5 Reasons Your Cat Isn’t Using The Litter Box

Let’s face it: this topic stinks. No, I mean literally. If you’ve ever lived with a cat who potties outside of their litter box, you know how unpleasant it can make your house smell–not to mention how expensive it can be to replace furniture, flooring, and sometimes even walls that have been permanently damaged by cat urine. It is entirely reasonable to feel frustrated, trapped, and resentful if you have a cat who is inappropriately eliminating. Fortunately, it is not a hopeless situation. There is hope for you and your cat!

The first step to successfully transitioning your cat back to using their litter box again is to first figure out why they stopped using it in the first place. So let’s discuss the five most common reasons that cats aren’t using the litter box.


Reason #1: Medical Issues Can Cause a Cat To Not Use Their Litter Box

First and foremost, any time you see a behavior change in any of your pets – especially if that change is sudden, or seems to be happening for no reason, or both – take them to your vet. Be as specific as you can about what you’re seeing that concerns you so that your vet knows what to look for and which diagnostics to run. Even though urinary diseases like infections, crystalluria, and cystitis are often at the root of inappropriate elimination, that isn’t always the case. I have seen cases where the cat was experiencing some kind of GI disease, nausea, liver or kidney disease, diabetes or other metabolic diseases, arthritis or other musculoskeletal diseases, nerve damage, declawing, and even upper respiratory infections which caused them to stop using their litter box. If any aspect of using the box becomes difficult or painful, it can effectively stop the cat from using the litter box.

For those reasons, it’s important for you to pay careful attention to your cat’s behaviors–not just when they’re pottying, but at other times of day as well. I can’t tell you how many times a client has told me, “The vet has already ruled out a medical reason,” only later to find out that the vet only did an exam and a urinalysis, which came back clean. Those aren’t the same things! Just because a cat doesn’t have urinary disease doesn’t mean the cat is completely healthy. It wasn’t the vet’s fault, nor was it the client’s fault; it was a simple miscommunication because the client didn’t know what information the vet needed, and the vet was operating off of the information they were given. In each of those cases, when the client learned how to describe in detail the behavior changes they were seeing, the vet was able to look in the right place and find the problem–which wasn’t in the bladder at all!

So work closely and in open communication with your vet and their staff to make sure your cat is fully healthy.


Reason #2: Cats May Not Use Their Litter Box Due To Residual Aversion

So let’s say that your cat had a health issue or an injury, but it was treated, they healed, and everything is hunkydory now. So…why is the cat still not using the litter box?! Well, simply put, cats don’t necessarily know why using the litter box hurt, all they know is that it did. So just because they’re doing better now doesn’t mean that they know that the litter box won’t hurt them anymore. WE might know that it wasn’t the litter box doing it to them – it was the disease or injury that made it unpleasant – but they don’t know that.

In situations like this, I find it helpful to banish everything about the old set-up and start from scratch with a new set-up. If possible that means new box, new litter, new location. New everything. Sometimes that might even mean thinking outside the (litter)box and using a different kind of container entirely: paint trays, industrial-sized baking sheets, tea trays…any large, wide, shallow container will do. You may also need to start with non-litter substrates to act as litter, too! Shredded newspaper is usually a good choice, and then gradually you can introduce a little bit more litter each day until your cat is able to confidently use the new litter.

If you’re not sure what to use, start by noticing where your cat is currently pottying. That will give you a clue about their preferred location and type of substrate. Obviously it’s not ok for them to continue pottying on your floor or furniture! But it might give you a clue as to what kind of appropriate options you can offer them that will be most likely to succeed.

For example, my heart cat Cassia had stress colitis when I temporarily lived with someone who was pretty hostile to her. Even after we evicted the unpleasant roommate and treated the stress colitis, Cassia still didn’t want to use her old litter box. But I noticed she would drag towels from the laundry bin, pull them behind our sofa, and potty on the towels behind the sofa. So I got an old dressing screen and put it in the quietest corner of my room, put a new litter box behind the screen, and used strips of terrycloth from ratty old towels as her litter. She took to that setup right away, and it only took a couple of weeks to reincorporate actual litter into the box and phase out the terrycloth strips. 

