6 Common Litter Box Issues — and How to Fix Them

Uh-oh — is your household experiencing litter box issues? Whether you’re looking for answers about kitten litter boxes, cats guarding and bullying each other over litter boxes, or litter box avoidance, check out these easy solutions for the occasional potty mishap.

A calico cat getting out of the litter box.
A calico cat getting out of the litter box. Photography © npdesignde | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

Litter boxes can quickly become the bane of a cat parent’s existence when kitty decides to misuse them — or not use them at all. These are some of the most common litter box issues I have come across, both in my practice and with my own cats.

1. Avoidance

A kitten looking surprised or confused in the litter box.
Most of the reasons that cats avoid litter boxes actually have easy solutions. Photography © Astakhova | Getty Images.

Litter box avoidance is the most common issue cat owners experience, and it’s the No. 1 reason people surrender their cats to shelters. There are many simple reasons why cats duck the box, and most of them have easy solutions (see below).

2. Guarding or litter box bullying

Alpha cats will often demonstrate their dominance by preventing another cat from either entering or exiting the litter box. Our cat BooBoo is our alpha boy, and more than once I have seen him trap our cat Hope as she’s using the box. Litter box bullying can quickly lead to litter box avoidance, so provide boxes in different areas of your home and make sure each area has an easy escape path for bullied cats.

3. Playing

Most common with kittens, I have seen littermates follow each other into the box and turn potty time into playtime. Sometimes this continues into adulthood, often between siblings. But some adult cats play in the litter, too. One of my client’s cats takes her favorite stuffed animal with her everywhere she goes, including into the litter box. My own Abby will often climb into a freshly cleaned and filled litter box and roll around with glee in the unspoiled litter. I don’t pretend to understand that one!

4. Standing on the rim

My cat Sunny has this habit of standing on the rim of the litter box on his hind legs while leaning against the adjacent wall with his upper body when he uses the litter box. It’s the oddest way I have ever seen a cat use the box. Sometimes it’s successful. Other times he makes a huge mess, either because he misses the box and goes on the floor or because he loses his balance and tips the box over, dumping its entire contents. I’m often left with a mess to clean up, but I can’t help but laugh every time I see Sunny getting himself “into position.”

5. Refusal to bury

Cats are known for being ultraclean and for burying their leavings, but there are times when a cat decides not to bury. Sometimes this happens when a cat doesn’t like the texture and feel of a certain type of litter on his paws; declawed cats will often experience this. Sometimes a cat won’t bury as another way to mark his territory and let everyone know he’s been there. When my BooBoo does this, my Tinkerbelle goes right in there and covers it up for him!

6. Digging and over-burying

Some cats are so intent on burying that they excavate the box for a long time before they are satisfied. My Tinkerbelle buries everything under a pile of litter so high that it actually looks like a pyramid. It takes her a good five minutes to accomplish this. I once took care of a cat named Wilbur who used to pee on the floor, then he would get into the litter box and scoop all the litter out onto the floor to bury what he did. (He actually needed a larger litter box, and the problem was solved!)

If your beloved kitty is exhibiting odd behaviors in the litter box and medical causes have been ruled out, consult with a cat behaviorist to help find a solution to the bad box behavior. Or, depending on your cat’s particular misbehavior, you might want to just sit back and enjoy the show!

Litter Box Avoidance Checklist

A tabby kitten looking ashamed outside of the litter box.
Is your kitty avoiding the litter box? Most of the litter box avoidance issues are easily solved. Photography © ysbrandcosijn | Getty Images.

If your new kitten or cat is avoiding the litter box, go through this checklist to solve the problem!

  1. Medical issues. When your cat isn’t using the litter box, the first thing to do is take him to the veterinarian. Medical issues, like urinary tract disorders, are a common reason for a cat to stop using his box.
  2. Litter box size. Ideally, your cat’s box should be large enough for him to comfortably turn around inside, without his body hanging over the side. You’ll need a smaller litter box for kittens and then bigger when they outgrow it. You’ll also need one with smaller sides for kittens and senior cats so they can get easily in and out of it.
  3. Litter box or litter type. Just like us, cats have their own bathroom preferences. Some like a covered litter box and others prefer one that’s not. There are many types of litter boxes out there, so get a variety of them and find out which one your cat prefers. The same goes for litter. Cats with sensitive paws are quite particular about the type of litter they use. With all the choices, get several that work for you and your cat, and offer them in different litter boxes to see which one your cat prefers.
  4. Box placement. Place the box in a low-traffic area of your home but not somewhere difficult for your cat to reach. If you have a kitten or senior cat, put a box on every level of your home, so he can get to a box quickly and easily.
  5. Stress. Household changes can quickly cause stress in your cat, and peeing outside of the litter box is commonly the first sign. Adding new people or pets to the household is a common cat stressor.
  6. Not enough boxes — or not clean enough. If there aren’t enough boxes in a multi-cat household, or if they are not scooped often enough, your cats will find another, cleaner place to go. And I guarantee it won’t be someplace you’ll like. Scoop your litter boxes often, at least twice a day, and offer the same number of boxes as you have cats and one extra.

