Help! My Cat Won’t Use the Litter Tray

Accidents outside of the litter tray are the most common behaviour problems in cats and can be very troubling to their human housemates. One common misconception is that cats do this as revenge or punishment, but the problem is not as simple as that.

House soiling or inappropriate elimination can be related to stress in cats, but your cat is not trying to get back at you. This sort of calculated deviousness is beyond our feline friends (which is why we love them so much, they aren’t as complicated as our two-legged friends!).  Cats will eliminate outside of their litter tray due to medical problems, litter tray issues or due to stress. Getting to the bottom of this messy problem involves some detective work and a few strategies to get things back to normal.

Medical

The first thing to rule out before you do anything else is medical issues. Cats who are urinating in unusual places may have a urinary tract infection, or an underlying problem causing them to produce more urine. Is your cat also drinking more? To save doing a urine test in clinic, you can let your vet know how much your cat is drinking over a 24 hour period, if it is sneaking up over 70ml/kg over 24 hours, this could be a problem.

The top 3 diseases that cause increased thirst are thyroid disease, diabetes and kidney problems. These are very treatable if identified early on. If the poo sometimes looks a little hard and dry, has blood on it or is occasionally soft, there could be an underlying gastrointestinal issue, particularly if your cat is losing weight or is occasionally off-food.

In some cases if your cat goes to the litter tray and it burns or hurts when urinating or defecating, he will associate this feeling with the litter tray and avoid it at all costs. Funny, but entirely true! This is called a litter tray aversion. More on this soon, but first things first, get your cat to the vet to rule out any health problems. Feel free to take in a sample, vets love a nice sample and it saves you having to describe any abnormalities. You could also take a photo. It is also worthwhile worming your cat if it has been more than a few months.

Litter Tray Issues

Cats who avoid the litter tray may also have a problem with the tray. Cats are very clean, fastidious and sensitive creatures, so if that litter tray is not spotless, it’s not surprising they will choose somewhere else to go. Cats have a sense of smell that is 14 times better than humans. Some actually suspect that cats may even be able to smell better than dogs, but they are less willing to earn treats and become sniffer-cats. Cats may also dislike the litter, the location or there may not be enough litter trays. A few basics on litter trays:

  • If you use a large volume of litter and scoop out the waste, the entire amount should be replaced twice weekly and ideally before you notice it is smelly.
  • One improved way of keeping the litter hygienic is just to use a couple of cups of litter and tip the entire amount in the bin each time your cat uses it. You won’t go through much more litter and it will smell much better. You will usually need to change the entire volume of litter twice daily.
  • Avoid the use of plastic liners in litter trays.
  • For elderly cats, make sure the sides of the tray are not too high.
  • For large or overweight cats, you will need a very big tray!
  • Avoid using cleaning products, a quick scrub in hot water is all you need.
  • If you suspect location is the problem (ie. The litter is near the kids playroom, near a noisy washing machine or in a high traffic area of the home), try putting another litter tray elsewhere.
  • You should have one litter tray for each cat, then one extra. So if you have 2 cats, 3 litter trays is the minimum recommendation.
  • If you don’t want to be surrounded by litter trays, remember this is just temporary and better than cleaning up messes! You can ultimately move litter trays by 10cm per week to more appropriate locations once the habit has been established. You can also consider getting rid of extra trays once the problem is improving, so long as you stick to the 1 for each cat, plus one rule.
  • If you use litter with scents to mask odours, your cat might really dislike this so-called pleasant fragrance. Crystal litter can also make a strange hissing noise on contact. Try switching to a recycled paper litter instead, or sand/dirt from the garden mixed in with the litter for a more ‘natural’ toilet.

Urine Spraying

If your cat is actually backing up to walls or furniture and spraying on vertical surfaces, this is more likely a territorial issue, or your cat marking and announcing his presence to other cats. If you see your cat do this, the tail will usually quiver at the same time. This behaviour can occur in females and desexed males, but is much more likely in tomcats. There may be an avoidable trigger for this behaviour, such as a tomcat from next door urinating on the doorstep, or staring in the window. In which case blocking off that area of the house, closing the blinds or scaring off the neighbourhood cats may solve the issue.

My cat always urinates on the bed/couch

If your cat has developed a bit of a preference for somewhere in particular, you may need a few tactics to break the habit, as well as encourage use of the litter tray. The steps to solve this one are:

  1. First get a few more litter trays, put different types of litter in (soft stuff like shredded paper if your cat has a preference for the couch), keep the trays very clean and put them in multiple locations. You will most likely be able to reduce the number of trays, once you get everything sorted and your cat works out a better spot to go.
  2. Clean the couch or surface with a biological cleaner like Urine Off, as many cleaners just mask the smell, but it will still smell like a toilet to your cat.
  3. Put something on the couch or surface that is different and a bit unpleasant to walk on, like a plastic bag or tin foil. This should discourage your cat from finding this a comfortable place to toilet.
  4. Avoid using any form of punishment even if you catch him in the act, this will only make him more stressed!
  5. Get some Feliway and plug it in near the couch or area your cat is using.

The above process will solve most litter tray issues, if your cat is still not using the litter tray there are a few added options.

Medications

If Feliway alone is not enough, your cat may need some pharmacological help to reduce overall stress levels. In many cases if you combine the medication with more routine, scheduled playtimes and avoidance of stressors, your cat can then be weaned off the medication. See your vet for more advice.

Retraining

If your cat has some very ingrained toileting habits, it may be necessary to retrain him to use the tray. One way to do this is to set him up in one room of the house (one that is easy to clean such as the laundry or bathroom), with just his bed, food and water in one corner and two litter trays at the other end of the room. Your cat should choose the litter trays to eliminate in. Follow all the above rules about litter tray cleanliness and types of substrate and use the Feliway also. After a couple of weeks once the habit is set, you can start letting your cat out for short excursions, making sure there are lots of litter trays around.

Multi-cat households and stress

Cats are often not particularly sociable beasts. Most are perfectly happy to have their territory all to themselves, rather than sharing it with another cat. Cats in multi-cat households are more likely to have litter tray accidents, either due to stress, because the tray they prefer to use smells like another cat (which is where having trays in multiple locations is so important), or because they are getting bullied by another cat.

Cat Bullying – One way to see what is really going on is to set up a webcam near the litter trays to see if one cat is bullying the others. Cats don’t necessarily have a linear hierarchy like dogs and often they are very subtle in their bullying habits. One cat may be the boss of a particular section of the hallway, a nice resting spot and may actually rouse on the others if they attempt to pass or go to the litter tray area.

Environment of Plenty – Having an environment of plenty in a multi-cat household reduces stress. So lots of perches, resting spots, food bowls, litter trays and private areas for each cat is essential.

Routine – Cats love routine. They like you to feed them at the same time, play with them at the same time and they don’t like changes. Schedule in a playtime and cuddle time for each cat at the same time each day.

Final Points:

  • See your vet to rule out health problems.
  • Make sure the litter tray is spotless and doesn’t smell of chemicals, cleaners, urine or faeces.
  • Have at least one litter tray for each cat, plus one.
  • Make sure there are litter trays in multiple locations.
  • Try to give your cat routine.
  • Use Feliway.