My cat won’t use the litter box – what to do?

Note: This post is part of a series this week on called “Saving the cats.”

My cat Scout had some, shall we say, serious litter box issues last summer.

Scout decided he was going to poop everywhere but the litter box. This went on for quite a few months, and it was getting more and more frustrating. An “accident” is one thing, but deliberately using every corner of the house as a bathroom is another.

I was spending a lot of time cleaning up after my cat, and there did not seem to be an end to it. I was definitely weighing my options and considering the reality of how much I could really tolerate. A cat that does not use a litter box causes a lot of property damage. I can understand why a cat owner would eventually decide the cat needs to “visit the farm.”

But seriously, there are always going to be irresponsible people who just don’t value their cats. There will always be people who abandon cats over something silly like “I didn’t know she would shed so much.”

And then there are pet owners with legitimate reasons to re-home their pets.

Maybe the cat is terrified of the new baby and bites. Maybe the person lost a job or a spouse and can’t afford to pay for basic cat supplies. The person might even use “allergies” as an excuse when really he doesn’t want to admit his financial situation to a complete stranger at a shelter.


Or maybe the person has had enough of the cat peeing outside of the litter box. I mean, really, who can put up with that?

Below are some simple suggestions for cat owners who are having behavioral problems with their cats. Most people want to keep their cats but some are not sure what to do about certain problems. Some cat owners truly don’t understand why a cat sprays or why a cat scratches.

I hope this post will help a few cats keep their homes.

If we can increase the number of cats that get to stay in their homes, we can decrease the number of cats entering pounds, shelters and rescues. It’s just one of the pieces to saving more cats. With dogs, we always talk about educating owners on training, exercise and basic behavior. With cats, it shouldn’t be any different.

Here are some common cat behavioral problems and some steps to fixing the problems.

Common cat behavioral problems

1. My cat stopped using the litter box. What do I do?

Gray tabby cat named Scout

If your cat has suddenly stopped using the litter box, I recommend pinpointing what changed before the problem started.

Have you moved the box to a different room? Do you have a new pet? Have you had family visiting? Switched the type of litter? Switched your cat’s food?

Cats can be very sensitive to change, so sometimes the solution can be as simple as switching back to the litter you were using or moving the litter box back to where it was.

“You might have to make changes that your cat favors over what you would prefer for yourself,” said Michelle Smith, owner of Natural Pet Center in Fargo. “After all, your cat is the one that is using the bathroom and not you.”

When Scout stopped using the litter box, I considered all kinds of possibilities. I started scooping the box twice a day and changing the litter more often in case he thought it wasn’t clean enough.

I switched him back to a cheaper food he had previously been eating in case his new food was part of the problem. I also planned on buying a different type of litter and setting up two boxes side by side so he had more options.

Before anything else, you should first rule out any medical problems such as urinary or bladder issues, Smith said. Once that is ruled out, the cat owner should think about the box itself.

“Most cats prefer to have an extra large, uncovered litter box,” she said. “They also prefer unscented litter and a box that is cleaned regularly.”

After leaving out several litter box options for Scout, the solution turned out to be that simple – Scout prefers an open litter box without a cover over it.

For whatever reason, “Mr. Princess” no longer wanted to use a box with a cover, even though he’d been using one for years. I don’t know if another pet trapped him in there at one time or if the lid slid off and startled him or if it smelled bad to him. Who knows. But after switching to a large, open litter box, Scout has gone five months without any “incidents.”

If changing the type of box doesn’t work, Smith tells cat owners to make sure the litter box is in a convenient space for the cat. You may also need to add another box if you have a large home or add another box if you have multiple cats. Sometimes each cat prefers its own box, and sometimes one cat will even guard the box from another cat.

When Scout was having “bathroom issues” I also made sure to block off his access to certain rooms. I kept all the bedroom doors shut, and whenever I wasn’t home I put Scout in our laundry room where his box is located. That alone cut back on most of his “accidents.” Cat owners highly underestimate the power of prevention. People crate dogs all the time to keep them out of trouble. I do the same with my cats when needed.

