Porta-Potty or Powder Room? 6 Signs Your Cat Hates His Litterbox

Published by VCA Inc. in Behavior, Behavior Blog, Cats, Litterbox, Pets October 18, 2016

Behavior Blog

By: Dr. Karen Sueda, DVM, DACVB


Most people are very particular about where they go #1 and #2, and the same may be said of our feline friends.  However, unlike people who can search for a cleaner restroom or decide to “hold it” until they go home, cats, particularly if they do not have access to the outdoors, only have one choice where to go…the litterbox – take it or leave it!  If your cat thinks the litterbox is just so-so, he may tolerate it…but only up to a point.  One small thing – forgetting to clean it when you’ve had a busy day, the doorbell ringing right as your cat is about to use it – may be enough to tip the scales from “okay” to “no way”.  It’s no wonder why house-soiling is the most common behavioral problem reported for cats.

The happier your cat is with his litterbox, the less likely he’ll be to look elsewhere when nature calls.  But how do you know if he is happy or unhappy with the litterbox you’ve provided?  The following are Six Signs Your Cat Hate His Litterbox.

  1. You find urine or feces OUTSIDE the litterbox. If your cat doesn’t like the litterbox, he’ll find another place to go. Some cats choose to eliminate within a few feet of the box.  They want to use the litterbox, but think it’s just too gross to get inside.  Other cats seek out a better bathroom experience altogether.  Most often they eliminate on soft, absorbent surfaces such as bathmats, upholstered furniture, carpets, bedding, clothing, etc.
  1. He runs out of the litterbox. The motto of these cats is “dump and dash”.  They urinate or defecate then immediately leave to minimize the amount of time they are in the litterbox.
  1. He perches on the edge of the litterbox. “Ugh!  You want me to touch that?!” These cats find the texture, odor or cleanliness of the litter objectionable and avoid touching it as much as possible.  Cats may squat in the box but place their front paws on the edge or outside the box.  Some cats will even do a high-wire act, balancing precariously along the edge of the box so none of their paws touch the litter.
  1. He doesn’t cover his urine or feces. Cats instinctively want to bury their urine or feces.  Failure to conform to their natural desires may be a sign that something is amiss.
  1. He scratches the floor outside the box or the sides of the box. Cat parents may notice their cats pawing at the floor outside the litterbox or scratching at the sides of the box and think their cats are “tidying up” the litter that falls outside the box.  In many cases this is a sign that the cat wants to go through the motions of burying without actually having to touch the litter. (see video below)
  1. He shakes his paws after getting out of the litterbox. Shaking their paws may be a way to rid themselves of litter (soiled or not) on their sensitive paws.

Sleepy pensive little tabby kitten sitting outside litterbox

What to Do if You See These Signs

If you see any of the above signs, take your cat to the vet for an examination.  We must be absolutely certain that he doesn’t have a medical problem such as a urinary tract infection, bladder or kidney stones or pain when he urinates.  Physical issues such as arthritis or back pain may make it difficult or uncomfortable to enter or dig in the litterbox.  It is essential that we eliminate medical causes before we attribute these signs to litterbox hatred alone.

Once your cat has a clean bill of health, we’re ready to tackle the litterbox.

Keep the litterbox clean.  Felines are fastidious creatures by nature.  Although some cats will tolerate, but not love a soiled box, others will refuse to use a box they think is dirty (even if you think it’s clean).  If you are using clumping litter, scoop the litterbox at least twice a day.  Every other week, empty the entire litterbox , clean the box with hot water and a mild, unscented dish detergent, dry it completely and refill the litterbox with clean, unused litter.  If you use non-clumping litter, the box should be entirely emptied and cleaned every time your cat eliminates.

Conduct a litterbox preference test. Offer two litterboxes, side-by-side, differing in only one characteristic.  For example, you may offer two litterboxes, each containing different litters.  Or one covered litterbox and one uncovered box. Or two different litter depths (e.g. 1” of litter versus 3” of litter).  Over the next two weeks, keep track of which box your cat uses (“litterbox A” or “litterbox B”).  He’ll let you know which litterbox he thinks is Number One, with his #1s and #2s.

The happier your cat is with his litterbox the less likely he will be to “think outside the box” in the future!  If you still suspect that your cat wants a break with his bathroom, consult with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist for more tips and tools!

Video:  Tyler scratches outside the box and shakes his paws, signs that he does not like the litter box provided to him.  In this case, the litter box is too small, there is not enough litter and the type of litter is not one that he prefers.

About Dr. Sueda

After graduating from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Karen Sueda completed an internship at the Veterinary Medical and Surgical Group in Ventura, California. She subsequently returned to UC Davis to complete a Clinical Animal Behavior Residency and became a board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist in 2007. In addition to seeing veterinary behavior cases throughout Southern California, Dr. Sueda has served as President and member of the Executive Board of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. Dr. Sueda’s special interests include feline behavior, canine anxiety disorders and the human-animal bond. She credits her cat Tyler for teaching her more about feline behavior and training than any textbook.