Saturday, June 22, 2013

Peeing Outside The Box? The 20 Minute Cure!

If you asked me what problem I hear the most often, AND, which problem is the most gut-wrenching to address I would without hesitation say “cats and inappropriate urination or defecation.”

Not only do I see and hear about this issue frequently (weekly or more often), but I hear clients deep frustrations and exhaustion with it. In many cases clients are coming to me to discuss these problem weeks, months, or even years after it has begun. They have gotten to the point of almost giving up and give me the distinct clear impression that I have “20 minutes and a hundred bucks to fix this problem, or that cat is going outside or away to never never land.”

How is anyone going to fix a long standing problem in 20 minutes? Yep, impossible.

Here’s why. 

Let’s give every pet the benefit of the doubt and ASSUME that their issue started with a medical cause. 

It could have been any of the following:
  1.   Infection. Your cat could have had a urinary tract infection. In fact, your cat might still have one. That urinary tract infection (UTI) might have caused the litter box aversion because your cat associated the pain of having to go to the bathroom (urination OR defecation) with the litter box. Say, for instance you are an 8 year old kid. You go down to the dark dismal basement and you step on a snake. It scares you to pieces. Think you are going to be as excited to go back down in that basement in the future? Probably not. Your cat looks at the litter box like you look at that basement. The best way to check for a UTI is with a culture and sensitivity. This is much more sensitive than a small sample of urine being quickly viewed in your veterinarian’s office.
  2.  They have difficulty getting into the box because their joints hurt, or they are too weak to pick up their legs to get into the box. So they get close to it and call it ‘good enough.’
  3. They were declawed and their paws hurt on the litter that to you feels like sand and to them feels like shards of glass.

Now, let’s give your thorough and complete medical work up the benefit of the doubt and address some of the behavior issues that can lead to aversion issues.
  1.  Your litter box is not as clean as your cat wishes it to be. Now I realize that cleaning the litter box is probably not anyone’s favorite task. But if you ask me what kind of bathroom I am comfortable using it will not be a public porto-potty. I like my own pristine clean thoroughly daily deodorized home toilet. My cats get their litter box cleaned (scooped) daily. Weekly I dump, disinfect, clean and rinse thoroughly, and then dry the boxes. New litter is placed in every box weekly. Yes, that’s a lot of litter that I go through.
  2.  There are not enough litter boxes in the house. See Rule of thumb for adequate number of litter boxes below.
  3. The litter boxes are at the other end of the universe. If your cat never leaves your home than your home is their whole entire universe. If the box is on the other side of the living area then using the box requires a long commute. Nobody likes a long commute to the other side of the universe.
  4.  The litter boxes are scaring your cats. For example, say your dog likes to sample from the litter box, and say your cat feels like they are being stalked for treats at the dispensary.
  5.  The litter box is the dark dismal black hole and they are reluctant to tempt their own fate.
  6.  The litter substrate is not to your cats liking. If it is reasonable to buy “deluxe quilted triple ply toilet paper” then maybe your cat has a preference too.
  7.  There is an area of your house that has been soiled and your cat now believes that it is an “approved bathroom spot.”
  8.  Your litter box is in an area that your very intelligent, very sensitive, hyper-acute pet thinks is dangerous. I have seen litter boxes placed next to washers and dryers. If you have ever had a washer that was off balance or dried tennis shoes in your dryer your cat might think that there is a caged dangerous beast in there and hence, wisely, avoid the tigers den.

