Litter box problems are not fun!
Solving litter box problems as quickly as possible will be best for you and your cats.
Reminder: I am not a veterinarian or behavior expert. The information is in this guide is based on my experiences of living with multiple cats since 2003.
Note: Links in this post may be affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I will receive a commission.
Your cat should never be scolded or disciplined, and NEVER rub your cat’s nose in the litter. Unfortunately, these methods do not work with cats. Instead, you need to identify the cause (medical) or be creative with improving the cat’s environment (behavioral).
There are several reasons why your cat could having litter box use issues.
Medical Issues – is your cat sick?
If not using the litter box is a new problem, you should first find out if your cat is sick.
Your cat’s health should be checked by a vet as a medical problem could cause litter box issues.
Your cat might have developed a UTI (urinary tract infection) or urine crystals which are painful for the cat, and therefore, the cat might not want to use the litter box.
A complete blockage preventing your cat from peeing can be life-threatening. If your cat can’t pee, please seek out veterinarian care as soon as possible.
If your vet determines that your cat isn’t drinking enough, you may want to add cat water fountains to your home. You can see my favorite fountain here.
Also, make sure water bowls are refilled with fresh water every day.
If your cat does not have medical issues, Cat Attract Litter can help retrain them to use the litter box.
Cats can also become constipated and not be able to poop. Your cat may cry when trying to go, as the condition can be painful for them.
The cat may try to go wherever they can, even if it’s not near the litter box.
If the cat continues to be unable to pass poop, please take your vet as soon as possible.
Peeing on clothes or the bed
I recommended taking your cat to the vet to make sure it’s not sick if the cat is peeing on the bed, on clothes, or on pillows.
If the vet medically clears your cat, I don’t have much in the way of suggestions as I haven’t had this issue with my cats.
For dirty clothes left on the floor, putting them in a laundry basket or hamper that your cat doesn’t have access to may stop the problem.
If the problem is stress-related, Feliway might help.
Examples from my cats
Our first medical problem with a cat was soon after we took in Buster. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of changing litter brands suddenly (meaning I didn’t do a gradual change over).
Buster started peeing on the basement floor, not near a litter box at all. The vet diagnosed him with crystals. After that, we started feeding the cats more wet food and added water fountains. He’s also had issues with stress as we added more indoor cats to the family.
Buster has been our biggest litter box offender. And he will be used in more examples below!
Several years ago, when we returned from a short vacation, we noticed that Kilala was peeing small amounts in all the litter boxes.
I would follow her as she went from box to box, as we had boxes in the basement and on the first floor.
We took her to the vet within and a day or so. I don’t recall the exact diagnosis, but the vet thinks the cause was that she didn’t drink enough while we were not home. At this point, she was starting to decline from having a thyroid disease for a couple of years.
Charlotte gets constipated sometimes. The first time it happened was very scary. She kept straining to poop and screamed when she could not defecate.
I was so scared for her and didn’t know what to do. We had an appointment with the vet the next day. Eventually, she passed a large chunk.
The vet examined a fecal sample and determined that she had lots of cat hair in her poo. She doesn’t vomit up hairballs often, so it seems that it comes out the other end.
To combat the problem, she was given a prescription of lactulose to use as needed. And we give her Catlax occasionally and brush her regularly.
Update: Charlotte’s problems were really caused by a fractured pelvic bone that healed in the wrong position. You can see the x-rays and more of that story here.
Lina lived to be almost 18 years old. She only had a significant litter box problem during her final weeks of living. She went through a period of trying to use every litter box (like her sister Kilala did once).
And then she had diarrhea under my husband’s desk once. After that, she peed in the cat carrier when I took her to the vet to get checked out, which she had never done before. And her last day, she peed all over herself (and I learned later that day that her body was shutting down).
If you have more than one cat, one cat may be ambushing another cat.
We’ve had this problem a few times as we added more cats to the family. And it’s taken Charlotte a long time to get along with other cats (we should have introduced her more slowly to the others when we adopted her).
Adding a litter box or litter boxes in other areas of the home might help. According to Jackson Galaxy, litter boxes define territory. So, having litter boxes in more than one area of the house can give the cats more space to do their business.
Also, if you are using covered boxes, the cover could prevent the cat from seeing another cat coming. As a result, they may feel insecure and might go outside the box.
And places the boxes in a room with more than one exit can help too. Having multiple escape routes can help to reduce ambushing.
We have litter boxes in our foyer, which does not have air conditioning. So, in the hotter months, we close the door to the foyer, and the cats need to go through a cat door.