2. Why is my cat peeing on things (spraying)?

Many people don’t understand the difference between “accidents” and deliberate marking (spraying). A cat sprays by deliberately leaving a small amount of urine on a surface such as the walls or the furniture to mark his (or her) territory. This is not a litter box issue. The cat is not urinating because he has to go to the bathroom. He is communicating to other animals “Hey, I own this place!” Female cats are also capable of marking.

The most obvious solution here is to get the cat spayed or neutered. This will most likely take care of the problem entirely. Unaltered cats are much more likely to mark than altered cats for obvious reasons.

For cleaning up odors, a solution of 50 percent vinegar and 50 percent water seems to work just as well as any odor removal product sold in stores. Most products will attempt to cover up the odor without actually removing it, so if you buy an odor-removal product, look for a natural product that contains enzymes.

3. How do I stop a cat from scratching the furniture?

Declawing is an option, but before you jump to declawing, consider some realistic training options:

Appropriate scratching areas

Tan and white cat for adoption in FargoSmith recommends having at least one scratching area in your home per cat.

“You also need to keep in mind how your cat prefers to scratch – vertical, horizontal or at an angle,” she said. “My cats perfer to scratch standing up, so we mostly have posts.”

She suggests cat owners try a variety of cat scratchers until they find the type their cats enjoy.

“If cost is an issue, check into scratchers made of cardboard,” she said. “These are increasing in popularity and are now available in a variety of different sizes and shapes. These are also great if you have a catnip lover. You can easily apply catnip which will fall into the cardboard.”

For Beamer and Scout, we have some shorter posts that are about 18-inches high and also a larger post about 3 feet high that they can stand on their hind legs and scratch.

Teach the cat that certain furniture is off limits

You’re probably laughing right now, but I’m serious. When we bought a new couch in November, we decided it would be off limits to our cats. We use a firm voice correction – “No!” when we see them thinking about jumping onto the couch. We also kept a squirt bottle nearby at first.

We succeeded in teaching our cats not to touch the couch in our presence, but they do sneak up there when we are not home. So, when we can’t supervise, both cats go into our laundry room with the door shut.

When you are teaching a dog not to sit on the furniture without permission, it’s important to block the dog’s access to the furniture when you can’t supervise. It is no different with cats. More cat owners should seriously think about this type of prevention. It works well for us.

Soft Paws nail caps for cats

Soft Paws are nil caps you glue over your cat’s claws. I’ve used them on my cats for four months now, and overall I’ve been pretty happy. However, last night I used a fresh pack for both my cats and I got glue all over my fingers. I don’t know if the product has changed or if I got a defective pack, but it was very disappointing. The adhesive tubes and the applicator tips were not working well together and glue kept leaking out onto my fingers. Very frustrating.

Anyway, when you do manage to get the Soft Paws on properly (and that’s the hard part!), the product does work well for preventing property damage. There is a bit of a learning curve. It takes the hoomans a few tries to get a good applying system down. It also takes the cats some time to accept the caps. They do fall off here and there, but overall it’s a product that makes a difference for us. You can read my full Soft Paws review for more info.


Finally, my stance on cat declawing is that it should be a last resort after attempting to teach the cat appropriate scratching options. Easier said than done, though, and if your options are re-homing the cat or to getting the cat declawed, I support the idea of declawing. Do your research so you know exactly what the risks are and what is involved. Then let go of any guilt and hug your cat because he’s lucky to have a home.

4. Why does my cat throw up on the furniture and rugs?


I didn’t really know what a hairball was until I owned a cat. Hairballs occur because cats are constantly grooming themselves, and during this process they end up swallowing lots of fur. As the owner of two cats, I am blessed with cat puke probably two or three times per week, usually in the worst places like on my bed where the cat happens to be lying. Talk about nasty!

There’s not a whole lot you can do about hairballs, but one suggestion I have is to invest in a FURminator for cats. I know they are quite pricey for a brush ($30 or so), but they are worth it. Brush your cat every day for a week or so when you first get the brush. Then brush your cat once a week or so and you will cut back dramatically on the shedding and yes, the hairballs.

Change in diet

My cats also tend to throw up if they eat something new or if I change their food. Dog owners are always told to gradually switch to a new food by mixing the new food with the old. Cat owners don’t seem to share that type of advice as often. But cats can get upset tummies from a new food, too, so change new foods gradually.

