14 suggestions about domestic cats not using the litter box

Introduction: The problem of domestic cats not using the litter box is the source of millions of articles. It is euphemistically called “inappropriate elimination”. It is an inaccurate description because from the cat’s standpoint it is entirely appropriate because there’s a reason behind their behaviour and this article sets out 14 different possible reasons. Many cat caregivers would describe inappropriate elimination as ‘bad cat behavior’. It is not. It is instinctive behavior which is based on good reasons. Often the underlying reasons are human made. This is more about bad human behavior.

It's not inappropriate elimination because for me it is appropriate to avoid the litter tray.

It’s not inappropriate elimination because for me it is appropriate to avoid the litter tray. Infographic by MikeB

  1. Urinary tract infections and other health problems can often be behind not going to the toilet in the litter box and therefore the first step is to take a cat who is behaving like this to a veterinary specialist for their advice.
  2. Stress is another factor. In fact, it is described as a significant factor which can be caused by other cats in a multi-cat home for example. It might be caused by what I would call a ‘sterile environment’ i.e. an environment which is not enriched enough to prevent a cat becoming bored. Boredom equates to stress.
  3. An alternative to the point immediately above is an environment which is too stimulating by which I mean one that is frightening due to recurring changes and unwanted happenings such as lots of noise and strangers coming in and out for example. Cats prefer a settled predictable environment.
  4. A problem that can be fixed easily is to change the litter material which is called the “substrate”. Some cats might find the substrate provided for them as unpleasant and they might want to eliminate somewhere else.
  5. Sometimes cats associate pain with urinating which would be caused by a disease of the urinary tract and therefore they associate the litter box with pain which leads to the obvious conclusion: to avoid the litter box. This takes me back to the original point at number 1.
  6. There are two subcategories of inappropriate elimination: soiling outside the litter box and avoiding the litter box because it’s not clean enough or of the wrong quality. The latter can be described as “litter box fussiness”.
  7. The cat’s personality can have an impact. Cats that are more fearful are associated with both of the subcategories in the point 6 above.
  8. Cats that had been sterilised under four months of age have the fewest problems regarding inappropriate elimination.
  9. Cats that have not been sterilised and are male have the highest number of problems concerning inappropriate elimination.
  10. Older cats and cat living in families with children are generally more likely to be involved in litter box fussiness.
  11. In terms of cat breeds, Bengal cats, on average, have the most problems regarding inappropriate elimination. Siberian cats have the least problems.
  12. Cats with a good level of sociability towards other cats had fewer problems than cats that were less sociable.
  13. The above point is relevant because cats that are sociable are more able to live together with other cats which means that they are less likely to be stressed and we know that stress can have a negative impact upon toileting (point 2 above).
  14. Declawed cats are 7 times more likely to pee outside the box because the substrate hurts their damaged paws (see article below).

I am thankful to Professor Hannes Lohi and Doctoral Researcher Salla Mikkola from the University of Helsinki and the Folkhälsan Research Center for this list. It was not provided in a list. I have converted their study into a list because people like facts listed in bullet fashion for ease and speed of reading. The study is called: “Cats’ non-fearful and sociable personality as well as a clean litterbox appear to decrease litterbox issues”. The link is: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/03/230320102012.htm

Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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