your cat isn’t using the litterbox 100% of the time, or if you’re trying to prevent future litterbox problems, this guide is for you. The litterbox is perhaps the most dreaded aspect of cat ownership, but it doesn’t have to be. Luckily, you can solve many common litterbox problems by taking some simple steps.
Check for medical problems
If your cat isn’t using the litterbox, is straining to go, producing only a small amount of urine, or appears to be in pain while urinating, seek veterinary attention right away. Urinary tract blockage is common in male cats and is fatal if not treated within 1-2 days. Common problems like urine crystals can often be resolved with prescription food. The rest of this guide will assume that you have taken the critical step of consulting your vet for advice and/or treatment.
Add another litterbox
This simple step solves the vast majority of litterbox problems. Even if your apartment is small, or you feel you just can’t deal with scooping another box, do not skip this step! You should have at least one more litterbox than the number of cats in your household: N+1 is the magic formula. If you have one cat, provide at least two boxes. If you have three cats, provide at least four boxes, and so on.
Location, location, location
Consider the location of the litterboxes. Are they in accessible areas and distributed throughout your home? Could one cat bully another, or prevent other cats from getting to the box by “guarding” it? We strongly recommend that you place at least one litterbox on each floor of a multi-story home, or at either end of your apartment. Make it as easy as possible to access litterboxes in each area of your home. Keep in mind that elderly/disabled cats and young kittens may not be able to go up and down stairs or through pet doors to reach the litterbox.
With multiple litterboxes, you can test to see if your cat dislikes his/her current type of litter. City Kitties has found that many cats simply do not like pine litter. Declawed cats, in particular, may find the large pellets uncomfortable under their paws. If you’re using this type of litter, try traditional clay or clumping litter in one of the boxes. Make sure it’s deep enough (3 inches or more) so your cat can dig and bury as needed.
Uncover the litterbox
Though covered litterboxes may look nicer, many cats don’t like them. Especially if you have a covered box with a plastic flap the cat must go through, you should uncover the box at the first sign of problems. To prevent litter from getting all over the place or your cat scratching the walls around the box (usually the reason it was covered in the first place), move the box further from the walls and place mats underneath with 1-2 feet on each side. If your cat is really messy, buy a plastic storage bin with 18″+ sides and place the litterbox inside of it. If you’re concerned your cat won’t go inside, cut a hole in one side of the bin. If you feel you must keep a covered box in one location in your home, provide an uncovered box in a less conspicuous location (closet, basement, bathroom, etc.).
Clean up old accidents
You may not be able to smell the cat urine on your rug, but your cat certainly can — and he/she may continue using your rug as a toilet until the urine is completely gone. Clean up pet accidents with an enzymatic product like Anti-Ickypoo or Nature’s Miracle. These products don’t just remove the stain or cover up the smell; they actually break down the urine that, no matter how hard you scrub, is still embedded in the fibers of your rug or the cracks in your hardwood floor. If you have carpeting, we recommend pulling it up and soaking the padding and underside of the carpet as well.
This may seem obvious, but keep the litterboxes as clean as possible. Some owners even scoop twice daily. This keeps the box from getting smelly, and it’s worth the extra time: it takes 5 minutes to scoop litter once a day, versus 30 minutes or more to clean up another accident on the rug.
Consider the impact of stress or change
Did you recently move to a new home, have a baby, add a pet, rearrange the furniture, go on a long vacation, or switch schedules at work? Has your cat been sick, or did you take him/her to the vet? All of these things can cause stress in a pet, and sometimes we forget how sensitive they are to changes in routine.
Declawed cats & litterbox problems
Imagine having the tip of each of your fingers and toes amputated, then being forced to dig around in a litterbox. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? Declawing is a painful procedure that involves amputation of the cat’s toes up to the first joint — not just removal of the claw. Not surprisingly, some declawed cats develop litterbox problems due to pain or discomfort. If your declawed cat refuses to use the box, you may have to use shredded newspaper or other substrate that is easier on the paws than traditional clay litter. Be understanding, patient, and creative in your efforts, as it may take your declawed cat longer to adjust and learn to use the box.
Intact (not neutered) cats & litterbox problems
If your cat isn’t spayed/neutered, your litterbox problems are here to stay. Cats who are intact not only have smellier urine due to hormones, but are more likely to spray all over the place in hopes of attracting a mate. Spaying/neutering takes care of these problems. It also reduces other behavioral problems (like constant yowling), and reduces the risk of certain cancers. You can get your cat fixed for under $50 (or for free in some cases), so there really is no excuse. Find a low-cost spay/neuter clinic in Philadelphia.
