Animal Chronicles: Litter box trouble? Know the causes and solutions

A cat looking

Luna Lovegood is available for adoption at the Animal Protective Foundation in Glenville. (courtesy APF)

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Cats are generally very tidy and, because of their instinctive behavior of burying their waste so that predators can’t track them, they usually learn to use a litter box quickly. However, I often see cat guardians who are frustrated by their cat’s eliminating outside their litter boxes or who are exhibiting an unusual change in their urination habits.

Cats may avoid their litter box if they are suffering from a medical condition, such as kidney disease or failure, neurological disease, diabetes or hyperthyroid disease. These conditions can make urinating or defecating painful for your cat, causing them to associate the litter box with discomfort.

Your cat may be experiencing a urinary tract infection if they are straining to urinate, going to the litter box more often than usual, producing small amount of urine or urinating outside their litter box, especially in places that are more comfortable or easier to access (such as a bath mat). If you notice any of these changes in your cat’s litter box habits it’s important to take them to your vet immediately.

Also, bladder or kidney stones can affect a cat’s urine production. Stones can cause blockages in the urinary tract, which can prevent urine from flowing normally. As a result, your cat may produce less urine or stop producing urine altogether, which can lead to serious health problems. Like a UTI, your cat may strain to urinate and produce only small amounts of urine, or they may urinate more frequently than usual. They may also exhibit signs of pain or discomfort during urination, such as crying out or meowing.

Though relatively rare, a bladder tumor can cause many of these symptoms as well. If your cat is exhibiting any of these symptoms it’s important to take them to your veterinarian for a checkup. If a tumor is suspected, your vet may perform tests such as a urinalysis or imaging tests (such as an ultrasound or X-ray) to diagnose the condition. In some cases a biopsy may be needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Finally, cats can experience stress or anxiety for a variety of reasons, such as changes in their routine or environment, the addition of a new pet or family member, or even the presence of outdoor cats. This stress can lead to litter box aversion. The good news is there are many supplements, medications and diets we can use to manage these issues.

When buying and introducing a litter box to your cat there are several important considerations to keep in mind to ensure that your cat is comfortable and healthy, such as choosing a litter box that is appropriate for your cat’s size, age and mobility. Also, be sure to place the box in a quiet, low-traffic area, and scoop out any waste twice each day and completely replace the litter at least once a week.

It is important to consult with your veterinarian if your cat suddenly stops using their litter box or if their elimination habits change, as these could indicate a medical issue.

Dr. Theresa Tommell is on the board of directors at the Animal Protective Foundation and practices at Just Cats Veterinary Clinic in Guilderland. APF contributes Animal Chronicles articles and welcomes animal-related questions and stories about the people and animals in our community. Visit, follow us on social media @AnimalProtectiveFoundation or email [email protected].

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