Tell us: What litter box issues have you experienced? What solutions worked for you?

This article was originally published in 2017.

Thumbnail: Photography © npdesignde | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

About the author

Rita Reimers’ Cat Behavior Coaching has helped many cat owners better understand their feline friends. Visit RitaReimers.com to read her cat behavior blog or book a cat behavior coaching session. Rita is also CEO/owner of JustForCatsPetSitting.com. Connect with her on Facebook and on Twitter at @TheCatAnalyst.

Editor’s note: This article appeared in Kittens, a special issue from Catster magazine. Look for Kittens on a newsstand near you! 

Read more about cat litter box issues on Catster.com:

31 thoughts on “6 Common Litter Box Issues — and How to Fix Them”

  1. There are many reasons for avoiding using the litter box and the cat doesn't want to sit on the litter box. In these reasons the most common reason is that the cat won't like the litter box because it's dirty and smelly. So if your cat behave like that you have to notice that what's the reason.

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  3. My Roscoe started avoiding his box and would pee on the pp mat beside the box instead. Then accidentally I learned I had overfilled the box with litter and it was too deep for him. He was sinking into it to deep. Problem solved!!

  4. I have a great litter tray that does not smell. It is an Australian product called Oz Litter Tray, and it is a two-tier tray to use with the special pellets which come from plantation waste material. The litter pellets go into the top tray which is like a sieve. Once the pellets are wet, they break down and a couple of shakes send the fine particles into the bottom tray. This tray can safely be emptied into the garden or compost. Wash the bottom tray, put in a handful of pellets and a few more in the top tray if needed and you are good to go. It also comes with a scoop which hangs on the side of the tray to scoop out the solids. Highly recommend.

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  6. My cat puts front feet on floor when using litter box and manages to tip the box scattering litter everywhere. I added more litter to add more weight so bob would not tip. Ha! It did not work – any ideas? Thanks

  7. What a stupid page. Why list 6 common issues and a resolve for but 1? I have an issue that is listed yet the page offers nothing.

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  9. Our 18-yr cat used to use her litter box just fine. About 6 months ago she started peeing outside the box. Our vet said the entrance may be too high (she’s apparently become a little arthritic though she can still jump up to our bed).

    We purchased a low-entry litter box to help. She walks all the way inside and poops in it fine. However, when she pees she walks in but pees just outside the box. We put rubber mats and newspapers down to catch the pee but our apt stinks now! Anyone have any suggestions?

    1. I have an older cat with arthritis who does the same thing. Sometimes he gets all the way in the box to pee, but most of the time he doesn’t and pees just outside the it. We bought puppy training pads and put one partly under the box with the rest outside where the cat walks to get in the box. That’s completely solved the smell and mess problem. Hope this helps.

      1. I’m having the same issue with my cat he pees outside the box and poops outside the box. He just started this I’m confused on what the problem is. He always used his box. We have 3 boxes in our house. I clean them 2 times a day

      2. I’m going to try this. I have an older cat who is peeing outside the box and it is the worst odor ever! I have health issues and it is getting too much for me–a major clean-up every day.

  10. my 5 month cat is doing his business outside the litter box. He had a health condition but we dealt with it. Now that we are done with the pills, the Cortisone and the special food, he still goes out of his litter box.. I tried changing his box, placing it elsewhere, got a second one even though my apartment is pretty small, placed it as far away from his food bowls as possible, I’ve changed 9 litter brands, tried clumping clay, non-clumping, scented and unscented litters, even tried silica gel crystals but nothing seems to be working.. He is the only cat and I love him to death but I’m at the end of the line here, I’m tired of coming back home after a long day and have to clean up poo from my bed and urine from my wooden-floor.. Searching the whole apartment just to make sure I haven’t missed a spot. I really need some help and his veterinarian doesn’t know what else to do either.. I obviously won’t give up till this is resolved but I’m still frustrated.

