Let’s talk about litter. Because it’s really the only downside to owning a cat—although I am much happier having a box for the cat to go in than having to take a dog outside to pee when it’s -7 degrees. But that’s not really the point. A litter box still makes that annoying trail of litter on the floor, no matter how many mats you put underneath it, and all the baking soda in the world can’t mask Smirnoff’s poop on a bad day (sorry, Smirf).
And yet, litterbox issues—usually involving a cat not wanting to use said box—is one of the most prevalent behavioral issues a cat owner faces. Now, I’ll insert my disclaimer here, because I’m not a vet or a licensed behaviorist, but from my own experience, as well as the research I’ve done, the many seasons of My Cat From Hell I’ve watched, and working with cats at the shelter, here are some things to note if the litterbox is an issue with your cat:
1. Your cat might need to see a vet. In fact, that should be one of the first things you do. Male cats (neutered or unneutered) in particular are prone to urinary tract infections, and if that happens, urinating in litter can be painful. There could be other issues going on, of course, but if a UTI goes untreated then it could cause a blockage, which requires surgery. And yes, this can happen to female cats, too.
My experience: Smirnoff had this issue, and gave the tell-tale signs of a UTI: going to the litterbox frequently, meowing loudly while in said litterbox, and going into the litterbox but not producing any urine. I took him to the vet (which he hates) and he was prescribed antibotics. He now gets wet food mixed with water for one meal and Science Diet w/d dry food for the other meal. (SD w/d is a high fiber prescription diet that is used a lot for diabetic cats, but it also helps control the pH balance in urine, which prevents crystals from forming and causing blockages.)
What you should know: It’s actually important that you keep an eye on your cat’s litterbox habits. Sure, it seems gross and actually watching your cat pee or poop (which helps if you have multiple cats, so you know who is doing what) seems creepy, but it’s important. Knowing about how often your cat urinates, the consistency of its feces, can help you prevent really bad health problems later on—or at least catch them early.
2. Clean the litterbox regularly. If it looks/smells gross enough that you wouldn’t use it to go to the bathroom, then why would your cat use it?
My experience: I happen to be blessed with two rambunctious boy cats who would still use their litterbox even if I didn’t clean it for 3 days (which I know from going away for the weekend while having roommates who’ve refused to touch the litterbox). This is not typical. I clean the box once a day and use clumping/scoopable litter, and that seems to work for my cats. Of course, they like to go to the bathroom as soon as I’ve cleaned it.
What you should know: It’s not up to you. If your cat likes the litterbox cleaned twice a day, you have to clean it twice a day. Your cat isn’t a roommate who can move out if they don’t like your cleaning habits. And you can’t force a cat to use a bathroom they find disgusting, just like you can’t force me to use a port-a-potty that’s run out of toilet paper or hand sanitizer. Find out how clean your cat requires its litterbox to be, and stick with that schedule.
3. If you have multiple cats, there could be territorial issues. The general rule (which I know from the shelter) is that there should be one litterbox per cat plus one extra, plus at least one litterbox on each floor of the house/apartment.
My experience: I had two litterboxes, medium-sized, and they were side-by-side in the kitchen of my old apartment (which certainly isn’t ideal). Smirnoff & Bacardi like each other a lot, which is extremely helpful, and I’ve even caught them using the litterbox at the same time. However, I did have an issue where Bacardi decided that what he really preferred was to pee on the crack between the two litterboxes. So I bought a new box—a giant one—with high sides. It’s about the size of two litterboxes put together and now resides in the bathroom of my new apartment.
What you should know: Again, it helps to monitor how your cats act while using the litterbox, and noticing if any litterbox “guarding” is occurring. Or if your cat seems really nervous (slinking, ears flat, tail down) around the litterbox. If your cats can’t share, then you’ll need to find a solution where there are litterboxes in multiple locations so that one cat can’t be in control. It’s also possible that a cat might pee in front of the box as a warning to the other cats—in other words, cat hierarchies are complicated and issues can arise, including issues surrounding the litterboxes, which is high-stakes territory. If your cat is peeing on carpet or somewhere it’s not supposed to, it could be territorial, and you should at least start by placing a litterbox exactly where a cat has been peeing, even if it’s inconveniently in the middle of a room, and go from there. (There are My Cat From Hell episodes about this, and you should definitely check them out.) I certainly can’t offer any clear-cut rule for dealing with this, but the better you know your cats and their relationship to each other, the easier it will be to find a solution.
4. Not all litterboxes are created equal. Generally, self-cleaning litterboxes are awful (because they make the whole thing smell like urine and I would certainly hate using a bathroom where the walls and ceiling smelled like urine). It’s always safe to at least start off with an uncovered box with unscented, clumpable litter and take it from there. Some cats hate hoods. Some cats hate scented litter. Some cats hate specific sizes of litter granules. There are clay litters, corn litters, newspaper litters. Don’t give up until you’ve tried it all, because you never know if it’s just your cat saying, “Hey, make this how I like it. Or else.”
My experience: When I moved apartments, I was so excited because I finally had the perfect nook in the bathroom to put the cats’ giant litterbox, and because tiled floor is easy to clean and sweep. However, when a roommate suggested we construct a hood to put on the box to “keep down the smell” I nearly had a heart attack. “No!” I cried. “You cannot touch my sacred box! I mean—my cats’ sacred box.” I have a high-sided box, since Bacardi sometimes doesn’t like to crouch all the way down to pee, and the litter I use works on the smell pretty well without being too dusty (my one personal requirement for litter). And while it’s quite possible that my cats would use a litterbox with a hood on it, since they don’t seem to be too particular about things, it’s important that you don’t mess with what’s working. So the box remains hoodless. I bought an air freshener instead.
What you should know: Find out what your cat likes! While I don’t advise you to spend tons and tons of money on litter (I much prefer using that money on a healthy diet), if your cat isn’t using the litterbox, try something else. A new brand of litter. A new type of box. And yes, tastes can change over time. Perhaps your cat has developed arthritis and the high-sided box has become too painful to climb into. (Again, always discuss litterbox issues with your vet.) Also, actual litter is important. We once had someone surrender a cat to the shelter for housesoiling, and it turns out the person didn’t have enough money to buy litter and expected her cat to just pee in a box. An empty box.
5. There’s always a reason why your cat isn’t using the box. While very occasionally we come across a cat that for some reason never learned or just can’t use a litterbox, generally there’s a reason and almost always it’s medical or stress-related.
My experience: A little while ago, I write a post about Tookie, a cat that doesn’t know how to use litter, but knows exactly what a litterbox is for. We don’t know why Tookie doesn’t like litter (and he’s been checked out by the vet), but he likes to pee somewhere soft. It turns out that putting a puppy training pad inside the litterbox was the perfect solution. (By the way, Tookie is still available for adoption! He loves dogs! EDIT: Tookie is adopted!)
What you should know: Even though litterbox issues can be one of the most frustrating issues to deal with as far as cats go, know that your cat isn’t doing it to make you angry. Cats want to be clean, and they want to use their litterbox. So take a deep breath, thoroughly think through the situation, and ask for help if you need it.