Forget about “training”
Contrary to popular belief, cats don’t need any training to learn to use a litterbox. Their natural instinct is to bury their waste, and a welcoming, clean box in a quiet location is the perfect place to do so. Sometimes kittens need a little encouragement or a box with lower sides, but generally by 6-10 weeks, they should be using the box consistently.
Never scold your cat
Never use scolding or punishment — it’s a waste of time and could make the problem worse. Cats, like dogs, do not understand or respond to punishment. All they learn is to fear you. Even if you think your pet “knows” it did something wrong because it’s acting “guilty,” it’s only anticipating your negative reaction to that puddle on the floor. The worst thing you can do is shove your cat’s nose in a puddle of pee, as it will stress your cat out and possibly cause more accidents.
Try the “reset button”
If none of the above steps help, consider restricting your cat to a single room with a litterbox for a week. In some cases, this serves as a “reset button,” so to speak, and allows the cat to get reacquainted with its litterbox. A bathroom is perfect for this, but any room with a door will do. Take this time to completely clean any old pet stains around your home, so when the cat has full run of the house again, he/she won’t return to those old spots.
Scratching is a natural behavior and a reality of sharing your home with a cat. While you can provide scratching posts and other outlets for your cat’s scratching needs, you will never be able to completely eliminate scratching of furniture, rugs, and other items. If you buy a $2,500 leather couch, don’t blame your cat when it gets ruined! If you want to learn about declawing, please read this excellent article on declawing written by a veterinarian. If you’re looking for information on aggressive behavior, visit our Aggression page. Otherwise, continue reading below to find out how you can encourage your kitty to scratch a designated item, not your favorite couch.
If you don’t give your cats a designated spot to scratch, they will ruin your furniture! Most of the cats we know like sisal rope and cardboard scratchers better than carpet-covered posts. The wedge-shaped cardboard scratchers are a hit in most households. The corrugated replacement inserts keep them fresh, and many of them even come with catnip to entice your cat to scratch. You can also make your own scratching post with some cheap wood posts or boards covered in sisal rope. A sheet of corrugated cardboard works well, too. As with litterboxes, you should provide an appropriate number of scratching posts (at least one per cat) and spread them out across your home. That way if your cat gets an urge to scratch in any area of your home, he/she won’t have to go far.
Trimming your cat’s claws won’t prevent scratching, but it will reduce damage to your furniture and rugs. It will also keep your cat from getting her paw stuck to a window screen or your couch (how embarrassing!). To learn how, type “how to clip a cat’s nails” into your favorite search engine — there are lots of videos and instructional articles available on the web. Your vet office staff may also be able to show you how.
SoftPaws are a wonderful tool for pet owners who just can’t prevent their cat from scratching furniture (or people, for that matter). You clip the tip of your cat’s nails, apply the nail covers with a mild glue, and replace every 4-6 weeks. Check out Sadie in the photo at the top of this page, who is modeling her pink SoftPaws.
Encouragement with catnip
Not all cats respond to catnip, and cats under 9 months aren’t likely to enjoy it, but many adults can’t get enough of the stuff! When you introduce your new scratching devices, sprinkle them with catnip. Make it fun and satisfying for your cat to scratch.
Do not directly punish your cat for scratching — she won’t understand or respond. Try placing the scratching posts in front of the object she is scratching, or cover the object with tinfoil or double-sided tape to discourage her. You can also try squirting her with water, clapping your hands, or shaking an empty soda can full of coins when you see her scratching something that is off-limits. Alternately, you can pick her up and place her on the scratching post, then praise her when she uses it. Some people also have luck with citrus sprays and other scents which cats may find unpleasant.
Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine offers an excellent free video series,Managing Scratching Behavior. We highly recommend it.
Is your cat showing aggression towards people, playing too roughly, or showing aggression during feeding time? This guide will cover some basic steps you can take to reduce your cat’s unpleasant behavior. If your cat is acting aggressively towards your other pets, read both this page and ourMultiple Pet Household page for information.
Disclaimer: This information in no way serves as a substitute for medical advice for you or your pet. If you have been bitten badly enough that your skin is broken, seek medical attention immediately.
Aggression during petting
If your cat suddenly becomes aggressive or lashes out when you pet her, especially if you touch a particular body part (paw or hips, for instance), he/she may be trying to tell you that something is wrong. Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out a medical cause.
