4 Huge Mistakes People Make when trying to fix litter box problems, and what to do about it.

If you have or love cats, chances are you or someone you know is going a bit crazy trying to deal with “Inappropriate Elimination”  AKA “litter box problems”. (cue the music from Psycho)

Inappropriate Elimination in cats is the technical term for pooping or peeing outside of the litter box, but if you’ve ever had to deal with it you know that “inappropriate” is a bit of an understatement. 

“Inappropriate Elimination” includes cats that pee outside the litter box, cats that poop outside the litter box, and cats that spray (and yes, both male and female cats can spray!). 

And it happens to be the number one cat problem I see in my behavior practice.

In fact, it is such a prevalent, yet solvable problem that I developed a quick and easy online course for those DIY folks that want to cut to the chase and get started with a solution (if you are in the “I’ve tried everything” crowd it is quite helpful!)

Litter Box Problems? Been there / Done that!

I would say that a good majority of the people I work with come to me with a similar story. And “been there, done that” is the common theme. So you just may see some of yourself in the following  highlights. 

Here is a rundown of the most common reasons I’ve seen people fail to make progress with their cat pee or poop issues, and what you can do instead.

Mistake #1 … Using the “shot gun” approach

By the time most people resort to contacting a behavior expert such as myself, they tell me they have “tried everything!”  They have added a litter box, they have moved the litter box, they have tried several different brands of litter, they have tried pheromone plug-ins, etc.

But they usually have tried each of these things in a haphazard fashion and for varying lengths of time before changing one of the variables. They have also gone about things with an “all or nothing” approach. 

Very rarely is there a single change (like changing litter brands) that brings about instant results. Stop looking for a sudden change and start looking for trends of behavior.

Solution…

Follow a systematic plan complete with timelines and record keeping to tackle all of the factors (see the trigger stacking section below) that feed into keeping this problem alive. Be sure to cover: 

  • vet exam for physical issues (pain, UTI, metabolic disease, etc)
  • litter / substrate 
  • box design 
  • box location
  • other cats (household or interlopers)
  • stress / anxiety  (see the trigger stacking section below)

(This can be a lot of work, so if you want an easy peasy plan of action, my Cat Pee course comes with checklists and downloadable tools to make it a no-brainer!)

Mistake #2 … Making CHANGES instead of giving CHOICES

You may have made some helpful changes in your efforts to get your cat using the litter box reliably, but if all you have done is offer change, there is no way to accurately gauge what your cat’s actual preferences are. 

  • You may have tried several different types of cat litter, but whatever brand you were offering was the only choice available. 
  • You may have changed the location of the box, but it was the only location available.
  • You may have replaced your old box with a new box or a new design… but again, it was the only design available.

Solution …

Finding your cat’s preferences are a key part of ultimate success. To me, discovering those preferences is a great big game that I call “Ask The Cat!”  

This is where we systematically determine what your cat’s ideal litter box looks like. 

We figuratively ask each cat “If you could design the bathroom of your dreams… what would it look like?”  

And then we use that information to give them what they want in a litter box… in a way that is also acceptable to YOU! 

To do this, start with ONE VARIABLE and find out what the cat prefers by using basic A/B testing.

Usually we are either dealing with an aversion to the existing litter substrate, location, or design of the box and/or a preference to a different substrate, location, or design.

By giving the cat 2, 3, or more litter boxes side by side, we can ask the cat to choose his or her favorite.

Look for clues…

There are usually clues that will tell us where to start.

Here’s a BIG one: If the cat does not routinely cover their litter box deposits, it often indicates a substrate aversion. If this is the case for your cat, offering 3 different types of material in 3 side by side boxes may be where to start.

Is your cat peeing or pooping right next to the box? Or choosing enclosed spaces to have “accidents”? 

If so, it may be the box size or design that is the issue, so offering the current box next to an even bigger box OR offering a covered box next to an uncovered box side by side might be the place to start.

*I always include one over-sized box choice! Most cats would like to turn around inside the box without brushing up against the sides. (Think of how you would feel in a port-a-potty if it was so small that you brushed up against the inside walls! Ick!)

