Why Won’t My Cat Use the Litter Tray?

One of the most common problems that cat owners face is that their cat starts urinating around the house, instead of in the litter tray provided. The last thing cat owners want is the smell of cat urine wafting through their residence. So let’s look at the different causes of the problem.

There are several different causes for this:

  1. Cystitis – an inflammatory condition of the bladder which can be due to stress, infection or in some cases bladder stones. Cystitis generally causes pain on urination. If this pain is experienced when urinating in the tray, your cat may associate the pain with the litter tray directly and so look for an alternative spot to urinate. This could be the shower recess, bathroom floor or on your favourite rug. Usually the urine is slightly red in colour due to the presence of blood and the cat produces small amounts of urine frequently. If your cat experiences these symptoms, you need to see the vet as soon as possible. In the case of male cats, the urethra (tube leading from the bladder through the penis) is very narrow and this can cause potentially fatal blockages.
  2. Litter tray aversion – Cats are super fussy when it comes to toileting (probably fussier than some humans!). So if the litter tray has not been cleaned out since the last time your cat used it, chances are that he or she will find a more desirable toileting spot eg your carpet, bed or clothes. The general rule for number of litter trays is to have one litter tray per cat PLUS ONE EXTRA (so that’s two trays for a single cat household too). The placement for these trays is also very important. You must ensure that they are well away from feeding areas, as cats do not toilet where they eat (they are very clean creatures) and away from any noise or passers-by (they like their privacy!). We often tell clients to place a litter tray right where the offending cat is urinating – yes, even if it is in the bedroom! That way, the litter tray can gradually be moved out of the bedroom and the cat retrained to use it. Alternatively, keep your bedroom door closed.

The size of the trays is very important too. Try to avoid those trays with a lid – it’s the equivalent of going to the toilet in a port-a-loo. The best trays are really large, such as a storage container from the local discount shop with the side cut out. Just put some thick tape over the cut out side so there are no sharp edges. Make sure the cat has plenty of litter inside the tray, as outside they like to dig a deep hole and then bury their excrement.

The substrate preference varies from cat to cat. As a general rule, the crystals and clumping style litters are not that popular, while the recycled newspaper, clay or simple sand boxes work best.

So start working on your cat’s litter boxes being more desirable and make sure it is a clean place to go to the toilet and your cat will really appreciate it.

          3. Anxiety – Anxiety is a really common reason for cats to urinate around the house. Generally if they are stressed, they will try to make themselves feel more secure by urine marking so their own scent surrounds them in their living quarters. In most cases, this will be urine spraying, where the cat urinates while standing up against a vertical surface, often with the tail quivering.

One study found that with 4 or more cats housed together, almost 100% of these households have at least one cat that is urine marking. This exemplifies the fact that cats generally don’t like living in large groups in a single household. So you may need to consider re-homing the cat that is newest to the household that may have upset the balance. We usually don’t recommend having more than 3 adult cats in one household, though there are of course exceptions to this.

You can tell if your cats are “friends” or just “flatmates” by whether they are grooming and sleeping right next to each other (friends) or just living with the cat and not physically interacting (flatmates). For “flatmates” these cats need separate eating, drinking and toileting areas in order to keep a happy cat household. So if you have 3 cats and none of them mutually groom each other on a regular basis, then 3 x feeding areas and 4 x litter trays are required as a minimum. The general rule is one litter tray per cat plus an extra one, but definitely not all next to each other. Separate areas of the house is preferable, even though it might seem excessive, it’s better if your cat urinates in a litter tray than on your favourite rug !

Urine spraying in cats is a normal behaviour and they use it to communicate information ranging from sexual behaviour to marking boundaries. It occurs in all breeds of cats and approximately 10% of desexed male cats and 5% of desexed female cats spray. Stressful events can increase the incidence of spraying and may include interaction with other cats or changes in the household routine, living arrangements or other environmental or social changes.

When it comes to anxious cats, Feliway can really help. This is a synthetic analogue of the pheromone produced from the glands in their cheeks which cats leave on you when they rub their faces on their owners and objects around them. It’s like a security blanket. The makers of Feliway have been able to reproduce this pheromone and put it in a bottle to help cats feel more relaxed at home. It comes as a spray or in the form of a plug-in diffuser and is available from your vet.

A new (2018) natural product called Zylkene is now available for helping pets (both cats and dogs) cope with stress and anxiety. It is derived from milk protein and is given as a daily long term supplement (the capsule can be opened and the contents sprinkled on food, it is quite tasty so some pets will even just eat the capsule voluntarily).

Severely anxious cats that do not respond to a combination of litter box changes, Feliway and Zylkene may require anti-anxiety medication, such as Fluoxetine or Clomipramine. Speak to your vet about these options. Your cat will usually require a check-up and a blood and urine test before starting the medication. Usually we start cats on a two month trial and then recheck them and discuss the results with the owner. Many really anxious cats require life-long anti-anxiety medication.

Diagnosing urinary problems in cats

Any cat that starts spraying should see a vet as there may be a medical explanation for this – pain, urinary tract infections or anxiety can all lead to inappropriate urination and a full veterinary exam should be carried out. In most cases, your vet will also run a urine analysis and culture (to check for infection, diabetes, kidney and liver disease).

How should I clean up the urine around the house?

Once the cause of urinating outside of the litter box is determined, it is important that all traces of urine is cleaned away thoroughly. Unfortunately, some cleaning products are ammonia-based and smell like urine to cats. This can encourage even more urine marking, so it is important to use the correct cleaning products to get rid of it.

Biozet washing powder from the supermarket is an enzymatic detergent which is effective when diluted with water at breaking down urine and removing it. There is also an excellent product called Urine Off which has been specifically designed for the purpose of enzymatically breaking down and removing pet urine.

In Summary

It is important that you get your information from a reliable source. “Dr Google” is notoriously unreliable for providing helpful and evidence-based information, so make an appointment with your vet first. Also, visit www.icatcare.org – International Cat Care (charity), which has a lot of helpful cat information, or Google search “Indoor Cat Initiative” and visit their website for further advice.

In serious situations, a referral to a veterinary behaviour specialist such as the Sydney Animal Behaviour Service www.sabs.com.au (consulting from both Homebush and Seaforth) for a resolution may be required.