Here’s what we know about cats and their litter box preference:
  1. The rule of thumb with respect to adequate number of litter boxes in the house is. Two for the first cat and one additional for each additional cat.
  2. If you don’t crawl down to the basement (or three floors away) to use your bathroom then why would your cat?
  3. Your cat’s preferable litter is sand. Like play box kids sand. In general they do not prefer the clumping litter. I know we humans love the convenience of clumping but your cat likes to feel soft sand between their toes.
  4.  Scented litter. I think that everyone would agree that cats have an incredibly superior sense of smell. How many of us have ever sat in church next to a patron who bathed and didn't dry off in a vat of perfume? So strong that it knocks you over. Think about this the next time you pour the litter in your cat’s box.
  5. Dust, cat’s hate dust. Can you imagine digging a hole to mark your spot, covering your business and being enclosed in a box while you do it? That’s a lot of dust. It’s not pleasant and it’s not healthy.
  6. Cat’s preference for size of their litter box is a kid’s sized pool. Yep, a 5 foot diameter four inch deep play sand box. How about that in your living room?
  7. Cat’s intuition is to always be on guard. They like to be able to see all around them while they take pause of use the bathroom. They feel safer with an exit strategy and a clear escape route. OR, they like a comfortable sized enclosed litter box that they can go into, sniff around, dig for the right spot, and go to the bathroom in peace. (Perhaps the reason so many households have magazine baskets beside the loo?).
  8. Try to provide a litter box that meets the specific needs of your cat. And remember that every cat is different.  Older cats have a difficult time climbing into a box. They might put their head in the box but the rest of them sticks out the front so you see urine and feces just outside the opening of the litter box. Try the shallowest sided box you can. Did you know there are even boxes that have removable sides so the cat thinks they are in the box but without the front side they don’t have to climb over anything.
  9. Try different sized boxes. Try ones without lids, without flaps, etc. Put lots of different options out for your cat and see which one they prefer.
  10. Try a different location. Maybe the box is by a power outlet? An electric piece of equipment? Or in a high traffic area? Are there other family members around that might stress your cat about using the litter box?
  11.  Try a different type of litter (we can it substrate). Like sand, like non-clumping, or even potting soil. If your pet selects a different substrate you might be able to very gradually (emphasis on gradual) transition them over to a litter that you prefer.
  12. Think about how you would feel if you were in your cat’s paws? How would you feel about the whole litter box experience? Then try to adjust for their preference and not ours.
  13.  NEVER, EVER, EVER reprimand a cat. Never! Not in the box, not around the box, not because or about the box. Your cat is trying to tell you something. They never do anything out of spite, maybe fear, but never some human derived manipulative emotion. Your cat is a brilliant magnificent animal. I repeat this motto frequently…
“If your cat had opposable thumbs they would write on the walls “HELP!,” but because they do not they have no other way of telling you that there is a problem short of their litter box.”

Please do not ignore your cat, please don’t get angry at them. 

Please try to be patient, and please afford me more than 20 minutes to help you both.

Part Two on litter box 911 comes tomorrow.

If you have any questions about anything in this article, or any other kitty litter pointers to add please tell me. I can be reached @pawbly, or you can ask me a direct question at

Thanks for reading!


  1. My cat stop using the litter box after having an UTI. I tried everything to encourage her to use it again: different types of litter boxes, litter, Feliway, etc. I finally came across Dr. Elsey's Cat Attract Litter and that solved the problem. I don't know what is in there, but she started using the litter box immediately. I have been using the Cat Attract litter for about 6 months and my cat has not gone outside the litter box since.

  2. Robert Biser commented on Facebook:
    Adding to the litter box issue. I have found some cats want to be able to use "their" box. Sometimes when the owner cleans the box, washes it completely down with soap, hot water etc, then puts all fresh litter back in the box, the cats smells to see if it is "their" box and can't smell the familiar scent , then gets confused. Now he has a problem. Suggestion : if this may be a problem with your kitty, then before you wash the box take some of the litter out and add that back into the box when you add new litter. Your kitty now has "their" nice clean box back.

  3. my male cat keeps peeing beside my bathroom. I have tried EVERYTHING- using vinegar, Pet Force, Kids N Pets, Lemon Juice, shampooing it, etc. I have covered the spot with scatter rugs - he just pees on them. As soon as i clean a spot, he moves over. Any suggestions?

    1. Hello,

      The first important thing to do is make sure that there is NOT a medical problem. After that has been ruled out we discuss behavioral components. This can be a long and frustrating process, BUT I promise your cat has a reason, and IT IS NOT just to drive you crazy (although I know it does.. ). Try to understand what your cat is telling you. Many of them have urinary crystals or stones or inflammation, etc.. and also pay attention to the litter box AND litter..there is lots of good information in my blogs. Its time to put on your detective cap and figure out what he's trying to tell you..It's not as simple as cleaning the urine spot.

      I wish you the very best of luck.


  4. My daughter's little cat has been pooping outside the box since we got her. She only poops every few days. Once in a while she goes in the box but mostly outside. Now when we first got her she had runny stools with a tiny bit of blood in them. Took her to you guys and she was put on probiotics for a time. Her stools firmed up and stayed that way even after stopping the probiotics but she still poops outside the box. I was assuming her initial bowel movements hurt her and now she's scared to go in the box. However when she pees she props herself on the edge with her butt hanging over the box and goes inside. I've tried extra boxes, different litter, lots of litter, barely any litter, made sure they were super clean. Not sure what else to do. What kind of non clumping litter do you suggest that's like sand?

    1. Hello,
      I apologize for the delay. I actually have this on my list of blogs to do.. PS it is a long list ;-(
      Let me try to get something together. I can also give you a copy of the cat behavior book I use. It is wonderful and might help?
      PS the sand I recommend is sand.. like play box sand.. or try potting soil.. it might work? let me know,
      good luck
      there is always a reason a cat does something,, the hard part is playing detective. Sounds like you are doing that already?