With less room to enter the foyer, this increases the chance of an ambush. But, most of the time, it works out okay. And we do have boxes in the basement as well.
More About Litter Box Location
If you are not having problems with ambushing, you should still consider the location of the litter boxes.
When possible, place the litter boxes in a quiet, low-traffic area. The cats are more likely to use the litter boxes in they are not going to be interrupted while in the litter box.
If you have multiple cats, you may need to have litter boxes in more than one spot in your house (see ambushing section above).
Also, it’s best if you can avoid placing the litter box on the carpet, as cleaning up messes on the carpet is probably more challenging than any other flooring surface, as urine can soak through the carpet and into the padding.
If placing the box on the carpet is the only option, you can try putting a mat underneath the box. A covered litter box would help reduce misses. But I’m not too fond of covered boxes as they seem like a pain to scoop, to keep clean, and your cat may prefer uncovered.
Now, if you have a smaller house like me, you might not be able to do the best possible ideal location for the litter boxes. Just do the best that you can.
Most of our litter boxes are in our foyer, which is attached to the garage. As a result, I have walked in on cats doing their business. Sometimes, the cats will dart out of the box, which doesn’t make for a great experience for them.
Also, food and water bowls should not be too close to the litter box.
Missing the litter box
I’ve had a lot of experience with litter box misses. Buster prefers clean litter and doesn’t like to share a box, which is an issue since we have multiple cats.
Those of you that rejoice when it’s poo and not pee outside the litter box know what I’m talking about! Poop is quicker and easier to clean up (as long as it’s solid).
Some common litter box problems can be corrected by changing the size of the box, the number of litter boxes, and scooping the litter box more often.
Too Dirty or Too Full
Are you letting the litter box get too dirty? Are there stains on the boxes that are starting to stink?
Remember that cats can smell 14 better times than humans, so if you think the box smells, your cat probably does too, and it might be avoiding it.
If your cat isn’t covering their eliminations right away, there isn’t much you can do about that smell. However, if their poo is super stinky, you may want to take in a fecal sample to the vet for analysis or discuss diet changes with your vet.
When we first brought in Buster from outside, his poo was very stinky. We switched over to clumping cat litter then and which helped some as he did cover it. The issue was likely caused by whatever he found to eat outside.
Other than that, you can scoop the uncovered poo, or maybe you have another cat that likes to be the litter box police and cover up other cat’s waste.
Cleaning the Litter Box
When I clean our litter boxes, all litter is removed and replaced with fresh, new litter.
I rinse the box out with water and scrub it until all stains are removed. The stains could be from the cat’s elimination or from litter clods that stuck to the bottom of the box. Using the scrubby side of a Scotch-Brite sponge works well on plastic litter boxes to remove stains.
I don’t like using bleach or strong smelling soap, as the cat may be able to smell the cleaning product and decide the box isn’t for them anymore!
Your Scooping Habits
Also, are you scooping the litter boxes often enough? Ideally, the box should be scooped after every use. I realize that isn’t always practical.
I’ve seen some disgusting boxes where a box for just one cat wasn’t scooped for weeks at a time! It was gross to look and I felt sad for the cat as he was not receiving proper care. Amazingly, he kept right on using the very full box (eventually he was rehomed.)
If your cat’s box gets too full, they may stop using it in protest. You can scoop more often or try adding more litter boxes.
But, what if you hate scooping the litter box?
There are self-cleaning litter box options. However, I haven’t used any of them myself, as I’ve been scooping litter for so many years it is a habit. And I feel that it is easier for me to notice when a cat has problems when I see their waste every day.
Options for scooping less or never
A long-time reader of my newsletter readers loves the Omega Paw Roll and Fill litter box. Although I haven’t tried it because it’s a covered box, and rolling a litter box around seems like too much extra work compared to scooping since I would need more than one box.
The Litter-Robot is automated. Some cat owners love this, and you can read their reviews on Amazon or Chewy. It’s expensive, but it solves the scooping problem.
My understanding is, you just need to empty the catch container when it’s full. There is a learning curve to train your cats to use a Litter-Robot, and you may still need some regular cat boxes.
There is also the PetSafe Scoopfree litter box which costs less than the Litter-Robot. It has over 19,000 reviews on Amazon. While the reviews are mixed, there are many people who have cats that use it and like the system.
Note: Automatic systems may require specific types of litter, litter bags, or other accessories.
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Cleaning up messes
If you are not thoroughly cleaning where the cat went outside of the litter box, the cat may be drawn to the spot repeatedly.
Using something like Nature’s Miracle that is designed for pet messes will work best. It’s my go-to when my cats miss the litter boxes on the tile floor.
