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  • Writer's pictureZia Mowbray

What to do if your cat is not using the litter tray

Normally, cats have no problem using a litter tray. They are taught from a young age by their mothers, so shelter volunteers or new owners don’t need to teach their cats. However, there are several reasons why a cat may stop using their cat litter, including not being happy with the placement or number of trays, changes in the environment inside or outside the house and/or undiagnosed medical conditions. 

Keep in mind that cats that are not neutered also may be more likely to urinate inappropriately. 

If your cat has stopped using the litter tray, you may have to investigate several possibilities before you understand what your cat is trying to tell you. Patience is necessary for this process, and remember that cats aren’t eliminating outside of their litter tray to try and annoy you. Since most cases of litter tray avoidance are stress related, punishment only increases the stress and makes it harder to identify the real cause, worsening the situation at hand for the both of you.

So read on to find out what you should actually do if your cat is not using the litter tray.

Health check​

The first step is to take your cat to the vet for a thorough physical exam. Several medical conditions may result in a cat not using the litter tray, so you will want to rule these out before looking at other causes.

The litter tray​

Once you've ruled out possible medical conditions as the cause, turn your attention to the litter tray itself as this is most often the culprit. There are a few reasons why a cat may not use their litter because of the tray specifically, including:

  • There are not enough litter trays

  • The cat does not like the type of litter

  • The cat does not like the type of litter tray

  • The cat does not like where the tray is located

  • The litter tray is not clean

Number of litter trays: There should be one litter box for each cat in the house plus one extra.  Some cats (as we’ve seen at our shelter) prefer to urinate in one box and defecate in another, so sometimes adding more than one box per cat helps.

The cat does not like the type of litter: If you've changed brands or types of litter recently that may be the problem. Just like we have preferences when it comes to different products, cats can have specific preferences about litter. Cats also have sensitive noses, so they may not be fond of chemical or perfume scents in certain litters - getting odourless litter can stop these aversions.

Studies have shown that the most appealing type of litter to most cats is unscented clumping litter that’s the consistency of fine sand. If you identify the type of litter to be the problem, you can try purchasing a few different types and offer them side by side to let your cat choose -  try clay, shredded paper, sawdust, wood pellets, crystals and even sand or dirt.

If you need to change to another type of litter, try doing it gradually by adding a little more of the new product each time you change the litter until your cat is used to the new litter.​ This reduces the stress of your cat from an abrupt change!

The cat does not like the type of litter tray: Most commercial litter trays are too small to comfortably accommodate adult cats, hence why your cat may not be using the litter. Try a large low sided plastic storage box and see if more room makes a difference.

Other cats, especially senior or overweight cats, may have difficulty getting into litter trays with high walls, so try buying a lower wall litter for ease of access.

Some people have covered litter tray to reduce odour, but this may stress cats as it feels too confining. If you have one of these litter trays, try removing the top and seeing if that makes a difference.

One final tray-type to look out for isn’t actually the tray itself, but the plastic liners we might be using. They’re convenient for us but some cats don’t like them, so try opting for newspaper underneath the litter for easier cleaning.

The cat does not like where the tray is located: Cats are creatures of habit so don't move the litter tray suddenly. If you have to move a tray from an established location do it gradually to give the cat time to adjust.

The best place to put a litter tray is in quiet places that offer a little privacy and are away from your cat's food and water stations. Avoid high traffic zones or noisy areas like laundry rooms. You may want to block off the litter tray area with baby gates or pet doors to prevent unwanted intrusions by humans or other pets as well.

Tight spaces are also problematic for cats, so try to avoid placing litter trays in the corner of a closet or between the toilet and bathtub. This is because your cat may feel that there's no escape route from such a vulnerable position. Instead, try placing trays in several different locations. The cat will use the tray in the spot where they feel safest.

The litter tray is not clean: Because cats are very fastidious, you will want to keep the litter trays as clean as possible to encourage their use.

Some cats will only use a tray once before it has to be cleaned so it is important to scoop regularly, particularly in a house with multiple cats.

Also aim to scrub out the trays with mild low fragrance soap at least once a week.  Don't use bleach or ammonia-based products as this contributes to the chemical smell we mentioned earlier. If you need to remove lingering odour, soak the trays in diluted vinegar water.

​​What to do if your cat prefers to eliminate elsewhere

If your cat simply prefers to “go” in other areas of the house there are things you can do to steer him back to preferring the litter tray.

  • Set up one or more litter trays that are very appealing and easy to access.

  • Clean the offended area thoroughly using an enzyme cleaner to help eliminate the odour so your cat isn't tempted to use the same spot again.

  • Block off the area or place something there that serves as a deterrent. Cats usually won't eliminate where there's food so try placing a bowl containing a few favourite treats on the floor.

  • Make the inappropriate areas as undesirable as possible by covering them with aluminium foil or plastic wrap. Plastic carpet runners placed "teeth" side up are good for covering large areas. Be sure you cover the area generously. If the spot is a metre wide, cover it with something at least 3 metres. After a few weeks of success, start removing the covering in areas that the cat is not bothering, working slowly toward the trouble spots.

  • Another option to consider is to install an outdoor catio, a place where your cat may prefer to eliminate. Make sure that you still take litter box preferences, location and cleaning into consideration.

Happy kitty litter training! 


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