Litter Box Avoidance:
Part 1: Causes, From Your Cat's Perspective
Animal Solutions Specialist, Beverly Morgan, talks about the problem of cats urinating outside of the litter box. She has two certifications in animal behavior and uses a method she created and calls Mother Nature’s Blueprint™ to evaluate and solve behavior issues in the cats and people she works with. Her method is extremely successful, and her clients rave about the results that she’s able to accomplish in seemingly impossible cases. She has a lifetime of field work and has been working professionally with animals for many years. We are thrilled to bring to you Beverly’s multi-part series on litter box issues below! When reading through her comprehensive and to the point articles here, we hope you’re able to gain some valuable insight into your
cat’s mind and behavior through Beverly’s Mother Nature’s Blueprint™ method. Beverly is always happy to offer personal consults to work with you on solving your cat’s behavior issues to help you create a happy home for you and your cat. The following is the first piece of Beverly’s Litter Box Avoidance series: Litter box avoidance: Causes, from your cat’s perspective.
“When thinking about what the most unwanted feline behavior is, and typically the behavior that most often ends up with cats being relinquished to shelters or re-homed, I must say that inappropriate urination tops the list. Given that there are many different scenarios surrounding why a cat might be urinating outside the litter box, I feel that a multi-part series is the best way to address the possible causes, issues and solutions surrounding this topic.
As I am an animal behaviorist, the focus of these articles will be on behavioral aspects of the why and how cats use urine and to provide case studies as examples. Please keep in mind that your first step in dealing with litter box avoidance should always be your vet, as there can be serious medical issues behind a cat’s unwillingness to use the litter box which must first be addressed. If your vet visit comes up clear, then and only then, can you rule out medical concerns. This is important because there are issues surrounding inappropriate urination that can be life threatening to your cat! With that being said, if your vet has ruled out any medical concerns, let’s take a look at some of the potential causes of not using the litter box. Some unwanted behavior issues surrounding litter box avoidance with cats can be created by problems surrounding the actual litter box itself. Therefore, part one will focus on discussing the litter box and litter box material. Let’s look at how you can set your cat up for success with the litter box by looking at the things from your cat’s point of view. Keep in mind that the causes and solutions here are not to be considered all inclusive, as all cats are unique.
To begin with, one mistake owner’s consistently make is to design the location of a litter box, the litter box itself and the type of cat litter solely around the owner’s preferences. An example of this is the person who adopts an adult cat as their new furry friend and then proceeds to the pet store and purchases one small, cute pink litter box and the first litter they see on the shelves. They place the litter box in their laundry room in a narrow space between a wall and the washing machine to keep it out of site and think it’s the perfect place and that they are all set!
First, there is a well agreed upon rule of thumb by cat behaviorist, including myself, that for each cat you have, there should be one litter box + one more. So, one cat should have two litter boxes, 2 cats should have three, three cats should have at least four and so on. It’s also a good idea to have the boxes spaced out through the house, and not all lined up next to one another. This is so your cat has choices as to where they can do their toileting, to not have to do their toileting right next to another cat that is, and to allow for a cleaner space to do their toileting in. If you have more than one cat, it also gives them alternatives in case their facilities are being used by another resident cat. Consider the size of the box, too. An adult cat needs more room to do their business than a kitten does so be sure you get the appropriate size for your cat. Consider that once your cat is in the box, is there enough room for him to turn around easily and have his entire body in the litter box without feeling physically cramped? Is the entrance/exit easily accessible and pain-free for seniors, disabled, arthritic or sore
cats who find the height of the entrance to the box a source of discomfort to climb up and into? These are all important things to consider when purchasing your cat’s boxes, as they can be the difference between your cat using the litter box, or finding somewhere else more comfortable to them to use. It’s also a very good idea to clean litter boxes at least once a day! You wouldn’t want to use a dirty toilet, and neither does your cat. Cats are extremely clean animals, and a dirty litter box can certainly be a cause for a cat to find other places to do their toileting.
Location, location, location. If you put your cat’s litter box in the laundry room right next to the washing machine or dryer, they may avoid it due to the noise if the machines are running. Consider what it might be like for a cat that feels from loud and unpredictable noises like that a washing machine or dryer makes when in use. Cat’s are very sensitive creatures when it comes to their environment and noises, and while not all cats will have a problem with the noises of a washing machine or dryer, some may, so it’s best to avoid the potential cause that could create a scenario that could result in the unwanted litter box habit of urinating outside of the litter box. Also consider the location and other animals in the homes, such as dogs. Be sure that the litter box is in a place where the resident dog, if there is one, cannot disturb the box or pick ‘snacks’ out of it. This can be upsetting for some cats and cause them to find another place, and that’s rarely a good thing, unless it’s one of the other litter boxes in the house.
