One of the biggest complaints from cat owners is that their cats urinate and/or defecate outside the litter box. They may pick one spot, or even several spots around the house to use instead of the litter box, and it can be very frustrating to people to have to clean these messes up, sometimes repeatedly, and deal with the odors often left behind even after numerous cleanings. The fact is there is no one single reason why cats will go outside their litter boxes and it’s up to each person to figure out what might be wrong.
The first thing to do is rule out any medical conditions. Cats with urinary conditions or kidney disease may be urinating outside the box simply because they can’t make it in time. Call your vet about it first, particularly if this is new behavior. The last thing you want is for your cat to be seriously ill while you’re trying to figure out how to get it back into its litter box.
Once medical conditions are ruled out, try the easy stuff first. Perhaps the litter box isn’t getting scooped or changed often enough, or the box isn’t getting thoroughly cleaned when the litter is changed. Or maybe the cleanser being used has too strong a smell. We all know how clean our cats like to be, and their litter boxes are no different. According to Dr. Lisa Pierson, boxes should be scooped twice a day at the bare minimum, and the boxes should always be washed when the litter is changed. There should also be one more box than number of cats in the house, so a household with 2 cats should have 3 boxes, and so on, and they should be readily accessible by all the cats in the house.
If that doesn’t work, the problem may be the boxes themselves. If they’re all covered, try taking the covers off of a couple of them. The covers can hold odors in, which make them appealing to us but not to cats. Also, the boxes themselves may just be too old and are full of scents that the cats don’t like, so replacing the oldest ones may help. Moving them around and keeping them away from the food and water dishes may also help.
The problem could also simply be that the cat doesn’t like the litter you’re using. This may be especially true if you’ve just changed to a new type of litter. Cats get used to litter that feels and smells a certain way. The new litter you’re using may have a texture they don’t like or a smell that’s too strong, and that’s causing them to avoid the litter box. If you really didn’t like the litter you were using, then you may have to go through several brands and types to find another that you cat likes and will use.
When the problem is not the box, its cleanliness, or the litter, then the problem may be that the cat feels stressed out for some reason. Bringing a new cat into the house can sometimes cause this kind of a problem as the newcomer will threaten your cat’s dominance over its territory. Other situations, such as a new baby, someone new moving in, or moving to a new place can also stress your cat to the point where it will want to mark. There are products that act as repellents and products that imitate soothing pheromones that can help calm a cat down and steer it back towards its litter box.
The worst thing any cat owner can do is punish their cat for not using the litter box. Cats, like other pets and even people, respond much better to positive reinforcement. If you see your cat squatting somewhere outside the box, calmly pick it up and place it in the box, and reward it with praise and the occasional treat when it uses the box. Punishment and rough treatment can actually give a cat an aversion to the box; it begins to associate bathroom behavior with punishment and will try to hide to do its business. It is very important to try and identify the source of the issue, and work to solve the problem using means other than punishment.
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