Senior Cat Litter Box Problems

One of the most common problems we run into with our old cats is when they stop reliably using the litter box. Anyone who's ever had to deal with the issue knows how frustrating it is to deal with, and how the seemingly never-ending clean-up issues can feel overwhelming. Understanding why your can help you figure out what steps to take to help fix or manage the issue.

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Causes of Litter Box Problems

  • Illness is often a cause of litter box issues in elderly cats. Many medical conditions, including bladder infections, diabetes and kidney disease, can cause cats to urinate more frequently. Cats may not always be able to get to the litter box in time. If they're generally feeling unwell, they might also decide that another soft, comfy surface will do just as well as a litter box.

  • Arthritis or other pain is common in elderly cats. The pain, or even the anticipation of pain, can cause cats to become finicky about their litter boxes. Arthritic cats may find it painful to step over the high sides of a litter box. Boxes that are too small make it difficult to them to comfortably maneuver. Small boxes may also cause contact between the sides of the box and an arthritic limb, which can be uncomfortable or painful.

  • Blindness, coupled with a change in location of a litter box, can obviously cause disorientation and accidents. Many people don't realize that they cat is blind (or losing vision) because cats often cope well.

  • Senility (feline cognitive decline) can cause cats to be forgetful of where the litter box is located - or even what to do when they get there.

  • Stress can cause cats to avoid the litter box. As cats age, the things that used to be fine may instead start causing them stress. Some stressors can include unfamiliar objects (like new furniture), new pets or people, too much noise or too little privacy around the litter box, or other pets bullying the senior cat. Cognitive decline can make stressors worse.

Possible Solutions for Litter Box Problems

Address Medical Issues

A medical work-up can help to determine if it's health issues contributing to your cat's littler box problems. Addressing any underlying medical conditions can help to improve your cat's litter box habits, and sometimes even eliminate any further accidents.

Keep Kitty Well-Groomed

Many senior cats don't groom themselves as well or as regularly as they used to. They become less flexible as they get older, and arthritis pain or other illness can make them feel less inclined to groom. Painful matting can result. Mats can make using the litter box more painful and a lot messier, too. Brush your cat regularly to help prevent mats. You may also find that keeping them neatly clipped or trimmed can make it easier on both them and on you.

Clean More Frequently

Imagine if we were only able to flush the toilet every couple of days; most of us would probably seek out another bathroom. Cats like to be clean too and don't want to have to step through a "mine field" just to use the bathroom. Senior cats can become fussier about this since their mobility may be compromised, and having to navigate their way through the litter box may become too unpleasant for them.

Scoop at least once per day. If your cat has medical issues that result in them having to urinate (or defecate) more often, then more frequent scooping will be needed to keep the box clean. Do a full dump and clean of the box whenever needed.

I try to scoop twice a day since my cat has kidney disease and urinates more often. To make it easier on myself, I have a step garbage can (so that my hands are free) next to the litter box, along with a bunch of bags. I scoop into one of the bags and then drop into the garbage can, which is also lined with another bag. That way I can be more confident that nothing will "leak" when I tie everything up to discard into our outdoor garbage bin.

Add More Boxes

Have at least one extra box more than you have cats. If you have 1 kitty, have at least 2 boxes; if you have 2 kitties, have at least 3 boxes, etc.

Senior cats can develop quirks that they never had when they were younger. For example, some cats prefer one box to urinate in, then other to defecate in. In multi-cat households, cats may want their own box or have the option to go to another box if the one they were going to use is already in use.

More boxes can also be useful for cats who have medical conditions which cause them to urinate more. If one litter box is too soiled, then they have another to turn to.

Multiple boxes in different locations around the house can also show you where your cat prefers to use the box. Even if his box was in a certain location for years with no issues, he may no longer want to go there. My senior kitty had his box in the same spot for 8 years without a problem. Once we put out extra boxes around the house, we discovered he never once went back to that original box.

Change the Litter Type

Clay litter is the most affordable and readily available. Many cat owners use it. It's also heavy and dusty. Old, arthritic cats may find it painful to dig through heavy clay litter. Cats with other health issues may find the dustiness objectionable, especially if they're already not feeling at their best. Some cats just become fussier as they get older.

Many types of litter are now available. For example, there's litter made from wheat, corn, newspaper, wood, and more. You can even try using pee pads, another option for cats that don't seem to want to use litter.

No matter what type of litter you choose, unscented varieties are best. What may be a "light, pleasant smell" to us humans can easily be overpowering to a cat's sensitive sense of smell.

