image for cat not using litter box 5 keys to litter box success post. Image with text

Cat Not Using the Litter Box? Learn the 5 Keys to Litter Box Success!

Hey guys! Is your cat not using the litter box? 

I know this is your favorite topic… It’s mine too.

But, it’s super important, and such a common problem! So, just take comfort in the fact that you are not alone.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret.

Actually, it seems to be a big secret, considering I haven’t found it anywhere else on the internet yet…

There are 4 Reasons That Cats Stop Using the Litter Box.

Now, mind you, these reasons aren’t exclusive. More than one factor can be present in a situation at a time.

Today, we will be exploring one of these reasons: litter box setup.

Litter box set up is the foundation. It is always the place you want to start, if your cat decides the couch or the sink are more suitable places to do their business.

No matter what the cause for the issue, this is step number one in resolving it.

New cat owners, and kitty veterans alike can benefit greatly from implementing these 5 principles taught in this post.

When you finish here, check out my post: What to Do When Your Cat is Peeing Outside the Litter Box to gain even more insight into this frustrating behavior problem!

What You’ll Learn

So, I know setting up a litter box seems simple. It seems like something you couldn’t possibly mess up, unless you actually forgot to put the litter in the box.

Wellll… I mean, that would definitely be a big mistake, obviously. But it turns out there are quite a few ways that you can screw the pooch when setting up your cat’s litter box.

In this post, I’m going to delve into:

  • The “Natural Cat’s Litter Box”
  • The 5 Keys to Litter Box Success
  • Common mistakes made when setting up the litter box, and how to avoid them.
  • How common mistakes can translate into behavior problems and litter box aversion

The Natural Cat Litter Box

Before delving into the do’s and don’t’s in the wonderful world of litter boxes, let’s first get an idea of what a wild cat’s litter box would look like. This will give you a great base knowledge for setting up your cat’s litter box.


Most ancient cats hailed from Egypt, meaning your cat’s ancestors lived in the desert.

They first came overseas on ships. Their purpose aboard them was to keep the vermin down. Eventually, they began breeding with the local cats from other ports they arrived at. Meaning, most cats today have some Egyptian feline in their bloodline.

The point is, originally, cats were doing their business in the desert, which means they were doing it in sand.

Another important thing to note is that desserts have sparse vegetation.

This means that a cat could see around himself while in this vulnerable state, and predators, for the most part, were unable to sneak up on him.

This was vital for their survival.

Keeping these points in mind, let’s move on to your house cat…


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The 5 Keys to Litter Box Success:

  1. Substrate
  2. The Box, Itself
  3. Location
  4. Number
  5. Cleanliness


1. Substrate

image of clay cat litter, and pine pellet cat litter for blog post

As I previously stated, cats are hard-wired to go in the sand.

Therefore, in the home this would translate to the next best thing: fine-grained scent-free litter.

Litter that your cat is unfamiliar with, or that is uncomfortable on their paws is more likely to lead to litter box aversion.

My favorite two, personally are Unscented Tidy Cats, and Pretty Litter.

They happen to be the favorites of my three cats as well. ????

The Ideal Substrate:

  • Fine-grained
  • Scent-free

2. The Box, Itself

image purpose is to show an example of a litter box with a cute cat in it for blog post

This is an important aspect that I personally believe is very often misunderstood by cat guardians. 

Let’s get something straight here. Cats don’t give a crap about privacyPun intended.

They absolutely do not care about relieving themselves in front of you, their best friend/rival cat, the dog, or anyone else.


What cats do care about is safety.

Let’s go back to the natural cat example… Being able to see around them translates into survival. It doesn’t actually matter whether or not someone is going to sneak up on them in their home or not. (But if they are, this is even more of a reason to make a change.) This boils down to instinct.

This is a crucial component to understand when it comes to this key to success, and the next one.

The real problem is that we think about ourselves when we set up the litter box, or what we think our cats want. And this comes down to relating what they want to what we want, because that is our only reference point.

This is why we use covered boxes, or fancy furniture, such as end tables, that an uninformed visitor would never know has a litter box hidden within it.

And I can relate to this, I don’t exactly want the focal point in the room to be the litter box.

But, we can find a happy medium. After all, aside from the fact that we love our cats and want what’s best for them, if we are unwilling to compromise, it can lead to the cat not using the litter box. I don’t know about you, but for me, this is far worse than seeing a litter box in the room. In this case, everything is a potential litter box.

So… Uncover those boxes! I mean it. Give your cat room to breathe, room to move around, and the ability to see their surroundings.

