ATTENTION * CONTENT UNDER REVISION* ATTENTION
This article is currently being reviewed with regards to the vocabulary used. However, the tips suggested can be applied without worry. Only a few very specific notions must be reviewed throughout the site, like territory (we now refer to it as environment), marking, pheromones and other specific concepts that have recently been the object of studies.
(The video version of this article is only available in french)
There is a wide range of causes that may lead your cat to prefer your sofa, your bed or the corner of the living room to his litter box. Before all else, it is primordial to have him examined by a veterinarian to rule out any medical cause, such as urinary tract infections. If your cat is healthy, then we have to analyze his environment, your lifestyle and potential anxiety issues, which may all be factors that motivate your cat not to use his litter box.
There are as many solutions as there are causes and, in the great majority of cases, a feline behavior specialist will solve the problem partially or completely. But, before getting your wallet out, here are six tips that may help you to fix the problem by yourself.
The following are basic rules that any cat owner should apply, whether he has to deal with inappropriate elimination or not. Finally, if none of the solutions mentioned below fixes your cat’s problem, a Cat Educator will suggest other possible solutions.
This article is divided in two parts. The first comprises recommendations whereas the second provides explanations and reasons why we give those recommendations.
1) The number of litter boxes. The golden rule is simple: you need a box more than the number of cats in your home. You own 2 cats? You need 3 litter boxes! Moreover, each box has to be located IN A DIFFERENT ROOM*.
2) Cleaning the litter boxes. Several cats refuse to defecate in the same box they urinate in. They can also refuse to use a litter box that already contains waste. That is why the litter box needs to be cleaned at least once a day. The addition of more litter boxes will help getting around this feline peculiarity.
3) The lid on the litter box. A great number of cats are uncomfortable in a lidded litter box, a little like us when we have to use a blue chemical toilet. We feel trapped and the odor is unpleasant. Removing the lid of the litter box will make it more inviting for your cat. There are also other reasons why cats prefer litter boxes without lids*.
4) The type of box. The box needs to be big enough and, unfortunately, very few pet supply stores carry adequate sizes. Transparent storage boxes available in department stores make an excellent replacement. Go for a 60-liter box if your cat is of average size. Otherwise, the rule is that the width of the box equals the length of your cat, and that the length of the box be 1.5 times the length of the cat. Store away the cover and pour 3 inches of litter inside the box. There are several reasons to opt for this type of box*.
5) The location of the box. If you were a cat, would you like to relieve yourself in the corner of a long hallway, on the cold concrete floor of the basement, next to a noisy furnace or the not-so-silent washing machine? Would you be more comfortable in a cupboard, behind a door or close to a place where other members of the household circulate? They aren’t very enticing options, right? Well, Kitty isn’t thrilled either. Unfortunately, litter boxes are often located in such places. The solution? Keep your litter box in a spot that is far enough from noisy or busy places, but where your cat goes around regularly. He also needs to be able to see danger coming and be able to escape it, if need be. To put a box at the end of a long, narrow hallway isn’t ideal at all*. If your cat always goes to the same place to relieve himself (out of the litter box), he is telling you, clearly enough by the way, where he would like you to put his box!
6) The type of litter. Cats prefer the type of litter they had when they were young. Whereas the nature of the litter (clumping, crystal, paper, etc) is rather unimportant, you must avoid perfumed products at all costs. Your cat needs to smell his own scent in the litter box to go back to it*. You are reluctant to put a litter box in the kitchen or in the living room, even though that is where your cat relieves himself?
Your apartment is too small to add litter boxes in other rooms than the kitchen or the living room?
We strongly suggest that you do it anyway for about two weeks (which is the minimal amount of time required for a change in cat behavior) to assess whether, by placing the box in the suggested places, the issue is fixed. Kitty shows an interest in using the litter box? It is a sign of success. Everyone will gain something (including Kitty) for you will soon realize that a litter box located in the living room or the kitchen is more acceptable than pee on the sofa! Afterwards, you can gradually move the litter box in a more acceptable place.
There has to be a litter box more than the number of cats living under your roof. You have 1 cat? You need 2 litter boxes. Why do you need a box more? First, some disdainful cats will refuse to use a litter box that already contains waste: hence they need another box at their disposal. Other cats will refuse to defecate where they urinate and thus need two litter boxes. Yes, our cats are demanding!
Where to place the litter boxes? The location is just as important as the number. The boxes must be placed in different rooms. Why? Your cat’s routine brings him to rest and to watch over his territory from different vantage points at different times. Having litter boxes accessible in different places will encourage him to use them, for he will pass in front of them while doing his daily tour. He can also use the boxes as anchor points and territorial identification marks. It is as if the box was a sign saying, “You are in my house”. He will mark his territory in the litter box instead of marking the wall or the carpet. A litter box located in a place that, at a given time of the day, is uninviting might also create problems, the best example of which being the litter box placed in the laundry room. The noise of the washing machine when it is on might cause your cat to refuse to use that litter box, even if it is located in an adjacent room. If he needs to relieve himself while the washing machine is on, he will look for a different place. By keeping a second box in a different room, you offer your cat an option that may well save you from bad surprises.
That being said, it is when you have several cats living under the same roof that keeping several litter boxes in different rooms takes on a special importance. Even if your cats get along wonderfully, they still share different territories, depending on the time of the day. If only one litter box is available for three cats, or if all the boxes are located in the territory of a particular cat at the time of the day he holds this territory, it is possible that the other cats will not cross the limits of said territory out of respect for their fellow. They will need to relieve themselves elsewhere. By keeping one more litter box than the number of your cats, as long as they are located in different rooms, you give your cats many options so that they avoid trespassing a claimed territory.
Your cat may not want to defecate in the same place where he urinates. It is not uncommon either for a cat to urinate in a corner or a box and defecate in another. That is why he needs a large box to manage his space and to keep his paws dry. A tall, transparent and lidless box allows your cat to see what goes on around and to react if need be. A 12’’ high litter box will also be useful to you, for half of the litter specks that stick to Kitty’s paws will fall back in the box thanks to the push he needs to give to get out. The other half will fall on the other side where he lands on the floor. Hence, you will find less dirt on the floor. The fact we advise a 12’’ lidless litter box may seem high for your cat, but if he is able to climb on the couch or jump on a chair, you don’t need to worry. However, if your cat is aged, sick or handicapped, you might want to facilitate his access by cutting a door in the plastic or setting steps next to the box.
Finally, the nature of the litter is the last thing we change when dealing with inappropriate elimination. However, if you use a litter that isn’t clay, like a corn litter, pine pellets or newspaper, better to do it quickly. In fact, the cat’s instinct tells him to bury his waste so as to avoid having his preys or predators knowing he goes there often. In order to do so, he will often opt for compact soil allowing him to dig a hole big enough to cover his waste easily and efficiently, and keeping his paws comfortable doing it. If he feels the litter does not meet his needs, he might decide to relieve himself elsewhere.
It is important to note that the tips given in this article represent only basic solutions to inappropriate elimination. Many more solutions can address the primary cause of the problem. However, a consultation (by phone, by Skype or onsite) with a feline behavior specialist is imperative. Do not give up, and in any case, do not euthanize your cat because of inappropriate elimination. This problem can be solved in the great majority of cases.