How to Get to the Bottom of Litter Box Issues

Your kitty may not be able to speak but if something is troubling her, she’ll find a way to tell you.

This could mean unexpected “gifts” outside the litter box, which can be a difficult problem for any pet owner to tackle.

We asked the experts at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for their best tips for resolving litter box issues when they arise.

Ask yourself, is there a health problem? If your cat has suddenly decided to stop using a little box, there could be more serious issues going on. “The first thing to consider is that there may be a medical issue that’s causing your cat to associate the box with pain and, thus, avoid using it,” says MSPCA spokesman Rob Halpin. “So a trip to the vet for an exam is the first step if kitty has thought … outside the box.”  Halpin adds that only a vet can rule out common causes of litter box issues — such as a urinary tract infection — and prescribe antibiotics to combat infection.

Some of the most common causes of litter box issues are:

Kitty dislikes his or her litter. “Some cats have an aversion to some kinds of litter,” Halpin says. “If your cat shakes his paws excessively to remove the litter when he comes out of the box—or if he opts not to bury his waste or balances on the side of the box to go—then you can assume your cat just doesn’t gel with the litter you’re using.”  Most cats prefer a fine grade litter that has the consistency of sand with zero scent, Halpin adds.

The bathroom is just too dirty. It’s not rocket science, most kitties require a clean commode, er, litter box. “Many cats refuse to use a box that is too dirty or smells very bad,” Halpin says. “The best way to prevent issues with the box is to scoop at least once per day – or once in the morning and once at night if you can manage it – as this keeps the box as fresh as possible so that the scent itself is not an aversion to proper kitty bathroom behavior.”

Your litter box lacks space. Some cats really do need a larger box.  “If your cat is bumping into the sides or lid of his box—or has trouble turning around when inside—then the box is too small,” Halpin says. “And over time this may encourage him to find another place to go.”  Not sure what size to get? “Make sure your cat can easily fit his whole body in the box, says Halpin, and has room to turn around.

Kitty associates the litter box with fear. Sometimes a frightening or startling experience associated with the box can trigger an aversion, Halpin explains.  “We hear often of cats who suddenly stop using the box after a heavy object fell off a shelf next to the box just as they were going,” he says. “To avoid this, make sure the box is in a clutter free area and, if something like this does happen (and triggers an aversion to the box) you can temporarily move the box to a wide open area where kitty has a full view of his surroundings and gradually—over the course of several days—inch the box back toward its original location.”

For more pet owner resources, visit the MSPCA’s website. 


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Amy Jamieson

A former senior editor for, Amy launched People Pets for People magazine in 2008. Now she writes about pets, lifestyle and more from her bucolic saltbox in Collinsville, Connecticut, usually with a cat in her lap and a dog at her feet.

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