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How to Retrain Your Cat to Use the Litterbox (9 Easy Steps)

Nicole Cosgrove

Litterbox problems are among the most common—and frustrating—cat behavior issues for owners. It can be challenging when your cat eliminates outside of the box. The first step in retraining your cat to use the litterbox is to understand why your cat is going outside the box in the first place.

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Why Do Cats Stop Using the Litterbox?

Cat peed on sofa
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There are many reasons why a cat might stop using the litterbox. The most important things to rule out are any potential health problems like constipation or urinary tract issues.

Be sure to see your vet if your cat is showing signs of pain or distress. Untreated urinary crystals or stones can lead to life-threatening blockages, especially in male cats.

Once you rule out physical causes, the problem may be very simple and easy to solve.

Reasons cats start going outside of the box:
  • Your cat dislikes a new brand or type of litter
  • A dominant cat bullies a submissive cat in the box area
  • The litterbox is not cleaned often enough
  • Your cat doesn’t feel comfortable going where you placed the box
  • You have a multi-cat home with not enough litter boxes per cat
  • A large cat (like a Maine Coon) has outgrown a standard size box

Observe your cat’s litterbox behavior closely. After you’ve identified the most likely cause, how do you retrain your cat to begin using the box again?

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Before You Start

Keep in mind that the problem, even as you work to solve it, might have caused your cat to develop negative associations with using the box.

Punishing or yelling at your cat for going outside the box can make those bad feelings worse, so avoid any negative reinforcements when accidents occur.

The key to retraining your cat to use the litterbox again is to change those negative feelings into positive ones. Here’s how to make using the box comfortable again.

1. Find the right litterbox for your cat

cat inside litter box
Image Credit: FamVeld, Shutterstock

A litterbox should be 1½ times the length of your cat, measured from the nose to the base of the tail. Large cats need large boxes. For kittens and senior cats, the sides need to be low enough for easy access.

Have you switched from an open box to a closed box? Did you get a self-cleaning box recently? Your cat may prefer one box style over another.

And most importantly, get multiple litterboxes for a multi-cat household. One box per cat plus one extra is ideal.


2. Find the right litter for your cat

Different types of cat litter
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There are many different types of kitty litter. Litter can be made from materials like clay, wood pellets, silica crystals, recycled newspaper pellets, walnut shells, and coconut husks, just to name a few.

Your preferred type of litter may not be your cat’s favorite. Sometimes a cat will develop an aversion to the texture of a particular kind of litter and prefer other surfaces like the carpet or a tile floor.

You may have to experiment and purchase small containers of different types of litter until you find the right one. Every cat is an individual, but generally, cats prefer the feel of soft, finely textured litter.

Once you find the right litter, remember not to overfill or underfill the box. Too much or too little litter can sometimes be an issue.


3. Place the litterbox in a good spot

cat litter box top entry_Nils Jacobi_Shutterstock
Image credit: Nils Jacobi, Shutterstock

Litterbox placement can be an issue for a shy cat in a busy, multi-pet household. If your cat is timid, put the box in an easily accessible but quiet place, away from heavily trafficked and noisy areas.

Avoid placing the box in an area where your cat will feel trapped or cornered if approached. Most cats like to see who’s coming and how they can escape if they feel uncomfortable.

Good litterbox placement spots can include a basement or spare bathroom or bedroom. Bad litterbox places tend to be heavily used areas like the kitchen.


4. Keep the litterbox very clean

Cleaning litter with cat looking on
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Not surprisingly, cats prefer clean litterboxes over dirty litterboxes. Cleaning the litterbox is not a fun chore, but it is essential, especially when your cat has litterbox problems.

Scoop out the poop and solid clumps (if you use clumping litter) at least once per day. You can wipe down the sides if they are messy too.

Change the litter out completely at least once per week, but more frequently if necessary.

Wash out the litterbox once every week using soap and water. Avoid harsh smelling cleaning agents like ammonia.

Be aware that many cats do not like the feel of litterbox liners, so it’s best not to use them.


5. Resolve conflicts between multiple cats

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Image Credit: Leoniek-van-der-Vliet, Shutterstock

It’s very common in multi-cat households for one cat to be dominant and another to be submissive. Unfortunately, these power issues can result in skirmishes at the litterbox and food bowls.

One of your cats may be getting bullied or ambushed at the box. If this is the case, put a secondary box in the place where the shy cat likes to spend time.

Separation of litterboxes, food and water bowls, and favorite sleeping spots can be helpful in homes where there is a conflict between cats.


6. Try stress-relieving pheromones

Quiet Moments Pheromones

There is some debate about the effectiveness of calming agents like pheromones or essential oils. Some owners swear by them, others have seen little effect.

You can try stress-relieving pheromone sprays or diffusers in the litterbox area. The idea behind pheromones is that they replicate the comforting natural substance that cats excrete when they rub their faces on things.

Essential oils that are said to be effective in calming cats include lavender, chamomile, geranium, and frankincense. Be sure to talk to your vet first and use any essential oil product with care, as many oils are toxic to cats.


7. Thoroughly clean areas your cat has previously soiled

Woman with cleaning materials
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It’s not uncommon for cats to return to a place in the home that they have soiled before. You can discourage this by removing any trace of the scent.

The best way to do this is with an enzymatic cleaner. Enzymatic cleaners are especially effective in cleaning urine. They break down the uric acid into different components which then evaporate.

Other types of cleaners may seem to us like they clean and deodorize well, but your cat’s sensitive nose will still detect the urine.


8. Know the difference between urine marking and going outside the box

Cat Pee Spray
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Your cat will squat when urinating outside the box; a cat that scent marks his territory will stand with his tail high and spray behind him.

Urine marking is not the same as eliminating outside of the box. The best solution for marking is to spay and neuter all your cats. You can also use some of the same techniques we mentioned to solve conflicts between cats.


9. If all else fails, seek professional advice

cat and vet
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Sometimes a cat’s litterbox and other behavioral problems can be tough to solve. Don’t be shy about talking to your vet or an animal behaviorist.

Your vet can prescribe medications for severe anxiety that may be contributing to your cat’s litterbox issues. There are a variety of different drugs that you can try.

An animal behavior expert has training and experience in behavior modification techniques and can help you to better understand and work with your cat.

Look for Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs) and Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (ACAABs), as they have advanced training in animal behavior, biology, and health.


Featured Image Credit: Tanya-Plotnikova, Shutterstock

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.