By Marilyn Krieger
The Cat Coach
Certified Cat Behavior Consultant

A high percentage of cats end up surrendered to shelters because they have litter box problems. Unfortunately, many of these cats are euthanized because they are considered unadoptable due to their inappropriate elimination challenges. Not only is this tragic, but it is unnecessary since most of these challenges can be resolved through behavior modification, litter box changes and environmental management.

Both male and female cats can develop inappropriate litter box habits for an array of reasons. When evaluating problems of this nature, it is important to first take your cat to a good veterinarian in order to rule out any medical conditions that could be causing your cat to have out of the box experiences. These include diabetes, thyroid problems and urinary tract infections. Additionally, cats who haven't been spayed or neutered are more likely to spray. Spaying and neutering cats often solve inappropriate elimination challenges.

After the cat has been evaluated by a veterinarian and given a clean bill of health, approach the problem as a behavior challenge.

In order to correct a behavior problem, it is important to first identify the triggers or reasons for the behavior. These triggers can cause a cat to feel insecure and stressed, resulting at times in cat box challenges. Identifying triggers is similar to solving a mystery- some questions to ask are:

  • Where is my cat urinating? If your furry feline is spraying around doors and windows, there may be cats in the neighborhood visiting the house and your cat is responding through spraying.
  • What kinds of litter boxes are being used and how clean are they? A cat urinating immediately outside the box can be an indicator of a problem associated with the box itself and/or litter box management. The litter box may be too small or not clean enough.
  • Is the litter box uncovered or covered? Covered boxes can cause a cat to feel trapped with no way to escape. They also keep the smells in and most covered boxes are too small.
  • What are the targeted areas being cleaned with? Cats will keep urinating on the same areas repeatedly if the targeted areas are not thoroughly cleaned up with an excellent enzyme cleaner.
  • Where are the litter boxes located? Cats don't like to be in situations where they can feel cornered or potentially ambushed. Closets and bathrooms aren't ideal places for litter boxes.
  • Are there enough cat boxes? Cats need choices. Ideally, there should be at least one box per cat plus one more. The litter boxes should be located in different areas of the house.
  • Is my cat bored? Inappropriate elimination can result from a cat being alone every day with no other companion animals or enough environmental enrichment.
  • Have there been recent changes to the household? Remodeling, adding new furniture, the death of a human or animal companion, even changes in schedules can result in a cat feeling stressed.
  • If there are other animals in the household, does your cat get along with the other resident animals? Often there are too many resident animals or sometimes they were introduced to each other too quickly. Also, some cats just don't get along with particular individuals.

The next step after identifying what might be influencing the cat to shy away from consistently using the litter box is putting a behavior-modification program into practice that includes thorough cleanup, managing or eliminating the triggers and changing your cat's association with the targeted areas.

Start with clean up: no matter what the triggers are, proper clean up is essential. Standard household cleaning products will not work. Cats have a very keen sense of smell and even if an area smells clean to your human nose, the cat might still be able to smell the urine. A careful clean-up starts with identifying all of the soiled areas. A black light will cause the target areas to fluoresce in the dark. After identifying the areas, spray them thoroughly with an excellent enzyme cleaner and let the areas dry naturally. Enzyme cleaners work as they dry. Sometimes it takes a couple of applications.

The next steps to take to change undesirable urination habits are dependent on what is causing a cat have inappropriate elimination challenges:

If an outside cat is causing the resident cat to spray:

  • Eliminate triggers by discouraging cats hanging out around the house. Talk with neighbors about keeping their cats in, trap, neuter and release ferals and use safe deterrents to keep neighborhood cats away.
  • Put butcher paper or fabric on windows so that your cat cannot see outside.
  • If possible, keep cats away from rooms where other cats can be viewed outside.
  • Increase litter boxes.
  • Change the cat's association with the target areas by feeding treats, playing, or engaging the cat in activities the cat enjoys on the targeted areas.
  • Plugging in a pheromone diffuser such as Feliway into the wall outlet can help decrease stress.

If litter box management issues are causing inappropriate elimination:

  • Use only large uncovered boxes. Covered boxes trap odors, are usually too small and do not give cats a way to escape. 66 qt. Sterilite Clearview translucent storage containers or large under the bed storage boxes, without lids, make very good litter boxes.
  • Proper placement of boxes is important. Locate them throughout the home in accessible areas. Don't put boxes in closets, noisy areas, or isolated locations where the cat wouldn't normally go.
  • If possible, provide one box more then there are cats in the household.
  • Scoop every day, dump and scrub the box every 2-3 weeks.
  • Do not move boxes. Keep original boxes, add new ones elsewhere
  • Use either an unscented litter or Dr. Elsey's Precious Cat Attract Litter. Dr. Elsey's Cat Attract Litter contains additives and herbs which appeal to cats.
  • Change litter types very slowly, gradually adding the new litter to the old. Start by adding a couple of cups of new litter to the existing litter. Every day put more in. It can take from 5-7 days to change a cat's litter.
  • Change the cat's association with the target areas by feeding treats, playing, or engaging the cat in activities the cat enjoys on the targeted areas.
  • Plugging in a pheromone diffuser such as Feliway into the wall outlet can help decrease stress.

If the triggers are associated with living in a multi-cat household:

  • Increase the vertical territory by providing tall cat trees and/or shelves for the cats. They should be 5-6 feet tall or higher with multiple levels and very solid bases.
  • Sometimes slowly reintroducing cats to each other will help solve the problem.
  • Change the cat's association with the target areas by feeding treats, playing, or engaging the cat in activities the cat enjoys on the targeted areas.
  • Plugging in a pheromone diffuser such as Feliway into the wall outlet can help decrease stress.
  • Increase the number of cat boxes so that there is one box per cat and one for the house.
  • Take an honest look at the space available for the cats and the number of cats in the household. Too many cats in too small an area can result in cats spraying and or not using the litter box.

If the cat is left alone for hours every day without companionship or environmental enrichment:

  • Turn the TV or radio on. Play a video especially designed for cats that feature birds and small animals.
  • Increase the environmental enrichment, provide the cat with interactive toys such as Turbo Scratchers and puzzle toys.
  • Provide tall cat furniture and shelves to climb on. Position them next to secure windows for entertainment.
  • Schedule regular play times with the cat
  • Sometimes bringing in another cat into a one-cat household will stop the behavior, if the cats are slowly and properly introduced to each other.

Tragically, too many cats are unnecessarily surrendered to shelters because they have inappropriate elimination challenges. With proper cleanup, behavior modification and environmental changes, cats can become model citizens with perfect litter box habits.

About the Author: Marilyn Krieger is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and owner of The Cat Coach, LLC® solves cat behavior problems through on-site and phone consultations for all cat breeds. Marilyn's new book, which focuses on changing unwanted behaviors through clicker training, education and environmental management, is scheduled for release in the fall. To find out more about Marilyn please see her website:

© July 2010 by Marilyn Krieger, CCBC All rights reserved.
Marilyn is certified through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants


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