Friday, 4 September 2015

Behaviour focus: litter trays

In this week’s behaviour focus post, Cats Protection Behaviour Manager Nicky Trevorrow discusses why cats may not use their litter tray.

Why does my cat poo/wee on the furnishings in my house rather than in their litter tray? It’s clean!

This is the most common behaviour problem that causes owners seek help. Understandably, it’s frustrating for the owners as it is not nice to clean up. Interestingly though, many owners put up with this behaviour for months or even years sometimes. The most important thing to know is that professional help is available and the sooner you seek advice from a qualified professional, the better!

The first port of call is always to take the cat to the vets for a full health check. It’s important to mention all behaviour changes in the cat, even if you think it is not relevant to the toileting issue. For example, has your cat been slow to get up after a period of lying down, or not been jumping onto the windowsill recently? For all behavioural issues, it is vital to rule out medical problems that could be the underlying cause.

Once the vet has ruled out medical reasons, then there are a number of litter tray factors to look at. Check out the following check list:

  • Litter type – the cat is likely to favour the litter type they used when they were a very young kitten. In the absence of knowing what litter type they used when growing up, most cats prefer a soft, sand-sized litter. This is the type of material that cats have evolved to use out in the wild, which explains why our pet cats are so keen to use children’s sand pits! For cats that are defecating next to a litter tray, but urinating in the litter tray, it could be due to the litter type being too hard on their paws. Without being too graphic, cats place more pressure on their back legs and paws when defecating compared to urinating so a soft litter is preferable
  • Litter depth – the average cat likes the litter to be about 3cm deep
  • Litter cleanliness – cats have a reputation for being fastidiously clean. Some owners even refer to their cat’s ‘princess-like’ behaviour as the cat would like the litter tray emptied after it’s been used once. However cats are not being ‘precious’ as they expect the same level of cleanliness as you would with your toilet. It varies between litter type and cat, but as a general rule, try to remove waste twice a day and clean the tray out fully once a week
  • Litter tray type – does the cat have enough space to turn around and dig? Some problems can be caused by providing adult cats with small kitten trays. There are a number of different types of tray on the market or you may wish to provide a homemade tray to meet specific needs. Every cat is different, and it’s a case of finding the right tray for the cat. Many cats are happy with the standard, open, rectangular litter tray. Others prefer the privacy of a covered litter tray. If using a covered litter tray, remove the cat flap door as it can put cats off using it due to keeping the smell contained or tapping the cat when it tries to enter or exit the tray
  • Privacy – try placing an open litter tray in a cardboard box (open at the top) with two holes cut in the sides for entry and exit holes. This will make the cat feel more secure, doesn't trap the smell inside and is easy to see when it needs cleaning out
  • Location, location, location – place the litter tray in a private, but accessible location. As clean, sensible animals, they prefer their litter tray to be away from all their other resources especially food and water. It is common for owners to place their litter trays close to the cat flap or a glass back door, however this can be quite a vulnerable position from the cat’s perspective. It could be easily overlooked by a cat from outside and is quite a high traffic area. Instead look for a quiet corner of the house. Older cats will benefit from having litter trays placed both upstairs and downstairs for easy access
  • Number of trays – as a general rule, provide cats with one litter tray per cat plus one extra for choice to reduce any competition
Even if your cat has outside access, always provide litter trays inside. Some cats can feel safer using a tray in the house – there could be neighbourhood cats that intimidate your cat. Understandably, many cats don’t like to go out when it’s bad weather, or if the toileting site is frozen over in winter and it’s difficult to dig.

This video explains more about house soiling behaviour:

If you have all these measures in place and the problem persists, it is worth getting a referral to a qualified behaviourist such as a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors to help identify the causes.

For more information, check out our CP leaflet called Managing your cat’s behaviour.


  1. the cat I have just taken in was a stray then lived with a woman who recently passed away but the cat had outside access. She does not have outside access with me at the moment but will not use her litter tray.

    1. Hello, ideally all cats would be allowed access to the outdoors to express their natural behaviour. However, cats can adapt to living indoors, particularly if they are used to it from a young age. Some cats need to be confined indoors due to medical conditions and others prefer an indoor life. If they become bored they may develop behaviour problems so there are a number of ways to keep your cat happy. Have a read of our leaflet:

  2. My 3 months old kitten is wee to my bed it's happened 3times in 3weeks as well he did twice under my bed one central on the bathroom and in my children room. I don't know what to do. His litter tray is clean and he knows where is his toilet becouse he is usimg litter box when he need.Any advice

  3. Hi, my 7yr old male has several times urinated on the bed in the spare room. He mainly spends his time outdoors & comes in for food, sleep, a fuss & play time. It's only ever the spare bed!!! We bought a new one in the hope that his scent not being present would deter him but yesterday he struck again. The most frustrating factor is he had only been in the house 30 minutes, he'd been fed & fussed, toddled off upstairs & pee'd on the bed (my wife happened to be sleeping in it at the time due to a night out the evening before!!).

    1. Before we look at potential causes of the behaviour, it is important that you take your cat for a check-up at the vets because there are a number of medical conditions that may cause a change in urinary habits, including feline lower urinary tract disease. It is important to rule out any underlying medical causes.

      The occurrence of this behaviour indoors can be very unpleasant and worrying for people. So much so that it can often seriously affect the owner/cat relationship. Occasionally a one-off accident can occur if a cat is ill, trapped in a room or suddenly frightened.

      The cat is displaying this behaviour for a reason – which could be many – other cats in the home, other cats in the neighbourhood, changes to the home etc. Please visit our website for more information:

  4. Got a cat 2yrs old never uses cat litter ever always goes next to front door all the time shes had check up and fine and been neutered aswell because vets said that might help but hasn't helped any ideas what else to to

    1. Hello,

      It’s good that your cat has been vet checked. It would also be a good idea to get a sample checked too (urine sample checked if the problem is urination, faecal sample checked if it’s defecation).
      If it is a problem with urine; assess whether it is inappropriate urination or spraying. Spraying will be small amounts of urine sprayed on a vertical surface like a wall (may trickle down onto the floor), urination will be a larger puddle or urine on a horizontal surface.

      If there is more than one cat in the property or there are frequent neighbourhood cats visiting the area, these could be the source of the problem. If there are other cats in the property, you want to ensure they are in the same social group otherwise this is a common cause of problems.

      If there is a mat by the front or any soft furnishings, remove those. Clean the area extensively with a solution of biological washing powder and warm water (1:5). Repeat this process twice after an incidence of soiling and clean the entire area. If it is spraying, it is common for cats to spray near entrance/exit points.

      In your current litter trays, ensure there is no scented litter or litter tray liners being used.
      Follow the rest of the advice given in this article.

      Remember, cats don’t house soil for no reason. Either there is a problem with the latrine site (the litter tray isn’t set up as the cat needs) or the cat is feeling stressed, in which case the source of the stress needs to be identified and resolved.

      We hope this helps!