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Ask the Vet: Early intervention key to solving cat problems

Dr. Amanda Bruce

This spring’s wet weather has caused a tiny stream to develop in my basement — right in front of my cat’s litter box.

I immediately moved the litter box to an area of the house that would be less stressful for my cat. I didn’t want her to start choosing a spot other than her box to go potty.

If your cat starts avoiding the litter box, for whatever reason, you can take steps to fix the problem. Here’s what you need to understand.

Cats that urinate outside the litter box should initially have a urine sample evaluated by a veterinarian. While cats rarely get bladder infections, they are prone to the formation of crystals in their urine that can cause inflammation and painful urination. Diabetes and kidney disease also can cause changes in litter box habits.

While we commonly think of unneutered male cats as urinating outside of the box, females that haven’t been spayed will mark outside of the box as well.

But if you have a spayed or neutered cat with a urine sample that does not show signs of underlying disease, the next step is to take a close look at the cat’s environment to determine whether any underlying stressors may be contributing to a sudden litter box aversion.

First, have there been any sudden and dramatic changes to the household, such as a new person, a new pet or construction work? In these cases, it is often necessary to temporarily confine the cat to a small room of the house with its food, water and litter box to encourage good potty habits.

Next, think about the route the cat has to take to the litter box, as well as to other resources such as food and water. If the cat has to pass a dominant pet in the house that may guard these resources, this may deter the more passive animal. Also, if loud noises kick in right next to the litter box — think the spin cycle of the washing machine — they may scare the cat away from the box.

Finally, some cats will refuse a dirty litter box and are very particular to certain types and scents of litter. It’s ideal to scoop the litter box daily and to stick to a type of litter that your cat likes.

A general rule of thumb for multiple-cat households is to have one more box than there are cats in the house. Using this rule, a three-cat household should have four litter boxes. This does not mean multiple boxes in a line in the same spot in the house. It means multiple sites throughout the house with a box.

For cats that choose to potty outside the box on items such as shoes, dirty laundry or in gym bags, avoidance becomes a key to stopping this habit. Keeping these items in a closet behind a closed door may be what it takes to stop this habit.

Ordinary household cleaners used on urine stains often will accentuate the urine smell and draw the cat back to the site. That’s why it’s important to use an enzymatic cleaner that will neutralize urine odors.

A cat urinating outside of the litter box is probably the single most frustrating problem that cat owners face. Addressing the problem early is the key to successful treatment.

Dr. Amanda Bruce of Superior is owner of PetCare of Duluth, 2701 W. Superior St., Suite 102, Duluth. You can reach her or ask questions for future columns at or 218-461-4400. For more information about this subject go to