There are many differences between cats and dogs; how much exercise they need, what food to eat, and the big one: litter boxes.

Puppies typically need to be taught to go outside to do their business, but for kittens it is more instinctual. Most kittens will watch mom and pick up that they need to go potty in a sandy place from an incredibly young age. Cats have an instinct to bury their waste. Spraying and defecating are also ways cats mark their territory. By providing a box inside for them, they have a way to mark something with their scent and bury it (or not, some cats want to show off!) When cats started being domesticated, we brought a bit of outside in so they would be ok in our homes. However, the problem many cat guardians have with their cat is also the litter box. Litter box issues are the second biggest reason behind cats being surrendered to a shelter, with scratching issues just barely beating it out. It can be hard to understand why your cat may not be using the litter box, finding cat waste on carpet or your bed can feel like they are mad at you for something. In most cases, there is a good reason your kitty may be avoiding the box, and it’s almost never because they’re mad at you or that they are “a bad cat.”

Why is my cat not using the litter box?

The “why” can sometimes be a challenge to find. It may be a combination of factors or there may be one big glaring issue. It takes a little detective work of your cat’s habits, but here are some factors to look out for:

Dirty Litter Box

The most common reason cats are not using their box is because it is not as clean as they want it to be. Imagine if your only bathroom was just a box! Stepping in or digging around your previous bathroom excursions does not sound like a fun time, and your kitty doesn’t think so either. Cats are notoriously clean animals; they give themselves baths and spend most of their day grooming. If your litter box is not up to your cat’s cleanliness standards, they may choose somewhere else cleaner to do their business. Like the laundry hamper.

The best way to combat this is daily scooping. Think of it this way: when walking your dog, you need to clean up after every poop they leave (or at least you should), and your cat’s litter box should be treated the same way. Just because your cat doesn’t need to be let out to do their business, doesn’t mean that it can be ignored for weeks at a time. Daily scooping will help with keeping it clean and keep litter box smells at bay as well! Depending on your cat’s bathroom habits and how many litter boxes are in your home, the entire box should be dumped about every week to two weeks. It should be noted that some cats will get upset at a deep cleaned litter box, suddenly their box won’t smell like them! Deep cleans with soap and water are best done monthly. Keeping a schedule like this will make your kitty happy, and your nose happy too!

Not enough litter boxes/doesn’t like where the box is

How many cats are in your home? Cats don’t always want to share their litter box with other cats; having more can also help with cat fights. If you have a bully cat who doesn’t let the meek one near the only litter box, that kitty still needs to go. By having more boxes, your kitty can avoid the bully, and the bully can feel like they “own” some territory. The litter box math most behaviorists recommend is number of cats + 1. It is also good to spread them out, as 4 litter boxes lined up to your cats is just one big box.

It is important to spread them out, so your cat has options depending on their mood or preference. Many cat guardians don’t want to smell the litter box, so it is put far away in the garage or laundry room. While they are out of sight and smell, those places may scare or upset your cat. If it is in the garage and the car starts up or in the laundry room and the dryer buzzes, your cat is likely to get scared! A scared kitty will avoid what startled them, and if the only litter box is in a scary place, then they will find elsewhere to go to avoid going back. While it may not be your first choice, successful litter boxes usually stay in places that their humans like to be, such as bedrooms and the living room. Older kitties may also have a tough time getting to a litter box farther away or upstairs. Having more litter boxes in more places will encourage your kitty to use those spots and scooping daily will keep the litter box smell away too!

Doesn’t like the litter box.

Cats have preferences for types of litter boxes as well. Most cats prefer the flat open kind. While we may not appreciate watching them poop, they appreciate being able to see what is around them while they do. Cats are predator and prey animals, and using the bathroom is a very vulnerable state for your cat to be in. If you only have covered litter boxes, try one without a top! There are ones with high sides so your kitties can’t kick litter everywhere. There is also the classic flat litter box.

Self cleaning litter boxes are becoming popular, they do a lot of the cleaning for you! They have their own set of issues to keep in mind. Self-cleaning and robot litter boxes are incredibly more expensive than a standard litter box. Depending on the noise it makes and how soon it tries to clean itself, it may also startle your cat. Some newer robot litter boxes can keep track of your cat’s bathroom habits if you are concerned for their health. These do require wi-fi to function properly, so do keep that in mind. Along with electric self-cleaning boxes, sifter boxes also let you clean without scooping! Some work better than others, and both sifting and electric may not work with all litter types.

We as humans like to have privacy during these moments, cats on the other hand prefer to see what is going on. While there are plenty of great covered litter boxes as well as ones that blend into your furniture, some cats don’t like feeling cornered, especially if there is a dog or a bully cat. While cats are likely to still use these, they do still like to bury their business after all, you may find that your kitty has their own preference. Older cats and kittens may have difficulty getting into a high side box, and a kitten sized litter box would be exceedingly difficult for an adult cat to use. It may take trial and error but trying out several types of litter boxes may help! If your kitty is going next to the litter box, they likely know they are supposed to “go” there but that something is wrong with it.