Eating grass or plants

My cats will eat and destroy pretty much any plant. You guessed it; we no longer have any indoor plants. If you want to have indoor plants and cats, I suggest getting a hanging basket and hanging your plants from a ceiling hook. If we let our cat Beamer outside (supervised – chill out!), he will immediately chow down on grass. This results in a nice pile of cat puke a few hours later. So, if you let your cat outside and he keeps throwing up, it may be because of what he’s been eating outside.

5. How do I stop my cat from opening cupboards?

When I adopted my first cat (Scout), I had no idea cats could open cupboards. I had no idea that I would come home to an apartment covered in powdered sugar because my cat apparently had a great time ripping open the bag, rolling in it and then dancing around on every surface. I also did not know that my cat would help himself to his food by dumping the entire bag onto the floor.

Cats get into shit. There is a solution, though: Child locks.

You can buy child locks at Target (in the baby section) and probably at Wal-Mart or most hardware stores. They come in many different varieties for different types of cabinets.

Our cats attempt to open our pantry every single day. We depend on those child locks.

We also have to keep all garbage containers in child-locked cabinets or behind closed doors like in the bathroom.

What are some other common cat behavioral problems, and how do you fix them?

This beautiful black cat is up for adoption with CATS Cradle Shelter in Fargo.

Beautiful black cat for adoption in Fargo

34 Readers Commented

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  1. Sarah Tron on April 5, 2012

    Hear, hear for the Furminator! Best brush ever, worth the extra money.
    To get rid of the smell when my old-lady ultra-territorial cat marks, I use a 50/50 vodka water mix. First I clean it up with a carpet cleaner (Spot Shot! or another brand), then I saturate the area with the vodka/water and let it dry. Saturating it makes sure its clean down to the carpet pad. Removes the smell and leaves none behind! Might want to test your carpet first to make sure its color safe.
    I put it in a spray bottle and freshen up everything–the couch, the drapes–its kind of like Febreeze. And if you’re really crabby at the kitty have a nip from the bottle!

  2. Libby on April 5, 2012

    My cats also have a penchant for eating house plants and I’ve found that spraying the plants with bitter spray (like the ones they make for dogs that chew furniture) is really useful. It doesn’t harm the plants and it stops the cats from eating everything. The only thing is you have to make sure to spray it often because cats can be very persistent and they just keep trying (or at least mine do!).

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 5, 2012

      I did that too, and the spray ended up killing my plant! It must depend on the exact brand of spray and the kind of plant and how often you spray. It did seem to prevent some of their chewing, though! I was using Grannick’s bitter apple spray.

  3. Christina on April 5, 2012

    Oh my goodness you have far more patience (and certainly like cats a whole lot more) than I do… This post has confirmed for me that while I could make the transition from “not a dog person” to a dog owner that’s borderline obsessive with my dog’s training and behaviour, I could never own a cat. I know that a lot of people get cats because they’re “lower maintenance” than dogs, but reading this, it doesn’t seem to be that way at all!! Sure, you don’t have to walk cats, but otherwise it sounds like as much work and worry…

    While that does take one more person out of the possible adopters pool, I think posts like this are important to inform people what’s actually entailed, so cats don’t get purchased as kittens and then given up later in life. Keep up the good work, Lindsay!

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 5, 2012

      They are way easier than dogs, but some people get cats thinking they will be no work at all. The best part about cats is they can take care of themselves for a few days if you head out of town.

      • Christina on April 6, 2012

        That does sound like a benefit. But one of my favourite things about the dog is that most annoying behaviours can be trained out of him, so there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel! In any case, the cats are beautiful, and I really do hope that your posts serve to help more cats get adopted and more cats stay in homes.

  4. David Brendish on July 13, 2012

    I have a problem with a new edition to our home. AS we are the home that all cats come to when no one wants them our new edition is a problem. He’s a British Blue with poor toilet training around 4 years old. The previous owner conned us into taking him and didn’t tell us he had toilet issues. We have 4 other cats 2 indoor/outdoor, 1 outdoor only (The sprayer) and my baby the rag doll. We have never really had any problems with these cats. But Winnie the pooh loves to pee and and poo on our furniture. Even though he has his own litter tray and obviously was a problem for his previous owner. I’m not sure what to do my wife and I spend every day cleaning up his mess. We locked him in th eloo one night and the seemed to work. Th next day he was OK, but the next day he doesn’t a gain. I don’t won’t to give up on him like his previous owners. HELP!