Another example: I had a client whose cat had been declawed and stopped using the litter box, but consistently pottied on her nice plush bathmat. So we tried using cotton balls as the litter box substrate, and the cat said yes to that! We then gradually incorporated the softest recycled newspaper pellets we could find until we didn’t need the cotton balls anymore.


Reason #3: Kitty Conflict Can Cause Cats To Stop Using Their Litter Box

Sometimes, cats love each other. Sometimes, they really, really don’t. And sometimes, they develop these complex relationships where they’re friends, but they’re also kinda snotty with each other about certain things. It isn’t always obvious to pet parents when their cats are mean-girling each other, because it doesn’t necessarily result in dramatic fights or even one of those infamous feline showdowns (cue The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly). It can just result in, say, one cat in the house not feeling safe enough to use the litter box, because the other cat has staked their claim on it. 

This is why the general recommendation is to have one more litter box in the house than the number of cats (e.g. if you have 2 cats, have 3 boxes; if you have 3 cats, have 4 boxes, etc.). It’s also important to make sure that the boxes are stationed in different locations throughout the house. Having three boxes stacked side by side in the laundry room won’t do you much good if one cat has staked their claim on the entire laundry room and won’t even let the other cat in the door.

Another kind of invisible conflict between cats that can result in one cat not using the litter box is if there’s a cat outside your house who is marking on or near your property. In my experience, we typically see the cat in the home marking on the walls and furniture around the perimeter of the house rather than interior walls and furniture when this is the case. It can be a little more difficult to address this if you don’t see or have control over the outdoor cat who is trying to stake their claim on your property. This might look like live trapping the cat and taking them to the local shelter–but be aware that if they find the owner, and that person lives near you and continues to let their cat roam, you’ll be right back at Square One. It might look like having a cordial and respectful conversation with your neighbor who owns the offending cat to try to find a solution that works for everyone. Or it might look like working with a Veterinary Behaviorist or behavior consultant to find a way to help your cat feel less concerned about the cat who lives in their yard.

Whether the offending kitty shares your house or has simply taken up residence in your yard, if there is direct conflict between them and the cat who is inappropriately eliminating, it’s really important to work with a Veterinary Behaviorist and/or other behavior professional who has experience working with cat aggression cases. 


Reason #4: Other Chronic Stressors Can Also Cause Cats To Not Use the Litter Box

Conflict isn’t the only kind of stressful situation a cat may find themselves in. Just like humans, cats can experience stress for many different reasons. I can’t possibly name all the reasons in this article, but here are a few we encounter more frequently:

  • Caregivers under chronic stress – some cats seem to be deeply affected by and even mirror the emotional state of the people they are bonded to. If their family is stressed, they may be, too. This can actually be a mixed blessing, because your cat can help you to prioritize your own well-being and self care, too! Completing your stress response cycle can become a bonding opportunity for you and your cat!
  • Conflict with a human in the house – along this same vein, most non-humans seem to know when a human is angry at them or doesn’t like them. And just like humans, some cats are more affected by that than others are. My story earlier about how Cassia developed stress colitis because I had a roommate who openly disliked cats is a good example of this. Keep your cat separated from the person who dislikes them, and if you can’t find some resolution on your own, seek the help of qualified professionals.
  • “Funny” torment – For some reason, even though the internet professes to love cats, it also seems to love watching cats get tormented. Whether it’s showing a cat a cucumber, putting tape on their tail, or suddenly banging the lid of the litter box while they’re in it, tormenting sentient beings isn’t funny. It isn’t cute. If a cat lives in a house where the people in it will arbitrarily terrify them, they don’t know when the next scary thing is going to happen–which can absolutely cause chronic stress and result in a cat who stops using their litter box.
  • Hectic households – houses that have a lot of noise, activity, and foot traffic but not a lot of spaces where the cat can go to rest, relax, and decompress may feel overwhelming. If you live in an active house, make sure to create a space where your cat can get away from it all. This could be as fancy as building your cat a catio or a windowbox, but it doesn’t have to be! Cassia had a bed on the shelf in my closet, and I put a doorjam down so the closet door could only open a few inches. One of my other cats, Nutmeg, loved the Booda dome litter box, so I got her a separate one with a cat bed in it instead of litter, and that was her own secret hideaway. Again, watch where your cat tries to retreat to, and use that as a guide for how to create a safe space for them.
  • Intrusive sounds or smells – sometimes things in the environment that we take for granted can be a really big deal for our pets. Pay attention to your cat’s behavior. If you see them wince, grimace, flinch, whip their tail back and forth, or walk away from a sound, a smell, some kind of lighting changes, or anything else in your environment, that’s a good indication that the stimulus is a stressor. And if it happens on a regular basis, then it’s a chronic stressor. Do what you can to eliminate that stimulus from your environment–and if you can’t, hire a qualified behavior professional to help you come up with alternative solutions.