It can be hard to keep track of all your cat’s answers, so if you want a “done for you” option – my online course, the “My Cat is Peeing in the House and I’ve Tried Everything!” course comes with step by step instructions for the Ask The Cat! game, complete with tracking sheets so you can plainly see emerging patterns as we sift through the answers your cat gives you!

Mistake #3 … ONLY paying attention to the litter box.

Since your cat is peeing or pooping in the house it is only natural that you would focus on the litter box! But in reality, that is only one piece to this puzzle. 

Most litter box problems have several factors that combine to cause the inappropriate behavior. And to make matters worse, those “factors” can change from day to day.

These “factors” can vary widely for each individual cat. Some of the more common ones are:

  • medical / physical issues 
  • other cats (either household cats or neighborhood interlopers)
  • anxiety issues
  • changes – new baby? new house? new pet?
  • noises in the neighborhood (think of sporadic things, like garbage pick up day or construction)
  • household stress (stress for the humans = stress for the cats)

Although the labels may vary, the most common denominator here is STRESS!   

Solution …

This combination of “factors” is called Trigger Stacking. This occurs when multiple SMALL stressors combine, or stack up, to push the cat over threshold. 

“Over threshold” is where simmering problems suddenly become observable – in your case that manifests in the form of pee or poop outside the litter box.

The important thing to understand here is that no single factor BY ITSELF is enough to push the cat over threshold.

But as you can see from the above chart, all it takes is ONE TOO MANY triggers and boom!  Pee or poop turns up where we do not want it.

Since stress seems to be a big component that comes in different packages, you can actually do a lot to improve your cat’s litter box habits by focusing on various stress relieving techniques such as:

  • having all daily meal calories come from foraging games or food puzzle toys (there are many you can make yourself.)
  • teaching your cat “stupid pet tricks” just for the fun and mental gymnastics
  • providing lots and lots of vertical space by using shelves, cabinet tops, or cat trees
  • minimizing passive aggressive opportunities from other household cats
  • eliminating the sight of interloper cats through windows
  • learning cat massage or Tellington TTouch

Mistake #4 … Not STARTING with a vet check.

My clients seem to fall into 3 categories with this:

  • Clients that have not yet taken their cat to the vet because they think the problem is obviously behavioral.
  • Clients that have had this problem for years and while they DID go to the vet back when things first started, they have not been in recently.
  • Clients that have been to the vet recently, and have spent a bucket on diagnostics, and will rip my head off if I mention the vet one more time.

Solution…

Bottom line, if you remember the Trigger Stacking chart above, if a medical or physical issue is even a tiny part of the problem, your chances of full resolution of the litter box problem diminish if it is not resolved.

So, if you have not yet been to the vet, START there!

If you have not been to the vet recently, go back to make sure the previous clean bill of health still holds. Just because YOU went to the doctor 6 months ago does not mean YOUR health hasn’t changed it the interim, and the same is true for your cat.

And if you have recently been to the vet and spent a bucket on diagnostics… you did the right thing and I promise I will not mention the vet again… or at least until next year. (But, on a bright note, you now have a fantastic benchmark of results to compare back to as your cat ages – nicely done!)

Easiest Solution EVER…

If this all seems like a lot to keep track of… never fear! That is precisely WHY I created the online course “My Cat is Peeing in the House and I’ve Tried Everything!”. 

It’s not rocket science…. but it IS very easy to go off in the weeds, get off course and throw your hands up because such-and-such didn’t work. This course makes it EASY with step by step instructions, handouts, and tools.

AND, there are course options available with weekly group Zoom calls where you can ask me questions and get targeted help – bonus!

The “My Cat is Peeing in the House and I’ve Tried Everything!” Course

Hopefully this article has broadened your perspective as to all the things that go into a successful solution to this vexing problem, and how to avoid the common pitfalls. 

Be sure and leave a comment in the comments section below!

If you would like more individualized help, I’d be happy to work with you…

Want to work with Suzi on a pet problem?

Suzi conducts successful video / remote consultations world-wide for a broad range of behavioral issues.

To get more information or to schedule an appointment start by filling out the Behavior Questionnaire

For pricing and options visit the Behavior Services page. 

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