9 Litter Box Mistakes to Avoid

By Lorie Huston, DVM. Reviewed by Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP on Apr. 28, 2023
person's hand scooping litter box while gray cat watches

There are several reasons why cats may pee or poop outside their litter box, some of which may indicate a medical or behavioral condition.

If your cat suddenly starts urinating or defecating outside of the litter box, talk with your veterinarian. A number of health issues can result in litter box issues, and these conditions should be ruled out before assuming that the problem is behavioral in origin.

If you’ve ruled out medical issues, one common problem is when a cat finds something about their litter box that is not up to their standards. If you want to keep your cat using the litter box regularly, make sure you know some common mistakes that cat parents make with their cat’s litter box.

1. Not using the right litter.

The litter used in the box is a critical choice, and many cats are quite particular about the type of litter they prefer.

Ideally, a litter without a strong scent is best, as cats are very sensitive to odors. Litters scented with perfumes and other strong fragrances are produced more for the benefit of our noses rather than those of our cats. Strong fragrances and/or perfumes associated with the box may be enough to drive your cat away from it.

In addition, some cats have preferences as to the texture of the litter. You may need to experiment with different litters to find one that your cat likes. Studies have shown that cats in general prefer unscented, dust-free, clumping litter.

2. Not keeping the litter box clean enough.

Cats are fastidious creatures. Most object to using a soiled litter box, and some cats will refuse altogether. Scoop the box at least once daily, sometimes more often, depending on your cats’ habits and how many cats and boxes you have.

At least once a week, throw out all the litter, scrub the box completely with an effective but non-perfumed cleaner, and fill it with fresh litter. Since most litter boxes are plastic, they trap odors, so replace them once a year.

3. Placing the litter box in the wrong location.

Your cat needs privacy when using the litter box, just as you would like when you use the bathroom.

Place your cat’s box in a quiet location, away from noisy washing machines or dryers that could frighten your cat while in the box.

The box should also be in a location where your cat can use it undisturbed. This may mean placing the litter box in an area where young children and dogs are not allowed.

The box should also be easy for your cat to access. They should not have to travel long distances to get to the box. For instance, if you live in a three-story home, there should be at least one box on every floor.

4. Not using the right litter box.

Your cat will appreciate a litter box big enough to stand in and do their business in without being crowded or hanging over the edge. Make sure the boxes are one and a half times the length of your cat.

If given the choice, the majority of cats prefer a large box to a smaller one. The height of the litter box walls can be a concern for senior cats with mobility issues such as arthritis or other painful conditions. These cats will likely appreciate a box with lower sides to make entering and exiting easier.

Litter box hoods are also problematic for many cats. Though hoods do offer privacy, they also create a dark environment with only one way in or out. Because cats are not only hunters but also prey animals, they need to be able to see what’s happening around them.

In addition, hoods tend to trap odors and dust that your cat might find objectionable. A hooded litter box may simply be an invitation for your cat to find a different and perhaps undesirable place to pee and poop.

5. Not having enough litter boxes.

In a multi-cat household, provide enough litter boxes to satisfy the needs of all cats.

Many cats do not like to share a litter box. Some cats even prefer to pee in one box and poop in another. In a home with more than one cat, offer at least one litter box for each cat, plus one extra.

You don’t want a situation where one cat is blocking the other cat’s access to the litter box, or where a cat is too scared or prefers not to use a box that another cat has used.

6. Not noticing more pee in the litter box.

Scooping litter pans can become a habit that we hardly even think about. However, it is important to pay attention to what’s inside the box. You want to take notice of the size, shape, and color of any contents in the litter pan—-both stool and urine.

In particular, if the clumps of urine are becoming larger/heaver and you need to scoop them out more often, it means your cat is peeing a lot more than usual. This can be cause for concern and a possible trip to the veterinary hospital.

7. Ignoring strange litter box behavior.

Is your kitty acting a little strange when it’s time to use the litter box?

Are you hearing crying from the litter box when you never used to? Is your cat repeatedly hopping in and out of the box with little to nothing produced? Or do they suddenly jump out of the box and race around the house as if something is chasing them?

All of these things can be indications of a health problem, so contact your veterinarian for a possible visit.

8. Making too much noise near the litter box.

As convenient as it is for us to put a litter pan in the laundry room, it isn’t so nice for our cats.  The sudden changes in sounds that can come from washers and dryers may be frightening, which may make your cat decide that going to the bathroom somewhere else is safer. 

The same goes for any other noisy place around the house—the garage, near the kids’ playroom, or even the kitchen. Self-cleaning litter boxes can also make noises that startle cats and make them decide not to use them. However, many of these devices have a timer that waits until the cat has left the box to release the cleaning arm, so it won’t startle them.

9. Putting it where the dog can get to it.

Having the litter box “self-clean” when your dog decides to empty it for you may seem like a good idea, but it really isn’t. This plan is bad both for your dog as well as your cat. Eating stool can pass diseases between animals, as well as make the dog suffer from gastrointestinal problems. Ingesting litter is also not good for your dog.

Also, having your dog pop their nose into the litter pan while your cat is trying to do their business is likely to be just enough to make your cat decide to move to another part of the house—someplace you didn’t want them going to the bathroom. Litter boxes should always be safely tucked away from the prying noses of pooches and fingers of toddlers.

Featured image: iStock.com/CasarsaGuru


Lorie Huston, DVM


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