Like I said, the list of possible chronic stressors is almost limitless, but these are some of the big ones!


Reason #5: Environmental Preferences Can Help Cats To Use Their Litter Box

A few months ago I bought a new blanket so I could have an extra one in the living room. I thought I was buying a second copy of my favorite blanket: I ordered it from the same store, it was the same brand, and the same size. The only difference was the color. But when it arrived and I pulled it out of its packaging, I grimaced. “What is this?” I asked no one in particular. “What’s going on here? Why does it feel like this? This is incorrect. No. Just no.” I would not characterize myself as feeling stressed or scared, I was just displeased. Its texture was all wrong. It didn’t feel as comfy-cozy as my other blanket. It’s a dog blanket now and lives on our living room floor. The dogs love it, so it certainly didn’t go to waste!

Non-humans can have preferences and strong opinions about things just like humans. And just as I disliked that blanket enough to not use it, cats can dislike aspects of their litter box enough to not use it, either. If anything changed about your cat’s environment – the type of litter box, the type of litter, the location, any other furniture or lighting near the box, the presence or absence of the lid of the box, or really, anything – that may be the culprit.

Likewise, preferences can change over time. I worked with a cat whose family had always used clay litter in a litter box with a lid on it, and the cat had always had clay litter and always pottied in the box with the lid. Then the cat had surgery, and during her recovery period her family had been instructed to only use recycled paper litter in an open-air litter box. After she was fully recovered and the vet gave the greenlight to resume their old litter box routine, the cat said, “Emphatically hell no, my good dudes.” She just absolutely refused to use the old litter box and litter. We went back to the open litter box with the recycled paper litter and she immediately went back to using the box. We tried gradually moving her back to the old setup in so many different ways, but she simply wasn’t having it. She had been ok with the clay litter and a closed box before, when she didn’t know there were any other options, but it really did feel like she was telling us, “Now that I know that this other set up is a possibility, I’m never going back.” So the compromise that ended up working for that family was just moving the cat’s potty area to a different and less conspicuous part of the house.

Another thing to bear in mind is that most litter boxes don’t have an easy entry point. We regularly expect cats to jump over something that comes up to their chest height just to go to the bathroom. Y’all. If we had to scale a toilet that was chest height just to do our morning pee, I’m pretty sure most of us would inappropriately eliminate, too. I know I would! Now granted, we can get away with litter boxes like that so often because cats as a species are more lithe and athletic than humans and their bodies are structured much differently than ours. But even cats can get sick of it over time, especially as they age and their joints get creakier. Do your cat a solid and get a litter box with a ramp or a lower entry point to see if what they’re objecting to is having to perform an Olympic pole vault every time they want to use the restroom.


In Summary…

As you can see, there are a lot of reasons that a cat may stop using their litter box–and it may very well take some trial and eval to figure out why it happened and what kind of support your cat needs to start using a litter box again. But it is possible, and both you and your cat deserve the relief it will bring.


Now what?

  • If you have a cat who is pottying outside of their box, try some of the sleuthing techniques described above to see if any of them align with your cat’s needs.
  • If you need help, that’s what we’re here for! Our team would be happy to work with you!


Happy training,