By Monica Weymouth
Mysterious creatures by nature, cats are especially cryptic when it comes to using their litter boxes—or, as is sometimes the case, not using their litter boxes. Have a kitty with some questionable bathroom habits? We asked the experts for the feline logic behind some of the most common bad behaviors. Fortunately, most are correctable with a little training—human training, that is.
Now, it’s true that cats can be unpredictable, and their mischievous side is well-documented. But if your cat suddenly starts going outside the box, don’t waste time trying to play bathroom detective—it could point to an underlying medical issue that needs immediate attention.
“Any cat who suddenly starts missing the litter box—especially if they've always been good about it before—needs to immediately go to the veterinarian,” says Trish McMillan Loehr, a certified cat behavior consultant.
An uncharacteristic accident on the carpet could be a sign of a painful problem with the urinary tract, she cautions. Your cat might associate the discomfort with the litter box itself and be testing out other surfaces for relief.
If you’ve cleaned enough litter, you’ve probably cleaned cat pee and poop off the side of the box. Your cat isn’t being passive-aggressive—the box is probably just too small for him to go comfortably and accurately.
“Most commercial litter boxes aren't big enough for the average cat to pose, deposit, and cover,” says Amy Shojai, author and certified animal behavior consultant. “Oftentimes, the cat may try to be faithful to the potty, but hangs out over the side or over-shoots the aim.”
Upgrade to an extra-large pan, or take a cue from Shojai and make your own spacious litter boxes out of plastic storage bins.
It may sound too petty to be true, but in multi-cat homes, some cats will guard their favorite litter box. Or, in some cases, all of their favorite boxes. To ensure that everyone has a place to go when nature calls, skip the lecture on sharing and add more strategically placed litter boxes.
“Follow the one-plus-one rule for litter boxes, which is one box per cat, plus one,” says Shojai. “Position the multiple boxes in different rooms, so that a stingy cat can't guard all of them at once.”
Think twice before you pick up that buy-one-get-one litter advertised in the circular. Although many cats are flexible, some will boycott a new and unwelcome change in their pans.
So, how do you select an acceptable litter from the start? Each cat is different, but there are some guidelines to keep in mind. “In general, cats prefer fine-grained, hard-clumping, unscented clay litter,” says Loehr.
If changing the litter, do so gradually. Mix in the new litter in little by little until your cat is comfortable with the change.
There’s nothing more frustrating than finding a mess next to the litter box—so close, yet so far. Well, your cat is frustrated, too. He knows where to go, and he wants to, but something is stopping him.
“This is definitely a message you need to take seriously,” says Loehr. “The cat is clearly trying to use the box, but there's something about the litter box itself that is repelling him.”
It could be the type of litter, but another common culprit is the type of box. In general, says Loehr, most cats prefer large, rectangular, open-top boxes over domed or covered boxes. Filthy boxes are also a big turn-off for fastidious felines.
Somehow, cats are always ready to go the second you finish cleaning the box. In fact, they may linger around and watch you scoop to assure that no time is wasted before it’s dirty again.
As much as it seems like it, your cat isn’t playing mind games with you—he’s simply reclaiming what’s his. “When you give cats a box that's fresh and clean, you've covered up the scent of their territory,” explains Bridget Lehet, a certified feline training and behavior specialist. “They’re reestablishing their territory by marking it.”
If, as the experts suggest, you have two litter boxes for your cat, you may have noticed something: he uses one for urine, and another for defecation.
Your cat isn’t the only one. “This is actually quite common,” says Lehet. “It's the main reason why it’s always recommended that you have at least two litter boxes for one cat. Many cats prefer to poop in one and pee in the other—it's instinctual to not leave all their waste in the same place.”
Some cats are born tidy, meticulously burying their business immediately after using the litter box. Others, to the dismay of their humans, prefer to leave everything out in the open.
One potential cause of a cat not covering his poop is lazy parenting—if momma cat didn’t cover up, her kittens may not learn the behavior, says Lehet. Or, your cat might be making a statement.
“A dominant cat will not cover—the smell lets the other cats know ‘I'm here!’" says Lehet.
For a potential way to solve this problem, try gradually switching litters—it’s possible that your cat doesn’t like the scent or texture and is spending as little time as possible digging around.