Cats are extremely fastidious creatures and their regular toileting routine is easily upset by perceived changes. So it's no surprise that the most common behavioural problems in cats are related to the litter tray. Fortunately, this can usually be remedied fairly easily.
If your cat is refusing to use the litter tray, go to the vet before you do anything else. A thorough physical examination, including urine, stool, and blood tests, as well as other investigations as needed, will show if the cause is a medical one. Once given the all clear you can also discuss with your vets why your cat has developed these problems and you may need to consult a veterinary behaviourist.
Where to place litter trays
Assuming there are no medical concerns, the next step is to provide enough litter boxes. You need to have the same number of boxes as you do cats, plus one more for good measure. These can be large, unlined, flat boxes, or, if your cat prefers more privacy, use a hooded one. Some cats feel more vulnerable in a covered tray as they cannot see all the way around the tray when they use it. When given the choice, cats prefer to relieve themselves in clean and open areas. They also may be wary of noises, dampness, an inconvenient litter-box location or unpleasant smells. So place the boxes in any suitable areas that your cat frequents - the basement may just be too 'inconvenient'. Keep the trays well away from feeding and water bowls. Make sure the tray is in a quiet area free of ‘traffic’ (human or other pets), and easily accessible yet secluded (careful placement of houseplants etc). If you have more than one cat issues may arise if one cat ‘guards’ the litter trays, so providing trays in more than one location may help.
Litter trays need to be cleaned once a day. If you clean them too often, your cat won't know what to use the tray for as you'll have removed the scent. If you change them too rarely, on the other hand, your cat will be put off and go elsewhere. Faeces should be removed immediately as a cat will not want to use a very smelly tray.
If your cat is soiling outside the tray make sure he/she goes for a check-up at the vets to rule out a medical problem and discuss behavioural issues. Cats will often try to use the same inappropriate site again so try and block off with furniture and clean thoroughly. Wash the area with a 10% solution of biological washing powder and rinse with cold water and allow to dry. Then spray with surgical spirit (ask your vet or a pharmacy) and allow to dry again. Always check the colour-fastness of the area first. Veterinary surgeons can also supply odour removal products.
Potential litter-tray problems
If your cat stops using the litter tray seek veterinary advice but there are a few points to consider:
- Have you changed the litter? - cats may not like a sudden change of litter so stick to familiar types/textures or mix together and make a slow transition.
- Are the trays clean enough? - clean the tray daily
- Is there enough litter? - cats need to dig and bury so make sure there is a reasonable layer in the tray
- Avoid scented or deodorised litter or liners as they may put a cat off
- Think about tray position - is it too exposed so the cat could feel threatened by other pets, children or other noises (washing machine, dish washer)? Chose a quiet secluded location
- Is there another reason your cat may be stressed? - a new addition to the house? A new cat outside being a bully, or worse coming into the house? Chat to your vet about solutions and consider a microchip or magnetic cat flap to prevent intruders. Consultation with a veterinary behaviourist may be needed and ask your vet about synthetic pheromones to reduce stress
- Is your cat elderly? They may have osteoarthritis and have trouble getting into the tray, so cut out one side of a plastic tray and provide a deeper layer of soft litter