Cat getting into litter box
If your cat is hit or miss with her litterbox, chances are you have a bit to do with it. After all, your cat really isn’t asking for anything more any one of us would. All that’s required for most cats is that the litterbox be clean, quiet and free of surprises.

It sounds simple, but each year many owners send their cats to shelters citing litterbox issues as their chief behavioral complaint. Before you even consider such a drastic step, you need to try to work things out. It’s often extremely easy.

The first step is to make sure your cat’s naughty behavior is not caused by a medical condition, and that means you should schedule a trip to your veterinarian for a complete exam. Urinary-tract infections and diseases such as diabetes make consistent litterbox use impossible for even the most well-intentioned cat. You can’t hope to get your cat using the box again until health issues have been resolved.

If your cat checks out fine, you need to make sure that everything about the box is to your cat’s liking. The second rule of solving a litterbox problem? If the cat isn’t happy, no one will be happy. Here’s what to look for:

Cleanliness Is Catliness

Cats are fastidious animals, and if the litterbox is dirty, they look elsewhere. Clean the box frequently — twice a day, at least — and make sure it’s scrubbed clean and aired out on a weekly basis. Having an additional litterbox is recommended for multicat households, since many cats simply will not share.

Think Inside the Box

While owner preferences are important, people often make choices that conflict with the cat’s sense of what works. A covered box may seem more pleasing to you, but your cat may think it’s rank or scary inside. Likewise, scented litters may make you think the box smells better, but your cat may disagree — not only is the box dirty, he reasons, but it also has a "clean" odor he can’t abide. Start with the basics: A large box with unscented clumping-style litter.

Location, Location, Location

Your cat’s box should be away from his food and water in a place that projects security and gives him easy access. Consider a location from a cat’s point of view: Choose a quiet spot where he can see what’s coming at him. A cat doesn’t want any surprises while he’s in the box.

Make the area where your cat has had mistakes less attractive by cleaning it thoroughly with a pet-odor neutralizer (available from pet-supply retailers). Discourage re-use by covering the area with foil, plastic sheeting or plastic carpet runners with the points up.

When All Else Fails …

If changing things doesn’t clear up the problem in a healthy cat, you may need to retrain. This can be accomplished by keeping your pet in a small area, such as a guest bathroom, for a couple of weeks.

Make sure the area you choose has no options other than the litterbox — no carpet, no pile of dirty laundry. Block off the bathtub or keep an inch of water in it to discourage its use. After your cat is reliably using the litterbox, let him slowly expand his territory again. As long as you keep up your end of the bargain — keeping the litterbox clean and safe — chances are very good that the new, positive behaviors will become permanent.

Call for Backup

If you still can’t seem to get the problem resolved, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist. These veterinarians are skilled in behavioral problem-solving and are able to prescribe medications that may make the difference while you’re retraining.

This article was written by a Veterinarian.