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on July 13, 2012

      Could he live as an outdoor cat?

      • David Brendish on July 13, 2012

        We tried that. He’s a bit of scaredy cat, all noise and no action. He bolted back in the house quicker than anything I seen.
        I made ups mixture of vinegar, water and bicarbonates soda and sprayed the furniture. So far so good and he’s using his tray again.
        Fingers cross.

  5. David Brendish on July 17, 2012

    He’s still being good with his toiletries. Now we need to coax him to be a bit more friendly. He’s slowly coming around but won’t allow us to pick him up or cuddle him for very long.
    Lots of love and care is required.
    Thanks for your enquire.

  6. Kerry on July 23, 2012

    Maybe you can help me… I am an experienced cat owner but this one has me at the end of my rope. I own a very sweet rescued street cat. She brought me her kittens about 5 years ago and basicially “begged” for help. Since I had other cats, she got quarantined in our nice safe no-car garage with the babies. A great rescue took the kittens & placed them, but wouldn’t take mom (the rescuer died in childbirth shortly after, so I don’t know if the kittens inherited mom’s problem). Since mom was adorable, we kept her. She has NEVER used a litter box much. We didn’t notice in the garage because she usually hid the mess (discovered later when cleaning under & behind things). After health checks, we brought her inside. We had a total of 3 cats and four large restaurant bus tubs we use as litter boxes plus an extra regular litter box stashed in another area (we also have dogs, but the litter boxes are completely inaccessible to the dogs). After becoming a house cat, her problem became obvious. She peed and pooped everywhere and constantly- especially laundry, couches, & furniture, but it mostly seemed random. She ruined a mattress and a couch from the enormous amount of urine. Suspecting a UTI, I took her to vet after vet and ran test after test. No real UTI diagnosis, no stones, one of the 5 vets she saw even had her on antibiotics for 6 straight months. She’s really quite healthy. No change. The moment she is let out in the house she goes everywhere. She lives in a very large dog pen in our basement now, making me feel constantly guilty. She can’t have a blanket or towel becasue she pees and poops on it instead of the box. She is OK with peeing and pooping in her food and water dishes. She also pees and poops daily on the floor of her pen. We have tried a multitude of different boxes and litter (including Cat Attract), varying box cleaning schedules, and many foods (she gets superpremium all natural foods). Nothing helps. My dear daughter (14) is usually willing to put up with (and clean) her constant mess, but hubby & I are at the end of our ropes and feel bad about this kitty’s limited life. It’s obvious to us why such a darling cat ended up chucked out on the street. She is unfortunately lousy at outdoor living and we live in the city, so outdoor cat isn’t really an option. Any help or suggestions? She is definitely a severe case!

  7. David Brendish on July 23, 2012

    I found cleaning all the areas my cat soiled on and than spraying the area with vinegar, water and bicarbonate soda and regular cleaning her sand box has turned our little poo thing around. Also showing lots of love not anger when it has done the wrong thing has helped with the cat trusting us.
    I hope this helps.

    • Kerry on July 23, 2012

      Unfortunately, all of that has been tried with absolutely NO effect. I’ve owned animals since childhood. I’ve worked for a vet and I do professional dog training on the side. I know all the tricks to cleaning up animal mess, but just cleaning up hasn’t helped this little girl. She will even poop and pee in her food and water dishes! She’s a very trusting, sweet, calm, laid-back cat. If you can keep a close eye (or a leash) on her to prevent accidents, her preferred spot is snuggling with humans (she used to sleep with me until she peed on me in bed). In fact, her completely over-the-top lovey nature (and the fact that my daughter loves her) is probably what has spared her “the ultimate solution” (like I said, I worked for a vet- I saw many cats with much less severe issues than her brought in for euthanasia). I guess I was trying to discover if anyone else had experience with a case this severe.

      • Lindsay Stordahl Author on July 23, 2012

        Are you sure she doesn’t have a medical problem?

