House-training problems — called inappropriate elimination — are the number one cause of behavior-related complaints from cat lovers — and with good reason. No one likes to deal with urine and feces in a litterbox, much less in a part of the house you didn’t expect to find them. Cats who can’t be convinced to use the litterbox all too often end up looking for a new home — and for these animals, the prognosis is grim.
The first step in getting your cat to use the litterbox is to figure out why he’s not using it. Rule out a medical problem — commonly, a urinary-tract infection. These infections give the cat a “sense of urgency” to urinate even when the bladder is not full, and urinating may even be downright painful in more severe cases. Your cat may come to associate the use of the box with these unpleasant sensations and so avoids the box. If that’s the case, you need to retrain your cat, perhaps by changing the box and litter so that it “feels” different, but probably by using the safe room approach (more on that later).
If your cat checks out fine at the vet, you need to experiment to make sure everything about the box is to his liking. The following list describes some things to consider:
Make the area where your cat has had mistakes less attractive by cleaning thoroughly with a pet-odor neutralizer (available in pet supply stores or catalogs) and cover with foil, plastic sheeting, or plastic carpet runners with the points up to discourage reuse of the area. Enzymatic pet mess cleaners take time to work, so figure on keeping the area blocked off for at least a couple of weeks.
If this procedure doesn’t clear up the problem, you may need to retrain your cat by keeping him in a small area for a few days. Make sure that the safe room has no good options besides the litterbox — no carpet, no pile of dirty laundry. Block off the bathtub — keep an inch of water in it to discourage its use as a place to go. 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 and keep the litterbox appealing, he should keep up his end, too.
What cats do in the litterbox when we’re not looking.