What to do when your cat’s behavior is out of the box

It’s not uncommon for cats to stop using their litter box at some point in their life. It is important to determine the reason before it becomes an established undesirable behavior.

First, take Fluffy to your veterinarian for a full physical exam. There are several possible medical reasons that could cause her to stop using her litter box, and these should all be ruled out. Urinary tract infections, constipation, diarrhea, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, kidney stones, and cystitis are some examples that can be fixed with treatment and result in a natural return to the litter box.

Cats with kidney problems or arthritis may need some adjustments to make the litter box more user-friendly.

Once medical conditions have been ruled out, here are some of the most common reasons cats won’t use their litter boxes.

Can Fluffy get in and out of the box easily? Cats prefer larger boxes with sides that are not too high. Older or overweight cats may need litter boxes with shorter sides for easier handling.

Some cats are not interested in going into covered boxes or using boxes with liners. The newer boxes with automatic cleaning can be scary for some cats.

If you’ve recently changed the type of bedding used, she may not agree. Some cats don’t seem to care what kind of bedding their boxes are filled with. Others, as kittens, develop a preference for their favorite litter and will resist (or reject) change. Regardless of the type of bedding, most cats prefer only an inch or two in the box.

Make sure the litter box is cleaned frequently. Cats are very picky about cleanliness and will look elsewhere instead of using a dirty crate. Shovel at least once a day and empty and clean the box at least every two to three weeks with a mild, fragrance-free soap.

Did you recently add another cat family member? Solve the problem by giving each cat their own litter box. Sometimes cats who have lived happily together for years develop a conflict that requires each one to have their own box.

Older cats or cats with arthritis who live in a multi-story house may need a litter box on each floor.

If you’ve moved the litter box to another location, Fluffy may oppose (or refuse) the move. Cats are creatures of habit. If you need to move the litter box, do it gradually. Litter boxes should be located in a quiet location away from busy traffic or noisy areas of the house. In general, cats don’t like to eat where they potty, so keep litter boxes away from their food and water bowls.

Encourage Fluffy back into the litter box by making unsuitable spots less desirable. First, clean the area with an enzyme cleaner to remove the odor. Then block the spots or cover them with an irritating material that they can walk on, like saran wrap, double-sided tape, or aluminum foil.

It is extremely important to address the “out of the litter box” behavior as soon as possible. The more cats practice this undesirable behavior, the more likely it will become a habit that is difficult to break. It may take some patience, but once you’ve ruled out health concerns, discovered and alleviated possible causes, and made inappropriate spots undesirable, she should make her way back to the litter box.

• Diana Stoll is Practice Manager at Red Barn Animal Hospital, located in Hampshire and Gilberts. Visit the website at redbarnpetvet.com/ or call (847) 683-4788 (Hampshire) or (847) 426-1000 (Gilberts).