The next piece of the litter box puzzle is in the litter material. As we live with cats in our homes in a domestic environment, I am well aware that we can take the cat out of the wild, but we can’t take the wild out of the cat. Their instincts are unchanged no matter what their environment and upbringing. Some cats prefer to use a particular type of litter and only that type while others could care less. It’s important to note that your cat see’s the litter found inside the litter box to be the toilet to use, not the box, so if you were to switch the litter, some cats may have so strongly associated their original litter with their toilet that a new litter removes the toilet all together in their mind.
Some cats may not broadly make the association that the actual box is the toilet, not just the litter within the box, therefore, they may go on something else absorbent like your mattress or the carpet. It’s important to know that Mother Nature hardwired cats with the instinct to empty their bladder into an absorbent area. Cats living in feral colonies often make efforts to toilet in different locations to avoid strong odors in places that potentially can draw predators to them. By contrast, male cats that are not castrated have an instinct to spray urine near the colony so as to ‘mark’ their territory (one of the uses of urine). I remind my clients that animals act of out their ‘blueprint’, or the instincts Mother Nature gave them. So keep in mind that cats do not seek out a ‘box’ to do their
their toileting in, they seek out the absorbent material. Therefore, the term ‘litter box trained’, is accurate, because you have to teach a cat to toilet in a box by filling it with the absorbent material they seek naturally. Always keep in mind that cats require privacy, noise reduction and activity reduction where their litter box is placed and try to find the best location for them, not you.
The next cause I’m going to discuss has to do with neurology. Some cats that find themselves in a new home can find their ‘new-to-them’ litter and box that is located in a ‘new-to-them’ house extremely neurologically disorienting despite neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability for the brain to form new connections in response to stimulation or impute (physical, mental or emotional). Here are a few scenarios on how neurology weighs in when I am helping clients with unwanted behavior regarding the litter box and urinating. 1) If you have a cat that experienced a very predictable environment as it was developing neurologically as a kitten, it may lack the tools to effectively deal with change. If the cat is a creature of habit, this cat is almost guaranteed to have unwanted behaviors if their litter type, litter box, or the location of the box is changed. In contrast to the cat being raised as a kitten in a predictable environment, the cat that, for example, spent its neurologically formative youth traveling across America in an RV, is more likely to be much more adaptable to change. The reason is because the people he traveled with most likely found it difficult to source the exact same brand/type of absorbent litter material and therefore the cat has learned early on that change is normal when it comes to the litter box. This cat will most likely have less unwanted behavior surrounding changes in the litter box or the litter. Do understand, however, that if this cat has DNA passed down from parents with Obsessive Compulsive or biological fear (thus a poor reaction to change), even though change was normal, changes to its litter box may still result in unwanted behavior. There is no one size fits all when it comes to causes and solutions, which is why it’s important to consider all the information here when trying to help your cat overcome their issues if litter box avoidance becomes a problem.
Other reasons for unwanted behavior regarding urine and litter boxes can happen in a multi-cat home where one cat is disagreeable when it comes to sharing a litter box with the other. Are the litter boxes too close to one another or is one cat ‘guarding’ the access point(s) or bullying the other cat? Take a look at the locations of your litter boxes and make sure, again, that they are placed throughout the house and that you have at least one litter box per cat, plus one more box! Lastly, fear can motivate a cat greater than its litter box training will. For example, some cats find enclosed boxes trigger their instincts to keep out of places they can easily become trapped. While hooded litter boxes may be appealing to cat owners, not all cats will be okay with the confines of a hooded box. Keep this in mind, as well, and try switching to an uncovered litter box. Leave the hooded and
add one that is not covered and see what happens. You’ll be able to tell which one gets used most!
In conclusion, cats are often re-homed or given up because they have been unfairly accused of ‘not being litter box trained’, and it is my opinion that 90% of problem behavior in animals is created by the human, due to a person’s oversight in seeing the toileting needs of the cat through the CAT’S viewpoint, not the person’s. Remember that it’s much easier and much better to avoid the unwanted behavior all together by following a few basic guidelines in litter and litter box selection, as well as location, in order to set your cat(s) up for litter box success, than it is to have to correct if it becomes a problem due to something you can avoid from the start! Try to think like a cat, and if you need help accomplishing that, I am always available for in-home and virtual-home consultations. I would be delighted to help you with any cat related behavior issues you may have! Thank You for reading through. It was a pleasure to bring to you part 1 of my multi-series on ‘Litter box avoidance: Causes, from your cat’s perspective’. I look forward to bringing you part 2 next week!”
Readers are welcome to set a consult with Beverly to learn about solutions for your cat’s unwanted behaviors. For more information, or if you have a behavior concern with regards to your cat, please don't hesitate to contact Beverly. She would be more than happy to help!
Please remember: If you see changes in your cat’s urine or urination habits please consult a licensed veterinarian right away to rule out any medical conditions before trying to resolve using a behavior method or technique!