clean, not near her food, and not up or down stairs if she has trouble climbing.

• Keep it clean! It's very important to scoop your litter box daily. Wash out, dry, and replace the litter in the box often enough that it is dry and does not smell. (Don't use harsh or scented cleaners, as these smells can be distasteful to your cat. A gentle detergent will do.)

• Make sure you have enough litter boxes for every floor/every cat in the house.

• Don't put the box where your cat may be ambushed by another cat, human, or dog. Replace a covered box with an open one, and make sure he has multiple exit options so he doesn't feel cornered.

• If your cat is long haired, you might try clipping the hair on her hind end. Tangled hair can be pulled or caught by defecation, which may cause a negative association with the box itself.

• Be sure to know the difference between soiling outside the box versus spraying. Set up video cameras if need be, and see the “Spraying” section below.

• Remember to prevent starting a litter box aversion. If your cat is using the box but you would like to change litter brands, ease the transition by slowly adding the new litter to the old over a period of a week or two.


Is your cat using the litter box but also peeing elsewhere? Have you seen him backing up against chairs, walls, or shelves, lifting and quivering his tail (instead of squatting) and leaving urine? This is spraying.

Spraying is a whole different animal. Well, same animal, but different problem entirely, and the litter box has nothing to do with it. Cats spray when they are feeling territorial, when new furniture enters the house, or from frustration relating to many factors, like new diets or not enough play time. Remember, frustration, not revenge.

What You Can Do:

After cleaning up, try these ideas:

• Neuter your cat. If your cat is not neutered or spayed, that is your first call to duty. Unneutered males are especially big on spraying.

• Address the frustration, and/or change the association:

-If you just brought a new cat to the house, separate them and reintroduce them with positive associations. Feeding them on the opposite sides of the same door for example, or
-Use a pheremonal calming device.
-Set aside some time to play with your cat. Introduce new toys, get a catnip routine going, or hire someone to visit her during the day when you're at work.
-If your cat is upset by seeing neighborhood cats outdoors, block his access to the window, or try methods for keeping the local cats from visiting.
-Sometimes a diet change can be upsetting. Make sure you always do a slow transition (unless otherwise directed by your vet).
-Put your cat's food or water near the spray site, as cats tend not to want to eliminate where they eat and drink.
-Play with your cat near the spot, even leave some toys around.
-If you catch your cat just beginning to spray, you can startle him by shaking a jar of coins or spraying a stream of water. Make sure you are not scaring him, just surprising, and if he's finished spraying before you get there, you've missed your chance.

• Medication. Anti-anxiety medication can help reduce incidents of spraying, but can come with unwanted costs and side effects. Consider this a last resort.

Whatever the cause of your cat’s litter box problems, DO NOT:

• Do not scare or punish your cat. She will not understand the connection and your behavior will only add anxiety to the situation. Stress will only add to frustration or spraying behavior.
• Do not reprimand your cat and put him in his litter box. This will only make him have a negative association with the box.
• Do not isolate your cat to a confined space with a litter box and avoid addressing the problem.

Now that you are thinking like a cat, you can be a better detective. Have more questions? Pets on Broadway is here to help! Please come in and ask a staff member for ideas or product recommendations.

Information based on research from Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, the Humane Society of the USA, and ASPCA. All content is intended for informational purposes only and are not promotional or in any way a substitute for medical advice from a veterinarian.

Chelsea Schuyler is a life-long cat owner and was a technician assistant for both a local veterinary hospital and Dove Lewis Emergency Animal Hospital. She also used to be the head buyer for Pets on Broadway before moving on to freelance writing underneath a pile of cats and blankets.