Doesn’t like the litter. 

Along with the box itself, what goes in it matters just as much to your cat. Depending on their life stage and health, your cat may prefer distinct types and textures. While it seems like you may be paying for dirt specifically for your cat to poop in, that substance encourages them to go there and not your couch.

  • Clay litter is the typical “default” litter. It is the oldest type and comes in clumping or non-clumping options. There are also scented varieties, but you should be careful with these as the smell can be overpowering for some cats. Clay litter is typically a cheaper option and there are a wide variety of textures to try. Try to look for smaller granules and dust free. Clay litter is not environmentally friendly however and cannot be composted or flushed.
  • Silica gel Litter is becoming popular not only because it can last longer than clay, but also some fancier ones can even change color to tell you about your cat’s urinary health. It usually has better odor control and is almost completely dust free. Silica gel litter does tend to be more expensive than other options and is not environmentally friendly.
  • Pine Litter has great odor control, is typically cheap (especially if you buy horse pine pellets, they’re nearly identical) and are environmentally friendly! Clumping pine litter tends to look more like saw dust, while non clumping comes in pellets. Pine litter is generally small and soft so cats tend to like them. The pellet kind, however, can be painful for declawed cats or ones with sensitive paws. The clumping kind is also very dusty.
  • Wheat or corn litter are another environmentally friendly option. They are also much safer for kittens or cats with pica as it is made of just wheat or corn, so it is less toxic than clay or silica litter. Some of these litters can even be flushed! (Though we really can’t recommend that, try composting instead). Corn and wheat litter also offers good odor control with typically low dust. The downside is that because they are made of food grade materials, they run the risk of growing mold if it is not stored properly. Also, even though it is a safer option if it ends up in your cats mouth, it is still high in carbs and not a part of a balanced cat diet. Grass litter is similar to corn and wheat but has a more plant like smell.
  • Walnut litter smells great and is usually ground very fine and is super soft for kitty paws. It is quite absorbent and very low dust. Walnut litter is low tracking and tends to last longer than a lot of other litter on the market. This litter is very dark however, so if your kitty kicks up a storm or gets it stuck between their toes you might be finding brown litter everywhere, as it sticks out more than light colored litter.
  • Paper litter is another kitten safe option. It is extremely low dust but is not as absorbent as other options. They also do not clump well or have good odor control. Paper litter is good for short term use with kittens’ litter box training or cats with sore paws. The usually lighter color can help see if your cat is urinating blood as well.

They don’t feel very good.

Cats can’t speak human languages and they like to hide it when they are not feeling great. You may not even realize your cat is sick until they are very ill. One of the earlier signs of something being “wrong” is if they go outside the litter box. It is their way of saying “Hey help me I don’t feel good, see?” We may not appreciate being told this way, but for kitties sometimes it is the only way they know how. Sometimes because they are sick, they just can’t make it to the litter box in time. If your kitty is going outside the litter box, it is a good time to check in with the vet to see what might be going on.

They are REALLY stressed out.

Stress does crazy things to humans, and cats are no exception. When a cat gets stressed, like from moving, owner going away for a while, or new cats and people in their territory (outside or in) they may start to mark around the home. They want to “own” what they believe is theirs and for kitties that means urine spraying. Male and female cats mark their territory this way, though intact males will have a much stronger smell.

When you leave for a few days, your kitty may welcome you back with a surprise in your bed or in your belongings. They are not being spiteful; they want you to smell like home again and show you that they missed you. We may prefer pets and cuddles after a trip, but some cats need to express that appreciation in a unique way. Getting a pet sitter for longer trips can help stop this from happening. Contrary to movies and TV, your cat loves you and does notice when you are not around. They need attention just as much as dogs and if they are left alone over a weekend with only a big bowl of food, they will be lonely and bored. Boredom does even crazier things to a cat. With no check in your house make be torn apart when you return!

Will my cat always have litter box problems?

Unless your kitty is very sick or stressed some solution should work for you. Declawed cats will usually have litter box issues their entire life due to most litter being rough on their surgery scars, to see more about declawed cats and the side effects that can arise from the surgery check out this link. Older kitties may also have difficulties with litter boxes in their twilight years. You can help them by getting more litter boxes, steps to get into taller ones, and keeping up on vet visits to check their kidneys. While litter boxes may seem troublesome, they mean our kitty co-pilots can stay inside with us while still maintaining the instincts of their ancestors. We can help them make the best choices by not being weirded out by litter boxes. Your cat will thank you for keeping it clean.