Ask the Veterinarian: Tips for getting your cat to use the litter box

If your cat is urinating or defecating outside of the litter box, the first step is to work with your veterinarian to determine if there is an underlying medical problem. 

Once a medical concern has been ruled out, the focus becomes encouraging your cat to see the litter box as a desirable place to eliminate. We want to make the litter box the “Taj Mahal” of bathroom spaces to help attract your kitty back to the box.

Here are some tips to help make the litter box more attractive to your cat:

  1. Make sure you have one more box than the number of cats in your house — if you have two cats, you should have three boxes, and so on.
  2. Remove all hoods. Many cats dislike hooded boxes and will choose to eliminate elsewhere.
  3. Scoop each box at least once daily, since many cats are EXTREMELY fastidious.
  4. Make sure boxes are located in quiet areas where there are no startling noises (e.g., a buzzer from a dryer) that could cause an aversion to using the box.
  5. Don’t overfill. Most cats don’t like more than 1-2 inches of litter and some even prefer just a tiny amount scattered across the bottom of the box. This is especially true for cats with arthritis pain (think about trying to walk in deep sand at the beach!) You can offer a couple options at first to see what your cat prefers.
  6. Ensure all boxes are easy to reach and use, especially if your cat is elderly. Arthritis is under-recognized in older cats and can sometimes cause them to change their habits — if the box is too far away, difficult to reach (e.g., too high off the floor or on the other side of a baby gate they have to jump over) or has sides that are too high, your cat may find it easier to eliminate outside the box. 
  7. Larger boxes are generally better as well. A rule of thumb is that the box should be at least 1.5 times the length of the largest cat in the house. Under-bed sweater storage containers that are large with low sides are great litter box alternatives. 
  8. Use litter that is attractive to your cat. Stay away from perfumed litters, crystals (the chemical reaction can create an unpleasant hot sensation to the paw pads) and pelleted litters. Dr. Elsey’s Precious Cat Litter is an inexpensive scoopable clay litter that does not have perfumes, has an attractive texture for most cats and has great odor control. Occasionally, cats will prefer non-clay-based litter such as the corn or wheat litters. Be sure your cat doesn’t try to eat these veggie-based litters (yes, some cats will!). 
  9. If you offer multiple types of litter and boxes initially to see which your cats prefer to use, please make sure that every cat’s “vote” is taken into account — you don’t want to fix one cat’s issues while causing new problems for another!
  10. 10.  Wash the box only with mild soapy water as needed — no strong-smelling or ammonia-based disinfectants.

11. Feliway is a synthetic feline pheromone spray or diffuser based upon the natural pheromone that cats release when they are happily “cheek-marking.” It has been shown to have a calming effect for cats and improve litter box usage. Spray Feliway once daily at cat level on the entrances to the rooms where your cat spends the most time or plug in a diffuser in these rooms. You can also spray Feliway directly on areas that were previously inappropriately urinated upon. Do this two to three times daily until you see your cat “cheek-marking” the area, then gradually decrease use. (Cats who “cheek-mark” an area are much less likely to “urine-mark” it!)

If your cat has urinated or defecated outside the box, it’s important to use an enzymatic cleaner to try to break down the organic material that may attract your cat back to the area. You can also limit further access to the area by blocking it off physically or placing a plastic carpet runner with the points facing up. Dispose of any rubber-backed rugs that have been urinated on. For some reason, many cats find these rugs irresistible and it’s usually best to just remove ALL rubber-backed rugs. Similarly many cats find piles of clothing, plastic bags and plasticized backpacks/purses tempting so you may need to prevent all access to these items in the future.

Dr. Catherine Hageman is a veterinarian at Westgate Pet Clinic in Linden Hills. Email her your pet questions at drhershey@westgatepetclinicmn.com.