I like using My Cat Peed on the carpet, as I think it helps with urine that may have soaked through to the padding.
Litter Boxes and Cat Litter
There are many, many options for litter boxes. Choosing the correct box could help your cat stop going outside the litterbox.
Cats may prefer a not-covered box, but plenty of cats use covered boxes without any issues! There are also litter boxes hidden in cabinets and other furniture pieces available. However, keeping them clean if your cat misses could become stinky and a huge hassle.
If you have covered litter boxes, and your cats are going outside the litter box, you could try taking the cover off to see if that makes a difference with their behavior.
Litter Box Size
Is your litter box too small?
We definitely have a litter box that is too small. When Buster wasn’t using the litter box at all (when he was sick), a very small box worked to retrain him. He was the only one that would use the small box.
It’s not an ideal size for a large cat, and sometimes he misses the litter even though he thinks he is in the box. The last time I tried removing the box and replacing it with a new larger box, Buster did all of his business on the floor. So, I just plan for having an occasional miss to clean up.
The issue with the small box is that sometimes the cat can be in the box, but their back end isn’t in the box, so we end up with the mess on the floor. The cat isn’t trying to go on the floor intentionally. A larger litter box may help (unless your cat is super picky like my Buster).
Are the sides of the litter boxes high enough?
The box may be wide and long, but the cat can go over the edge of the litter box without high sides.
Cats that don’t squat are much more likely to go over the side. The cat may also be in a hurry if they feel they are about to be ambushed and not take the time to squat.
Non-Traditional Litter Boxes
You can also be creative with what you are using for a litter box. It doesn’t have to be a traditional litter box.
I’ve heard of people using small kids pools, oil change pans, and storage containers with an entrance cut into one side.
Your cats may appreciate a larger container for the litter.
How many litter boxes?
Also, have you determined how many litter boxes you really need? Even if you have only one cat, one litter box may not be enough.
A few litter boxes might be better for your cats. But if you can’t scoop consistently, having more litter boxes for the cats to use might help them to go in a litter box always.
Also, you will need more boxes if you determine that you want to try adding boxes in more locations (as described above).
Don’t change their cat litter too quickly
If your cat starts missing the litter boxes after changing the type of litter or to a different brand, you may have made the change too quickly.
Or your cat may hate the new litter, and you’ll need to switch back.
Floppycats has a great guide on switching cat litter.
Is there enough cat litter in the box? There should be enough litter so that the cat can comfortably bury the waste.
Also, is there too much litter in the box? If the litter is filled too high, this will make it much easier for the cat to be in the box and go over the edge of the box.
Your cat doesn’t need scented litter.
Scented litters are marketed for humans because humans tend to like pleasant scents.
However, the scented litter could be deterring your cat. Just because you like the scent doesn’t mean the cat does!
Scented litter is on my list of items I will not have in my house with the indoor cats. I dislike it that much.
If your cat’s poop is very stinky, work with a vet to determine the root cause. It could be what the cat is eating.
Cat Litter Outside of the Box
Cats tracking litter outside of the box is a common problem.
Sometimes cats will fling litter out of the box when covering their waste. Sometimes they track the litter out on their paws.
Here are a few suggestions that may help:
- A higher-sided box can help reduce the amount of litter that the cat pushes out of the box.
- A heavier clay clumping litter may also be less likely to track. I like BoxieCat. I don’t like Tidy Cats lightweight (one reason is because of how much it tracked).
- For our first two cats, we used non-clumping clay litter, and it didn’t seem to track much (from what I can remember, it’s been over ten years since we switched to clumping).
- There are litter box mats that can help with keeping the litter near the litter box. I haven’t used any myself, but many of them have great reviews.
I don’t have experience with types of litter other than clay. There are many alternatives, but I can’t comment on how much they track.
I use a broom or vacuum to sweep up litter outside of the box at my house when needed.
Solving litter box problems will lead to a happier life for you and your cats!
Common litter box problems are caused by a sick cat, wrong box size, the box is too dirty, the litter was changed, and not scooping enough.
When your cat starts going outside of the litter box, the first step is to take your cat to the vet to make sure they are not sick. Once medical problems are ruled out, you can use this guide to help you find a solution.
Also, sometimes you just have to keep trying random things until you find a solution. One time switching the location of two boxes was enough to get Buster to poop in the litter box again.
2 thoughts on “Cat Litter Box Problem Guide”
Thanking you for these excellent suggestions, Heidi! Fortunately, we don’t have any problems, but for those who do, these tips can help keep cats with their families, so they are very important!
Thanks! I am glad your cats are not having any litter box drama at this time!