        • Kerry on July 23, 2012

          I wish she did- I could fix that. That was my first thought based on her symptoms… I had another cat with occssional UTI’s and when he got them, he would come and pee in front of me on the bathroom rug to let me know. She has been to a total of 5 vets- as each one didn’t find a thing, I kept going, hoping it was medical. She’s had blood and urine tests, xrays, etc. No one can find anything. One vet kept her on antibiotics for 6 months, telling me it must be a low grade UTI that she couldn’t find in the tests. We’ve also switched through a variety of foods, becasue one vet said it was from the ash level in her food. Nothing we’ve tried has made a difference and we’ve spent years living like this. It’s surprising how it wears on you.

  8. Gloria on July 23, 2012

    My problem is different than others..My cat pees in the litter box, but won’t poop in it???She just started this recently like a month ago..I’ve had her since she was a kitten, and she always used the box..I got another cat when she was a year old, and both used the box with no problems until a month or so ago..Now she goes in 3 places; all 3 are carpert..low, flat carpet..Seeing she pees in the box, I don’t know what the problem could be? any suggestions?

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on November 19, 2012

      That’s the problem my cat has. The only way I solve the problem is to never use covered boxes and to scoop the boxes at least once a day. It seems like he doesn’t want to scratch around in the box when it’s at all dirty. I guess with peeing he doesn’t need to spend as much time scratching and covering it up so he is less picky. That’s what I think, anyway. Who knows!

      Best of luck to you.

  9. David Brendish on July 23, 2012

    We have 5 cats 2 indoor, 2 indoor/outdoor, one outdoor. When we took in our last cat we decided to have two litter boxes and I clean them of poo everyday. I think you could try this. It might help.

  10. David Brendish on July 23, 2012

    Hi Kerry,

    Maybe the poor thing needs to be trained as an outdoor cat. It maybe the only solution.

  11. angie on October 4, 2012

    I’m also having problems with our cat Wallace. He is 5 and has been an indoor cat since day one. He had always used his litterbox. We went on vacation a few weeks ago for 3 days. He has been by himself for this long before. When we got back, his litterbox was empty. However our couch was destroyed with urine and feces. No change in food or anything else environmental. We got a second litterbox. And he is confined to one room. He used the litter box sometimes. Other times he just goes in random places. Our carpet is ruined. Our hardwoods are starting to smell like cat piss. And I am at my wits end. He is so friendly or he would have gone to the pound, but after a month of cleaning up poop and pee I’m at wits end. No uti either. Please help.

    • David on October 4, 2012

      Hi Katie,
      That’s an issue!! Maybe the cats upset that you went away for so long and this is its way of telling you. Desensertise the areas where he is pooping and peeing with vinegar & water. And place him back into his litter tray after he has done it. Don’t get angry but show affection. He’s upset that you left him.

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on November 19, 2012

      I hope you’ve had progress since your comment. How frustrating!

    • Angie on November 19, 2012

      Sadly we had to put Wallace down. He ended up getting a urinary tract blockage. He was partially blocked during this time, but there were no indications of it. He ended up going into renal failure and passed away when they gave him the anesthesia for the removal procedure. I miss my big fuzz bucket.

      • Lindsay Stordahl Author on November 19, 2012

        Angie, I am so sorry to hear about your loss. Take care.

  12. amber on November 18, 2012

    we just got a cat from a friend of ours….. she is app 8 to 10 months old and has never liked using a litter box. they said they use puppy training pads for her but i dont think i can afford to change them out once to twice daily. i tried to put her in one of the litter boxes we have for our other cats but as soon as i put her in she jumps right out. its like she doesnt like the feeling of it. anyone have any suggestions on what i can do? the other 2 cats we had have already peed on every corner of the house including my bed but are broken of it. now this one has peed on my bed as well. im not ready to be washing my sheets every day again. i really need some cat advice bad

  13. Lindsay Stordahl Author on November 19, 2012

    I would give it some time, maybe two weeks or so. Set out several boxes using different types of litter and different types of actual boxes, some covered, some not. Scoop them daily. I woul even try putting just the pee pads in one box with no litter.

    If nothing works, could the cat live outdoors?