Move Boxes to Other Locations

When moving boxes to other locations, it's best if you can keep a litter box in the original location and then add additional boxes to new locations. A location change can help tremendously in some cases. For example, if your kitty's box was previously down a flight of stairs, moving it (or placing an additional box) on the same level of the home where he spends most of his time will help to encourage him to use the box more frequently. Arthritic cats may simply find climbing the stairs too difficult.

Moving the litter box to a quieter, more private location can help too. Boxes that are near noisy appliances (like washing machines, furnaces, etc.) can be unpleasant or even scary for cats, especially if the appliance starts up unexpectedly while they're using the box. Boxes in busy locations where other pets or people may frequently disturb the cat can also make the cat reluctant to use the box. A quiet, private space where kitty is unlikely to be disturbed is best.

Use a Different Box

If your senior cat seems unwilling to use the litter box he's always used, it's time to change things up. If there's a hood on the litter box, take it off - yes, the hood is great for blocking the sight of the mess in the box, but it can also trap smells inside (unpleasant for kitty!). The hood also makes it harder for less-flexible older cats to get in and out. Plus the fact that the mess is out-of-sight may cause us humans to clean the box less frequently.

Try a wider box, or one with lower sides to help an arthritic kitty access his box more easily. My own 19-year-old kitty nearly drove me nuts when he started peeing all over the house, including on cushions. His medical needs were taken care of, his arthritis pain was well-managed, and yet he wouldn't stop urinating and occasionally defecating outside his box. It's pretty gross to be blithely walking along and step in a cat turd (camouflaged against our dark flooring). We tried everything we could think of. Then FINALLY - finally! - I happened to find something that worked for him: a giant litter box with low sides, and an even lower entry. He took to it immediately and accidents have decreased by about 80%. Hallelujah!

Try to Resolve Sources of Stress

It's not always easy to figure out what's stressing out a cat. For example, it's often not obvious to an owner that other cats in the household may be bullying a senior kitty and preventing him from accessing the litter box. Whatever the stress is, resolving it in some way - or at least making the situation less stressful - can help to increase the odds that kitty will use the litter box more frequently.

Litter Box Management

Sometimes, it turns out that no matter what you try, your senior kitty continues to have litter box problems. My own senior cat, while much better with his new litter box in a new location, still has the occasional accident outside the box. Here are some things that might help.

  • Give kitty his own private space. If it's feasible, give your kitty his own room - it doesn't have to be a big room or a fancy room, but somewhere warm, comfortable, and quiet. This way, the kitty mess is confined to the one room and makes clean-up easier. Many senior cats sleep most of the day while we're at work anyways, and if your cat is one of them, keeping him confined to his own room while you're gone isn't much of a change. A window with a sunny view, some comfy bedding, yummy food, and fresh water, and he'll be all set. Then at the end of the work day, take him out for play-time, attention, and lots of cuddles.

  • Put down absorbent padding around the litter box. This is a big pain to set up, but for us, it's helped a lot to make clean-ups faster. I got reaaaaally tired of washing rugs & floors! My cat sometimes "misses" the box (even though it's huge), and sometimes he just plain decides to go outside the box, but now typically within five feet of it.

    I use a setup that makes cleaning so much easier: I got a huge piece of cardboard (since cardboard is cheap, readily available, and disposable - the cardboard is just something to provide "structure")... and covered it with a waterproof mattress protector. On top of the protector is a big litter mat to prevent litter from tracking everywhere... and surrounding the litter mat (on top of the protector) are a bunch of pee pads.

    The idea is that if my kitty pees outside the box, the pee pads will absorb it. I can then just dispose of it (or throw it in the wash - I use a mix of re-usable pads, for the areas he's most likely to pee, and disposable pads, for areas he's less likely to have an accident). These washable underpads are a good value and work very well at absorbing accidents. Although it hasn't happened yet, on the off-chance that he pees a lot -- he has kidney disease, so he often pees a lot -- and it soaks through to the mattress protector, well, the floor is still protected.

    I admit that this probably sounds like overkill, and maybe even a little crazy. You certainly don't have to have as many "layers" as I've used (did I mention that I got really tired of cleaning floors and rugs?!).

  • Make a "lip" to contain messes within an area. In the setup I described above, I folded the edge of the cardboard up to make a lip of around 1" high. It's not so high that my cat will object to stepping over it, but it's high enough to keep messes mostly contained within that one space.

You might also want to keep a good urine and odor remover on hand. That stuff was my best friend for a while, along with my mop and my spot carpet cleaning machine.

There are times when your senior cat's litter box problems may feel utterly and hopelessly overwhelming. It can be so frustrating - I've been there and I understand! Just remember that it takes time to figure out a solution. You may need to try a variety of things, and a combination of things, before you find the right mix that works for your old kitty.



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