Over-stimulation is also a possibility. If your cat suddenly bites you after you’ve been petting him/her for a few minutes, this is likely the cause. Some cats get so excited about getting attention that they lash out inappropriately. Other cats don’t know how to tell you they’ve had enough and bite/scratch to give you a hint. This is fairly normal behavior, though certainly not ideal. Learn to read your cat’s body language to avoid these unpleasant events. Right before your cat bites/scratches you, does she pin her ears back, start “twitching,” let out a low growl, flip her tail, or show other signs of annoyance?
Aggression during playtime
Biting and scratching is normal play behavior for kittens and sometimes even cats, but it sure is annoying if you’re the target. Never encourage scratching/biting behavior by using your hands during playtime — this is sending your cat the message that your hands are fun toys. Say “OW!” to let them know you didn’t like that one bit, then discontinue playtime by leaving the room or ignoring your cat. Turn your back, cross your arms, and look away. Some people also use a quick squirt from a water bottle to discourage this behavior. You can keep playtime interesting by introducing new toys that don’t involve going anywhere near your hands, such as laser pointers, remote-control mice, and “fishing pole” type toys.
Food bowl aggression
Like dogs, some cats get aggressive around meal time. This can be a result of excitement about dinner, or fear that another animal will eat the food. If your cat attacks your legs or is otherwise aggressive before or during feeding time, City Kitties recommends an automatic feeder. While not cheap, these feeding stations are worth every penny. Rather than your cat associating dinnertime with you (and your legs — ouch), they will begin to associate it with the auto-feeder. Simply fill it once a day, set the timer, and your cat can eat without any involvement on your part.
If your cat shows aggression toward other pets before or during meals, the answer is pretty obvious: separate this cat from other pets when it’s dinnertime. Free-feeding (leaving food in the bowls 24/7) is not recommended for a variety of reasons, but especially in this case, the cats should be fed at specific times in separate areas or rooms.
In some cases, cats become aggressive for no discernible reason, lashing out as you walk by or attacking seemingly out of nowhere. Ask yourself if anything has changed to trigger this behavior. New smells (visiting a friend who has cats, going to the vet’s office), “scary” or unusually shaped objects (hats, umbrellas, walking canes, pineapples, whatever!), changes to your home or routine, sudden movements, or other stressful events could trigger fear-based aggression. If you’re not sure what the cause could be, speak to your vet.
For any type of aggression, City Kitties recommends trying feline pheromone plug-ins and collars to calm your cat. These products mimic cats’ facial pheromones, creating a feeling of familiarity and safety. In many cases, we’ve found the products really help reduce stress and aggression. Feliway is one popular brand, but there are others.
As with any behavioral problem, if you are unable to find a solution yourself, speak with your veterinarian. Sometimes cats, like people, have mental imbalances that may result in aggression. Your vet may suggest prescribing medication to manage this issue.
Introducing a New Cat
Whether you just adopted a new cat, or you’re fostering one short-term, you want to be sure all of the pets in your household can coexist peacefully. This guide will give you some basic advice that can also be applied to multiple pet households with long-term disputes between animals.
Generally, you should keep the new cat separate from your other pets for a day or two. Give the new cat food, water, litter, and a few toys and let her hang out in a separate room. This gives her a safe “home base” as she becomes familiar with her new surroundings. If you’d like, you can feed your pets on opposite sides of the door and switch their beds/toys to get them used to the scent of a new cat.
Some pet owners gradually increase the time the new cat spends with the resident pets, graduating from a few minutes per day, to a few hours, and finally to 24 hours a day. This may prevent your current pets from feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or threatened by the presence of a new cat.
City Kitties recommends using a pheromone plug-in and/or collar, like Feliway, to lower stress levels in both the new cat and your current cats. These products release cat facial pheromones, creating a feeling of familiarity and safety.
However, introductions usually aren’t pretty, no matter what precautions you take. Don’t be surprised if the new cat and your pets don’t get along right away. Open the door and there will probably be some hissing and swatting. This is completely normal and may continue for a few months (sometimes even up to a year) after the first introduction. If things get too heated, carefully separate them, using a towel to protect yourself from bites and scratches, and try again later.
Don’t expect things to improve in a matter of weeks. These problems can take months to resolve. Give your pets plenty of time, be patient, and don’t give up too soon. In some extreme cases, cats really do prefer to be in an only-pet household, and in such a case it may be best for all the animals involved to find a responsible, appropriate home for a pet. See our guide to Responsibly Rehoming a Cat for more information.
If your multi-cat household is experiencing litterbox problems, or if you’d like to prevent these issues, check out our Litterbox Guide.