  14. Travelducky on December 19, 2012

    I know this is 5 months too late, but I was wondering if Kerry ever found a solution to her extreme kitty problem. I’d like to share what worked for me. While my cat’s litterbox problems weren’t as severe as Kerry’s, any pee or poop on the floor is unacceptable. I spent a year with vets, trying various meds in various combinations. Cosequin seems to help, so it’s probably a UTI / crystal issue. Fixing the medical issue didn’t help the behavioral litterbox issue it had caused, though. After a lot of trial and error, then, here’s the 6-month process worked for me:
    I got a large dog crate, and completely covered the floor in litterboxes. For food and water, I got bowls that attached to the side of the crate, and sat up to high for my cat to comfortably use the bathroom in them. In other words, there was nowhere in that crate that he could go to get away from the litter. I bought the cheapest video cam I could find, that would accept a card large enough for 24 hours of recording. I fed him at exactly the same times, in the exact same amounts, and kept track of when he peed and pooped via the kittycam. It became pretty obvious pretty quickly what his ‘schedule’ was. I kept this routine up for a month, until I could pretty well predict when he would ‘go’, and I would be there as often as possible to praise him and give him a treat. From then on, I would let him out when I was there to supervise him, and always several hours from his next ‘deposit’. Over the next month, I put a small, folded-up towel near his food and water, and would remove it when it got close to the time for him to ‘go’. By the end of the month, he would lay on the towel whenever he could. I gradually left the towel in closer and closer to his ‘go times’, and was eventually able to leave the towel in permanently without one ‘accident’. I repeated the same process with a bare patch of floor, starting small enough that it would be uncomfortable to ‘go’ in, but getting progressively larger, and that eventually became his towel / bed. The next couple of months was a very slow transition to more floor space, more supervised (then unsupervised-but-kittycammed) free time, and constant rewarding of good behavior. The result, at least for now, is a back to normal, happy, healthy cat. I still keep him in the crate overnight once in a while, just as a sort of reboot or tune-up. Yes, it’s been a lot of work and attention to detail, but that’s the only thing that ever gave me any progress at all. I hope this can help someone with similar issues.

  15. porsha on March 4, 2013

    Ok so i have a rescure cat and i have had her for a year now and she has never used a liter box. I am getting so stressed over the issue. she will go on newspaper or puppy pads. if the cat liter ends of on the floor she will go on it. she will not go in a liter box. i thought it what the liter but nope. i have 2 covered boxes and 2 open boxes. any suggestions?

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on March 5, 2013

      Gosh, that sounds frustrating. Here are a few things you could try. I don’t know if these would work or not, just some ideas.

      1. Try putting the puppy pads in a litter box. Maybe that could get her used to the idea of going in a box. At the very least, if you could get her to go on the pad in the box that would at least be easier to clean than the pad on the floor.

      2. Try getting a really shallow litter box. Maybe go to Target or Wal-Mart and find a really shallow storage bin that could be used as a litter box, something that’s not quite as high as the boxes you have. Maybe for some reason she doesn’t like the height of the box.

      3. Maybe try shredding some newspaper and putting that in a box. Maybe if she goes on that, you could eventually add some litter, too.

      Just brainstorming, here. I know a store in my town carries some products that apparently help attract the cats to the litter. You could see if any pet stores near you carry anything like that.

      Best of luck!

  16. Sarah Nelson on April 28, 2013

    I know this is a place for comments, but I have a serious question. I have 2 cats, one male and one female and both are spayed and neutered. I’ve had my male cat almost a year before I adopted my female. Before then, I never had a problem with my male cat eliminating outside of the litter box. But a few weeks after my female came to live with us, my male started pooping outside the litter box all the time. My cats get along so well with each other; they’re both about 3 years of age. I tried changing the location of the box; that didn’t work. Then I tried to change the type of litter; that didn’t work. I even got a 2nd box at one time; that didn’t work. This has been going on for about 6 months now and I just don’t know what to do. He recently starting peeing on the carpeting that’s no where close to the location of the litter box. I know he’s not sick because he went to the vet recently to have his rabies shot and the vet didn’t say anything negative that was going on with him. He’s such a good boy and I love him dearly, but I’m at my wits end here. I haven’t a clue as to what to do with him eliminating outside the box. If there’s anyone that can help me solve this issue, I’d greatly appreciate it.