Cats are famous for being clean animals. Not only do they regularly groom their coat, they also bury their feces and urine so that predators and prey won't be able to smell their presence. This instinct is part of what makes cats such appealing pets in an urban environment. We can keep our kitties safely indoors with us without having to walk them outside to do their business. All that's needed is a suitable litterbox, the right kind of litter and a good cleaning regime, right?
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Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Sometimes, even with the best litterbox setup and maintenance routine, a cat still avoids the box. When that happens, the pungent smell of feline urine and feces can drive a frustrated owner to the brink of surrendering a cat to the shelter.
So, why is Kitty not using the box?
Cats don't eliminate outside the box just for spite. They don't do that because they are jealous of a new cat or baby or mad at you for leaving them home alone all day long. Cats don't punish their humans by avoiding the litterbox. If Kitty isn't using the box, something must be wrong. More often than not, that "something" could be your cat's health.
Your cat's health and the litterbox
"Litter box mishaps are often the first sign of illness and a clue that your cat needs to see a vet." says award-winning author and cat behavior expert Dusty Rainbolt, . "Cats can suffer from many different health issues that affect litter box loyalty. Illnesses that increase the need to pee or poop more frequently include: diabetes, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease and lower urinary tract disease."
Just like loss of appetite, litterbox avoidance is an indication that something is wrong. With older cats, health-related mobility issues can make it more difficult for Kitty to reach the box in time, or at all. "Arthritis can make climbing stairs or jumping into a tall-sided box a painful experience," Dusty says. "Eight and nine-year-old cats often suffer from arthritis, even though they appear to get around the house with little effort."
Constipation can also make the cat avoid the box. Such a cat might associate the pain of defecation with the box and try to stay away, often making constipation even worse. Diarrhea, on the other hand, can sometimes prevent a sick cat from getting to the box in time. A real problem, especially when kittens are concerned, but one that's easy enough to spot (no pun intended!)
When urinating hurts too much
When cats avoid the litterbox, urinary tract inflammation is often the culprit. An inflammation of the bladder or the urinary tract causes a burning sensation during urination. This can be caused by an infection - viral or bacterial - or by an imbalance in the urine's acidity which leads to the formation of crystals. Either way, the area is inflamed, and passing urine becomes painful. Sensible creatures that they are, cats try to avoid the pain by changing the location of where they pee.
FLUTD is the acronym that's often used to describe these inflammations. It stands for Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disorder and covers every kind of urinary tract inflammation. Whether the cause is an infection from a pathogen or crystals in the urine, if the urethra or bladder becomes inflamed the cat will experience some amount of discomfort and even pain when passing urine.
Read more - Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease Flutd
Once pain appears, the box becomes associated with it. Why return to the place where you hurt? And since a cat has "to go" somewhere, he or she will find alternatives such as the rug, the bathroom floor or maybe even the owner's bed.
Sometimes the cat will try to keep using the box through the discomfort, avoiding it only when the pain increases. An observant owner may be able to notice the signs of discomfort as they emerge. They can include any change in litterbox-associated behavior, such as loud meowing, hanging around the box for too long, or returning to it too often. Our member @Greypaws shared such an experience -
I knew when I adopted our about 3 yr old male cat from the shelter that he had FLUTD. The first days I had him, he rarely went to the litter box and if he did, he'd walk in & out several times over a period of about 10-15 minutes, then he'd go pee. The following week he peed next to the box a couple of times.
Look for these telltale signs of a possible problem even when Kitty is still using the box properly. If your cat seems to hang around the litterbox for longer than usual, meows or otherwise shows any signs of discomfort, you should suspect a medical problem.
Important note: Male cats have a narrow urethra that can sometimes become blocked. Even partial blockage will cause the cat to strain when urinating, often screaming in pain. When that happens, get your cat to a veterinarian right away. A blocked urinary tract is an extremely painful and life-threatening emergency that requires immediate veterinary care to save the cat's life.
How to get your cat to use the litterbox again?
Clearly, you won't be able to do that until you stop the pain. This means diagnosing and treating the medical problem. In other words, it's time to see your veterinarian.
Your vet will examine the cat to find the root of the problem. He or she may sedate the cat to take a clean urine sample, feel the bladder and possibly perform an ultrasound to look for cysts in the bladder. Treatment will depend on the cause. If there's a bacterial infection, a course of antibiotics is often warranted. Crystals on the other hand usually require a change of diet. In either case, a course of pain management medication may be needed as well. Work with your vet to get Kitty the best possible medical care and resolve the issue at hand.
A change in nutrition helped @Greypaws get their cat to use the litterbox again. Switching to the appropriate cat food formula helped get the urine to a balanced acidity level, eliminating the crystals and the subsequent pain. The cat returned to using the box and, several months later, no further "accidents" have been reported.
When getting treatment isn't enough
Often, solving the medical problem will get the cat to use the box again. With some cats, you may need to work harder to disassociate the box from the memory of the pain. Consider adding another box, possibly one that looks a little bit different from the old one. When choosing the new box, think about what makes a box appealing to a cat. Make sure it's large enough, has the right type of litter and is positioned in a quiet area in your home.
Read more - The Litterbox What Every Cat Owner Needs To Know
FIC: The Elusive Pandora Syndrome
So, you've taken your cat to the vet who could find no sign of either a bacterial infection or crystals in the urine? No sign of any other illness either. Now what? With a clean bill of health, should we assume this is a behavioral problem?
There is one type of urinary tract inflammation that can be difficult to detect and even more difficult to treat. It's sometimes called the Pandora Syndrome, but officially it's known as Feline Idiopathic Cystitis, or FIC for short. There is no bacterial infection and no crystals are present, yet the inner layer of the cat's urinary bladder is inflamed. The culprits are stress hormones. Susceptible cats have more receptors for stress hormones within their bladder. If the cat experiences a high amount of stress, the bladder becomes inflamed and urination becomes painful.
Your veterinarian will suspect FIC if the cat's urine sample has microscopic blood in it, without any bacteria or crystals. A history of peeing outside the box at times of stress is another indication of possible FIC. Unfortunately, there is no actual cure for FIC. However, if your cat is diagnosed with this condition, you can learn how to lower his or her stress levels and hopefully lower the chance of a flare-up.
So is it a health or a behavior problem?
Litterbox avoidance can be either. Or both. One thing is certain: Until you've ruled out an underlying medical problem, you'll have a hard time helping Kitty use the box again. In fact, most cat behaviorists will not take on a client for litterbox problems until the cat receives a clean bill of health from the veterinarian. And it has to be recent, too.
"Just because your kitty was healthy when he saw the vet two weeks ago doesn’t mean he’s healthy today," Dusty Rainbolt says. "If you catch a virus, you might have felt great yesterday, but now you feel like something the cat dragged in. Because most diseases are more cheaply and successfully treated in the early stages, it’s important to take your cat to the vet as soon as you notice his 'mistakes.'"
Don't blame Kitty for not using the litterbox. Something is wrong, either physically or with the way the box is set up. First things first, talk to your vet and make sure Kitty is 100% healthy. Only then can you move on to the next step and look into what else could be wrong.
If you're dealing with a litterbox avoidance problem, see our complete article - How To Solve Litterbox Problems In Cats The Ultimate Guide
Still struggling? Post about your cat's litterbox problems in our cat behavior forum where our experienced members can offer their support and advice.