    1. My cat is a senior, and I am having a terrible time with her litter box issues. When I was growing up, we always had cats. They didn’t make litter boxes or kitty litter then. Our cats went to the door and meowed to go out. When they wanted in, they came to the window and meowed. In all the many cats we had, I do not recall even one accident in the house. My sister had a cat show up at her house and she said NO litter boxes in my house. They put in a little pet door which can be locked at night. Her cat comes and goes as he pleases and no accidents in her new home. My cat is old, so not feasible–plus we live in a rural area.

  11. This is a fantastic article. Luckily, my cat has never had any problems using her litter box (although when she was a kitten she used to jump in her freshly changed litter box and try to nap, now she just lays in it for a few minutes…). However, a friend’s mother had huge issues with her two cats which resulted the house constantly smelling of cat urine. The cause(s) of the problem came down to exactly what this article discusses: lack of cleaning, too few boxes, and inappropriate litter. It is easy to underestimate how critical providing the correct litter box conditions are for your cat(s) and the stress it can cause them. I hope more people are able to find their way to this information!

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  13. Our little feral rescue would go outside the box, right next to it. Took a bit to figure out that she would not go in with the lid on, only when the lid was off. I thought it was litter box not clean enough but after some thought I noticed that she ran to the litter box to use it while I was cleaning it out. Took away the lid and problem solved. I think she was stressed because she could not see her total surroundings, being a feral she probably needed to see the whole area to makes sure no one could sneak up on her.

    1. You are probably right! Actually, I have found most cats prefer a litter box without a lid and have heard the same reason, that they like to be able to see their total surroundings. You were very smart to be so observant and resolve the issue!

  14. I have a small living area and 5 cats. I love it this way, but this makes it impossible to use the rule of thumb, a litter box for each cat plus one. If I did this, I would have wall to wall litter boxes. And I would have to clean 6 litter boxes twice a day that 12 cleanings. Not to many people have time for that. I use a heavy-duty plastic pan that was once used by a pizza restaurant to have several piles of raw dough ready for use. It is large, sturdy, and has low sides. All five cats have no problem sharing it. I also have 2 other litter boxes when there are kittens or rescues in the house.

  15. One of our cats pees in the litter box, but usually poops elsewhere. Have never been able to figure this out, and we just deal with it. Better than the other way around.

    1. Curious if your cat has hard stools and is constipated at times? Sometimes if that is the case a cat will struggle relieving itself and walk around trying to poop. Usually offering fresh water SEVERAL times a day, or offering a meal using wet food helps to hydrate the cat and ease the constipation issues. We actually had a dog that had constipation issues because the only time he would drink water was when it was fresh and cold, once I realized this and gave him fresh water several times a day it resolved his constipation issues. I have continued this also with my cats….they are good water drinkers and haven’t had any issues, thank goodness!

      Just a thought…..

  16. After I got a second cat, I noticed my original kitty was having issues with not wanting to pee in her litter box. We thought she was having trouble with crystals in her urine, but it turned out that the box was too close to the room where the new kitty was living, and she could smell him. I put a new box in another location at the other end of the house and straight away she started using it and never had any problems after that!

  17. I recently took in a baby kitten with 3 legs. She gets around very well and is a joy but she will not use litter box. She walks right thru it. She has tinkled in every spot in my sons room, except the litter box. What can I do?

    1. Hi Lisa,

      These articles on litter boxes *and 3-legged kitties* might provide some insight. We also suggest mentioning this to the vet:

  18. Annie in Florida

    I could not agree more. If your cat(s) are not using the box, get them to a good vet asap. This can be a sign of real trouble. It can also be a sign that you are not keeping their litter box clean enough – or you dont have enough boxes for the number of cats, or you arent using a type of litter your cats like. I only have one cat, but early on, he had litter box troubles and it turned out he was having partial urinary blockages. My vet treated him for this 4 times, and said he felt it was largely due to stress. I didnt believe him then but I do now! I immediately got TWO litter boxes and found a litter Mr Bear liked (sandy textured stuff as he was used to going outdoors-). NO more litter box accidents!!! Gone! And now he is one relaxed, contented and extremely lovable little guy. Healthy as a darn horse.

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