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Feline faux pas: Decoding litter box rebellion

If your cat is not using the litter box, there could be many reasons why.
There could be a host of reasons why a cat is not using a litter box.

Why won’t my cat use a litter box? 

If this is a question you are asking, you are probably desperate for an answer. A cat who doesn’t use a litter box is not likely to be a popular roommate.

The Regional Animal Protection Society Cat Sanctuary — Canada’s largest, and home to hundreds of mostly unadoptable cats — has a number of cats who never took to the litter box and therefore aren’t likely to find a forever family. 

“There are any number of reasons why a cat won’t use the litter box,” said Shena Novotny, manager of the sanctuary. Some are basic, others more complicated.

They may have simply never learned to use the box, she said. That is a problem that may or may not be rectified. 

In terms of what people can do to encourage proper use, first and foremost, always make sure the litter box is kept clean. 

“That seems obvious — cats are fastidious — but some people might forget,” she said. “Or the cat may not like the brand of litter, its scent or texture, or the height of the box might make it difficult to get in and out of. A box that is too small may make a larger cat feel cramped and unclean. Some cats find the hooded litter boxes too confining. These are some very basic possible reasons and these are comparatively easy to fix.”

Location of the box may be a factor. Put it in a quiet, safe place. Add an additional box or two around the house and see which one they prefer, she suggests. This is especially true if you have more than one cat. The rule of thumb is one litter box per cat — plus one.

More complicated are psychological reasons. Stress and anxiety will set a cat off its routine. Something as seemingly mundane as a house guest or as tumultuous as a new pet can turn a cat’s world upside down, leading them to unintentionally act out. 

Past trauma can also be a factor.

“Maybe they had a bad experience, like being frightened once while using the litter box, and they developed a phobia,” said Novotny. “Maybe they had a health issue that caused them pain while urinating and they carry that association.”

In addition to psychological or habitual issues, aversion to the litter box may be a sign of a health concern. 

Urinary crystals or stones understandably make a cat associate the litter box with pain. Always talk to your veterinarian about any possible health concerns. Special diets can help with some of these issues and a checkup to address more serious issues is always a good idea.

“Usually, a cat who doesn’t use a litter box has good reasons,” she said. “They might not seem like good reasons to the person cleaning up after them, but they are understandable from a cat’s perspective. Sometimes, you need to think like a cat.”