When Your Cat Refuses to Be (Litter) Boxed In

A cat behaviorist explains why they are so particular about where they pop a squat.

by Jodi Helmer
April 1, 2021
cat coming out of litter box

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Generally, cats can teach dogs a thing or two about doing their business. If you let them, a dog will walk right past a tree to lift their leg on your neighbor’s car rims, then strategically poop at the bottom of another one’s stoop. Besides the fact that cats can be trained to use a human toilet (a story for another time), these diminutive geniuses will politely regulate their BMs to a litter box — that is, until they won’t.

Much like us in our bathrooms, it turns out there’s a lot more going on in a litter box than numbers one and two. From playing in it to guarding it, most of these behaviors are harmless enough. But avoiding the litter box altogether? Not cool, kitty. We caught up with Dr. Niwako Ogata, BVSc, PhD, DACVB, and director of the Purdue Animal Behavior Clinic at Purdue University, to get the scoop on why this happens and what you can do about it.

Change is bad

Okay, change is good but don’t expect your cat to be down with it. Many pet owners believe their animals spite pee and revenge poop to show their disapproval for something, i.e. losing sleeping in bed privileges thanks to a new partner. The argument can be very convincing, especially when they seek out your pillow when there are umpteen less gross, but equally rude, locations to stage a protest. But Ogata says anxiety is more likely to blame when a cat won’t use the litter box, and adds that cats are notoriously fussy creatures that may react to the slightest change in their environment, even just a new type of litter.

Location, location, location

The grass is always greener…or the rug softer. Maybe it’s the downy material or the absorbency or how it’s just so nice to knead. The jury’s out as to why many cats prefer rugs to litter boxes but if yours is guilty, either limit their access to the room with the rug in question or spray it with a sour-smelling deterrent. Another favorite place to ‘go’ — which admittedly makes more sense — is in a potted plant, where they can bury their business. If your cat has abandoned the litter box (or never attempted to use it in the first place) consider where it is located. Ogata recommends a quiet, private area that’s easily accessible and far from their food and water bowls — but not so far that it shares the basement with a scalding furnace or the laundry room with loud, clanking machines.

Size matters

Most cats prefer larger litter boxes and litter made from small, clay granules (as opposed to silica or wood pellets). Some may care not for privacy and avoid litter boxes with lids. Ogata also says that you should pass on litter boxes disguised as household objects like side tables and ceramic pots. They are purely aesthetic — something your cat will not appreciate (and then will proceed to poop under the bed). She adds that “an open shape is better.” We think open concept spaces are cool, too.

Comfort zone

“If there is a sudden change in litter box habits, make an appointment with the vet to rule out medical causes,” says Ogata. Cats can get UTIs, too, which causes pain when they pee. They could assume that the litter box has something to do with it and associate pain with it. Climbing into and out of a litter box could also present a challenge to an aging, arthritic cat.

Private and guest baths

If you have multiple cats, it follows that you have multiple litter boxes — you should, anyway. Ogata suggests one litter box per cat, plus one extra. So, two cats equal three litter boxes? That’s right. It’s not that your cats are divas; it’s just in their nature to be territorial. “In multi-cat households, cats can be bullies and the aggressor can block access to the litter box,” she explains. Observe your kitties and place litter boxes where each one likes to spend time — the farther apart, the better. 

Clean up your act

Your cat feels about a dirty litter box the way you do about a dive bar’s restroom. The sight or scent of poop will send them running in the opposite direction. “The most important thing to a cat is the cleanliness and smell of a litter box,” says Ogata. “A spot that is wet, dirty, or smelly will deter them from going back.” And if they are well trained, they will hold it, which can cause bladder and kidney issues. If you’ve been eyeing automatic litter boxes, you may need to think twice. The unexpected motor noise or motion can startle sensitive cats. Get into the habit of scooping out the litter box at least once a day. Set an alarm on your phone as a reminder! Your cat will thank you by pooping where they are supposed to.

Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based freelance writer who shares her home with an embarrassing number of rescue dogs and relies on four feral cats to patrol the barn. When she isn’t refilling food and water dishes, Jodi writes about animals for Scientific American, Sierra, WebMD, AKC Family Dog, Living the Country Life, and Out Here.