Overcoming the Litterbox Blues

By Judy Layne

After a flawless record for years, your cat stops using their litterbox and begins leaving little ‘presents’ around the house – everywhere except the litterbox.  What’s the scoop?

The good news is that most litterbox issues can easily be corrected, so if you’re singing the litterbox blues, don’t despair.  Often, the problem is right before your eyes.  Some change, though not apparent to you, may have distressed your cat.  Here are some common reasons your cat may stop using their litterbox and what you can do to make things right.

  1. Keep it clean.  The top reason cats stop using the litterbox is because it’s dirty.  You wouldn’t want to use a dirty toilet and neither does your cat.  To fix the problem, simply scoop the box at least once daily and once every two weeks empty it completely, wash it with unscented dishwashing detergent and add new litter.
  2. Three (or even two) is a crowd.  Many cats don’t want to share their litterbox. Yet multi-cat homes often have only a single, over-used smelly litterbox.  It’s no surprise that a cat may opt for the bed, carpet or other unsuitable place instead.  If you have multiple cats, be sure to have 1 box per cat and locate them in different rooms. If your house is multi-story, have a box on each floor.
  3. Location, location, location.  We all want a little privacy and quiet when it comes time to ‘go’ and cats are no different.  Putting a litterbox in a hallway, noisy room or near a washer, dryer or furnace that may kick on while your cat is ‘going’ can scare them away from the litterbox.  Ensure you choose a quiet out-of-the-way spot with sight lines so your cat can see people or other pets approaching.
  4. One size does not fit all.  Cats have different preferences, just like us.  A litterbox that’s too small or too big may discourage your cat from using it.  Some cats may feel a small box is too cramped or that there’s not enough litter to bury their waste.  Others, particularly older cats or cats with arthritis, may not like high sides.  And should the box be covered? Some cats may love this enclosed ‘sanctuary’, but others may not like to feel snuck up on.  The only way to find out what your cat prefers is to try out a few different types.
  5. The right stuff.  There’s an endless of choice of litters on the market.  But no matter how attractive the product is to you, it’s your cat who will decide what works and what doesn’t.  Trying a new brand or type on impulse that looks, feels and smells different than the litter your cat is used to runs the risk of inappropriate toilet issues.  If you need to change brands, do it gradually over 2-3 weeks, like you’d do with a change in food.
  6. Enough is enough.  No matter what litter you use, make sure the box contains enough litter for digging and burying waste, about 2-3 inches. Don’t use more than 3 inches, since your cat may feel unbalanced and get litter stuck on their legs or belly.
  7. You’re stressing me out!  Cats thrive on routine and don’t like change. Sometimes, just a simple change in your home can upset your cat and cause undesirable eliminating.  A new baby, houseguests, re-arranging the furniture, a vacuum cleaner beside the litterbox, a change in feeding schedule – can all impact your cat’s sense of security.  Moving to new home or apartment can be particularly stressful and result in slip-ups. Try to keep whatever constants you can in your cat’s environment and change things gradually.  Whatever you do, never punish your cat for litterbox problems.  It’s unlikely to help the problem and may end up damaging the bond between you and your cat.
  8. Check the box for problems/visit the vet.  Make sure your cat is both urinating and defecating daily.  If you notice a strange smell, blood, excessive or minimal urine, see your vet immediately.  If your normally reliable kitty has started missing the litterbox, make an appointment with your vet asap.  Urinary tract infections, kidney stones, cystitis, infections and other medical conditions can cause your cat’s litterbox habits to go south.  The vet can identify or rule out any underlying health problems.  Once you know it’s not a health problem, you can address other possible causes.


With some time, patience and effort you and your cat will go from singing the litterbox blues to whistling a happy tune.


Judy Layne

Judy is a dedicated volunteer with the Nova Scotia SPCA and proud adoptive fur-mama to Gracie. She is committed to speaking for animals who cannot speak for themselves.