When a cat stops using the litter box it’s a very stressful situation. It’s obviously extremely stressful for the poor cat but it’s also very stressful for the human family members. Nobody is happy when kitty pees on the carpet and not in her litter box.
There are many reasons for litter box aversion and we have several articles here on our website that cover this topic. As always though, the very first thing you should do when kitty stops using the box is to take her to the veterinarian in order to rule out any underlying medical issue. This step should never be skipped
One reason for elimination outside of the box that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves is location aversion. Where you place the box can play an important role in whether it gets successfully used, periodically used or never used. Here are a few potential triggers for litter box location aversion:
Too Close to Food
Their survival instinct tells cats not to eliminate where they eat. The last thing a cat wants is to have the scent of her waste attracting predators to where she is eating, sleeping or raising her young. The reason cats cover their waste in the litter box is rooted in that same survival instinct. Covering the waste makes it less able to be detected by predators. If you place the litter box close to the feeding station, the cat will often choose to eliminate somewhere else.
The litter box isn’t the human family member’s favorite part of household décor. As a result, many cat parents place the litter box in the most out-of-the-way locations in the home. It gets hidden in basements, wedged in the corner of the garage or shoved into closets. Putting the litter box in the household equivalent of Siberia will often backfire on you. When your cat’s bladder is full, she’ll truly appreciate having a litter box conveniently located. This becomes even more important as she ages or has mobility problems. If you live in a three-story home would you like to have to travel down several sets of stairs to get to the one bathroom in the home? Probably not. Provide litter boxes that are conveniently located – and that includes providing an adequate number of boxes based on the size of your home and the number of cats in your family.
When it comes to taking care of personal business, humans definitely prefer privacy. Cats, however, don’t need as much privacy. Granted, you don’t want to place the litter box right smack in the center of the living room, but you also don’t want it so isolated that it becomes forgotten or difficult to access. Find the right balance between adequate privacy and convenience.
Does your cat have to squeeze through a pet door to get to the box? Does she have to wedge herself between the tub and the toilet to gain access to the small box you’ve tucked in there? Make sure the box is in a location that provides comfort and ease of use.
Just as you don’t want to locate a box in an extremely remote area of the house, you also don’t want to go to the other extreme and put the box in a high-traffic area. Your cat doesn’t want to be in the middle of personal duties in the box while the children are running around just inches away or the family dog is barking at her. Just as in the paragraph on privacy, provide a healthy balance.
I think of all the location aversion issues I help clients with, this is the biggest one. If a cat doesn’t feel safe in the litter box, there is absolutely no reason for her to return there. If you have a multicat household and one cat ambushes another in the box, if the dog goes after her or there’s any other reason she might feel anxious about her safety in there, she will seek out other options. Make sure the litter box is located in an area that provides safety and that the set-up itself encourages security (an uncovered box, for example). Don’t put boxes in closets or other locations that limit the cat’s escape potential.
Need More Information?
For more specifics on litter box aversion and litter box problems, refer to any of Pam’s books, including Think Like a Cat. If you’re experiencing a cat behavior problem and would like a consultation with cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, CCBC, contact our office.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the star of Psycho Kitty airing on Discovery UK. She is author of seven best-selling books on cat behavior including Think Like a Cat: how to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. Think Like a Cat has become known as the cat bible. Pam is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting. In addition to her television series and public speaking engagements, Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company in Nashville, TN. Cat Behavior Associates offers private cat behavior appointments on a limited basis. Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant.