Failing to use the litter box is a common behavior problem in cats. Fortunately, it can usually be resolved. However, to re-establish appropriate litter box habits, some cats need an intensive behavior modification program. If you’ve read our article on Litter Box Problems and tried all the recommendations to no avail, you and your cat may be ready for Litter Box Boot Camp—a program designed to re-train your cat to use his litter box. If you haven’t yet read our article on Litter Box Problems, please start there. Do not embark on Litter Box Boot Camp until you’ve tried the strategies in the article for at least three to four weeks.
Rule Out Other Problems First
Before you can solve any pet problem, you need to accurately identify the things that cause or contribute to it. Be sure to rule out the following physical and behavioral problems before you try our Litter Box Boot Camp program.
When tackling any litter box problem, taking your cat to his veterinarian should always be your first step. So if you haven’t done so already, schedule a vet visit to rule out physical problems. Even if your cat received a clean bill of health a few weeks or months ago, it’s important to have him examined again. It can sometimes be difficult to identify medical reasons for house soiling, and a new physical problem may have cropped up since your cat’s last visit to the clinic. Please see our article on Medical Causes of House Soiling in Cats for a detailed overview of medical problems that can cause or contribute to litter box issues.
If you’ve seen your cat back up and spray urine on vertical surfaces, you’re dealing with a scent marking problem, not a litter box problem. Please see our article on Urine Marking in Cats to learn about curbing this common cat behavior.
Litter Box Boot Camp
If you‘ve tried all of the suggestions in our article on Litter Box Problems and your cat still won’t use his litter box, a last resort is to temporarily confine him so that he has no option but to do so.
The Confinement Period
- First, choose a small room in your house where you can safely confine your cat, such as a bathroom or a small, furniture-free spare bedroom.
- Make sure there are no carpets, mats, beds or other surfaces that your cat may find attractive as a toilet.
- If you confine your cat to a bathroom and he has eliminated on smooth surfaces in the past, fill the sink or bathtub will a little water to discourage him from relieving himself in these spots. For his safety, there should be no more than an inch of water.
- Put your cat’s food, bedding and water at one end of the room and a litter box at the other end.
- Most cats prefer fine-grained, unscented, clumping clay litter, but if your cat grew up with a different type, he may like that best. If you’re unsure of his litter preferences, give him several choices. Buy a number of inexpensive litter boxes or shallow storage containers from the hardware store. Put a different kind of litter in each box, and place the boxes side by side. Note which kind of litter your cat prefers. (If your adult cat is making the transition from outdoor to indoor life, help him recognize the litter box as his toilet area by mixing some garden soil into the litter.)
- After you’ve discovered your cat’s preferred type of litter, you can also try different types of litter boxes. Most cats prefer large, shallow, uncovered boxes without a plastic lining. Some cats, however, need the privacy of a covered box or the pristine cleanliness of a box that automatically removes waste after each use.
- Some cats like urinating in one type of litter or litter box and defecating in another. For these cats, we recommend offering two side-by-side boxes at all times. When your cat has graduated from Boot Camp and you allow him more freedom in your house, you may find that he prefers to have these boxes in different areas.
- If your cat still doesn’t use his litter box when confined to a small room, you can use a large dog crate or commercially available cattery to house your cat during Litter Box Boot Camp. Place food, water and bedding at one end of the enclosure and one or more litter boxes at the other end.
- If your cat soils fabric, don’t provide a bed. Instead, you can offer a perching box or shelf, a pile of newspapers or a paper bag for him to crawl into. Puppy house training pads are another soft, non-fabric alternative to regular bedding.
- If your cat still fails to use his box, try covering the entire floor of his small confinement area with litter. He’ll have no choice but to use the litter when he needs to relieve himself. Keep in mind that you’ll still need to provide a sleeping area, such as a bed, a perch or a cozy bag.
Keep the box clean
It’s crucial to keep your cat’s litter box very clean while he’s confined to a small area. Cats have very sensitive noses, and you don’t want to teach your cat to avoid a dirty litter box. Scoop at least twice a day. Once a week, wash the box with water or a small amount of mild soap and then fill it with new litter.
Provide exercise and enrichment
Keep in mind that your cat needs plenty of socialization and exercise during the confinement period. Set aside time each day to visit your cat in his room or take him into a larger room so that he can run around and stretch his legs. Please see our articles on Cat Toys and Enriching Your Cat’s Life to learn how to keep your cat’s mind stimulated while he’s in Boot Camp.
Thoroughly clean trouble spots
During the confinement period, give your house a good cleaning. Use an enzymatic product made for cleaning pet waste to scrub every trace of odor from areas where your cat has eliminated in the past. Don’t replace soiled furniture or carpeting just yet—but plan on doing so in the future, as soon as you’re confident that your cat’s house soiling problem has been resolved.
Reintroduction to Your House
To firmly re-establish good litter box habits, your cat needs to stay in his confinement area for two to four weeks. Once he reliably uses the box, you can start to gradually give him more freedom in your house, one room at a time.
- Make sure your cat has access to a litter box in each room at first. Keep a litter box in his former confinement area as well so that he can return there to eliminate if he’d prefer.
- Find ways to discourage your cat from returning to his favorite spots to house soil. Effective deterrents include closed doors, foil, double-sided sticky tape, upside-down carpet runner, the ScatMat® and the SSSCAT® cat repellent device. Use these deterrents for at least a month after Boot Camp is over.
- If your cat starts having accidents again, he’ll need to lose some of his freedom or go back to Boot Camp.
You may find that you’re caught in a cycle of confining your cat and then gradually giving him freedom, only to have him start soiling outside of his litter box again and wind up back in confinement. If you’ve repeatedly tried Boot Camp for more than nine months, it’s time to acknowledge that this program is not going to work for your cat.
Should Your Cat Live Outdoors?
Statistically, outdoor cats are not as long-lived as indoor cats because cats who go outside encounter dangers like predators and exposure to disease. For this reason, the ASPCA does not encourage people to keep their cats outdoors. However, this option may be appropriate for cats who have a great deal of difficulty learning or re-learning litter box habits. If Boot Camp does not resolve your cat’s litter box problems and you’re contemplating euthanasia, consider making him an indoor/outdoor cat or an exclusively outdoor cat. Occasionally, allowing a cat regular access to the outdoors completely resolves a litter box problem because the cat chooses to eliminate outside. If you decide to try this option, consider confining your cat in a screened area or other outdoor enclosure to keep him safe. Another option is to find a responsible barn owner to adopt your cat. As long as they’re young and healthy enough to make the transition, many former housecats can lead happy lives as barn cats.
If All Else Fails, Get Help
Dealing with a chronic litter box problem can be challenging. If you’re frustrated, consult a veterinary behaviorist or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) for guidance. One of these professionals can come to your home, evaluate your cat’s behavior and walk you through a plan to resolve or manage his problem. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to learn how to find a behaviorist in your area.
- Do not keep your cat in a small area indefinitely. Confinement is not a long-term solution to litter box problems. The goal of Litter Box Boot Camp is to give your cat no other option but to eliminate in a litter box. The confinement period establishes this new habit so that your cat will continue to use the box as you slowly increase his freedom.
- Do not attempt to transition your housecat to outdoor life if he’s elderly, sick, handicapped, declawed or intact.
- Some cats develop chronic litter box problems if they’re forced to live with a large population of feline roommates. If you have many cats, especially if you live in a small studio, apartment or house, your house-soiling cat may need to live in a new home with fewer cats. Conflict between cats in a household can also cause or contribute to litter box problems. If your cats don’t get along, re-homing may be your best option.
- Do not relinquish your cat to a shelter without telling the staff that he has a chronic litter box problem. If he’s lucky enough to be adopted, your cat’s new family should know about the challenge they’re about to take on. Cats sometimes suffer neglect or abuse in a new home if they fail to use a litter box.
- For your own peace of mind, exhaust all other tactics before considering euthanasia. You'll feel better about making a euthanasia decision if you know you’ve done everything in your power to change your cat’s behavior. In some cases, euthanasia may be the most humane choice—especially if a cat is suffering from an untreatable medical condition that causes or contributes to his litter box problem. For guidance, speak with your cat’s veterinarian.