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When Cats Develop Negative Associations with the Litter Box

Your cat has faithfully used the litter box for years and then suddenly has begun eliminating on the carpet in your bedroom. Sometimes you’ve even found cat pee in the bathroom sink and the tub. What’s up with that?

There are several reasons why a cat may suddenly stop using the litter box such as:

An underlying medical condition

Unappealing litter box conditions

Environmental issues

Hopefully, you are already aware that your cat should be checked out by the veterinarian at the first sign of a litter box problem in order to rule out any possible underlying medical reason for the behavior. So let’s say you’ve done that and the diagnosis is that kitty does, in fact, have a urinary tract problem. The veterinarian will prescribe an antibiotic, may or may not recommend a change to a therapeutic diet and you’ll be instructed to bring the cat back to be rechecked in about two weeks. You bring your cat back home, sad that he has a medical problem but happy that it will be resolved shortly.

What if the Cat Still Avoids the Box?

Days go by and your cat, despite the fact that you’ve been diligent about administering the medication, is still peeing in all the wrong places. You scratch your head in confusion and worry that there may be something else causing it but there really could be a very simple answer: your cat may now have formed a negative association with the litter box.

Negative Associations with the Litter Box

What happens sometimes is since the cat experiences pain when attempting to eliminate, he may associate the box itself with that pain. He thinks if he goes somewhere else it won’t hurt as much. This can happen with urination if the cat experiences burning or pain when attempting to void and it can also happen with defecation if the cat is constipated or if he has something such as IBD where he experiences intestinal cramping. He avoids the litter box because every time he goes there it causes physical pain.


Negative associations can happen for other reasons as well and not just due to a medical condition. If the cat has been ambushed by another pet while in the box or if he has been punished or frightened while near the box he may try to stay as far away from it as possible. It’s not just limited to physical pain and discomfort.

Books by Pam Johnson-Bennett


The Solution for Helping Your Cat

The way to handle this is to offer an additional litter box with a different type of litter. You can place the box near, but not right next to, the original box. Often, the fact that the box contains a different litter substrate will encourage the cat to attempt to go in it. Coupled with the fact that the cat is now on medication so hopefully the pain is subsiding, he may feel more comfortable about using a litter box again.

Don’t just add a different type of litter to the original box because cats don’t like abrupt changes. The way to do it is to offer a choice to your cat and let him make the decision. In some cases, you may need to offer two additional boxes with two different types of litter or you may need to put the additional box a little farther away from the original one. If your cat is consistently eliminating in a particular spot, place the additional litter box in that location.

Make sure the litter box set-up is convenient, comfortable and secure. If the negative association is to due to the cat having been frightened or ambushed, make sure you address those causes so you can prevent future negative experiences.

Need More Information?

If your cat is experiencing a litter box aversion problem, please be sure and have him checked out by the veterinarian. If there is a medical reason for the behavior, keep an eye on your cat to see if there is also now a negative association with the litter box. The sooner you address the problem, the better the chances of success.

For more information on dealing with litter box issues refer to any of the books by Pam Johnson-Bennett.

New book CatWise



Due to Pam’s scheduling demands, we’re sorry but she is unable to respond to questions or remarks posted in the comment section. If you have a question about cat behavior, you can find many answers in the articles Pam writes for the website as well as in her best-selling books.