Last, but certainly not least, is size. No one involved wants something like this to happen:

funny gif cat using litter box and falling over

It’s important that your cat can make a 360° turn while inside of the box.


The Ideal Litter Box:

  • Uncovered
  • Large enough for your cat to turn around in
  • Deep enough for your litter scatterer (is that a word?)
  • Or shallow enough for an older cat that has a harder time getting in and out

I currently have three different kinds of litter boxes, but the one I like the most (and, actually, the one they use the most) has very high sides, and a dip in the front for them to enter easily.

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3. Location/Placement

image depicting dog and cat relationship. purpose is to convey that the cat needs a safe space away from the dog

I’m not going to get too redundant here. This is the same concept as the uncovered box…

Place it somewhere that they’re able to see around them, and somewhere they have multiple escape routes.

Although, I do have just a few points to add…

Remember that cats mark their territory through urine. Lovely, I know. Therefore, this fact needs to play a role in determining the location the box will be placed.

It’s not unwise to put litter boxes in socially significant areas that are dominated by your scent/pheromones. Having their scent in an area where your scent lies heavily, can help your cat feel more secure in their territory.

Typical examples are bedrooms, and living rooms. If your cat is urine marking because they are feeling territorially insecure, adding a litter box in a significant location could definitely help.

Over time, you may be able to slowly move the box from this location. I know it’s not always the ideal place for a litter box, but if you are currently in crisis, and your cat is not using the litter box, then this is a change that may mean the difference between success… and pee in your shoes. Just sayin!

If your cat is spraying, or marking a certain area consistently, putting a litter box in that location could help to rectify this behavior. 

In regards to safety, there are two aspects to consider from a cat’s point of view. The first, we already went over in “The Box, Itself” section.

While visibility, and escape routes are extremely important, there is another equally important aspect to consider. Litter boxes shouldn’t be in a location that makes your cat feel even more vulnerable. They need to be away from nosy dogs, or boisterous children.

If this is a common occurrence in your home, a sanctuary room can be a good option. This is a room that is quiet and mostly, if not completely, dedicated to your cat. If you have a busy household, or dogs, creating a sanctuary room will most likely help your cat to feel safer, more confident, and comfortable in their home.

Cats do not like to eat near their litter box.

I mean, can you blame them?

In the wild, this a big no-no in order for survival.

This can cause a cat to have to choose between eating, and using the litter box. Since there is only one food bowl, and plenty space elsewhere, they’re going to choose to eat, and go somewhere else.

*When considering the perfect location to place litter boxes, take into account your cat’s personality. For example: If your living room is often filled with children and ruckus that sends your cat running for cover in the bedroom, then even though the living room is a socially significant area, it’s most likely not the best place to put a box. In this case, the bedroom would be a better option.*


The ideal Litter Box Location:

  • Somewhere with high visibility
  • Somewhere with multiple escape routes
  • Away from food and water
  • In a room that your cat will feel safe and confident in, and away from overly-assertive companion animals
  • In an area that you/your family members frequent, and/or a sanctuary room that belongs to, and can be confidently owned by your cat
  • Do not just line up multiple litter boxes in one spot (You’ll learn more about this in the next section.)

4. Number of Boxes

image intended to show feline hierarchy and why you need multiple litter boxes

The rule of thumb here is to have one box for each cat, plus one extra.

This can play a role in a number of situations:

In a multi-cat home, one or more cats may claim certain territories as their own. Therefore, if there is a litter box in that territory, they may stop another cat from accessing it. This is why it’s also important not to line up all the boxes in one location.

If you have a big house and only one or two litter boxes, this could become an issue. If there is a great distance between cat and box, the cat may opt for a closer place to go. This can especially be true if the cat has health problems, such as a UTI, or if they are older and just can’t hold it quite as long. A general rule is to have a box on each floor of the house.

If you only have one litter box, especially for multiple cats, the box could just fill up too quickly, and your cat could opt for a cleaner place to go.

Another thing that is important, albeit peculiar, to note is that sometimes cats like to poop in one box and pee in another. No one is without their quirks!

I actually see this in my cats when I use two different kinds of litter, but it can happen even if you’re using the same litter for every box. I like to use Pretty Litter to monitor their health (plus it’s dust-free, and very easy to keep clean and scent-free). But, I have noticed that when I use it in one or two boxes, and a clumping fine-grained litter in the others, my cats typically display the aforementioned behavior.

The Ideal Number of Litter Boxes:

  • 1 for each cat, plus one.
  • One on each level of the house
  • Older cat, or a cat that has health problems may need more, that are closer to their hangout spots.

5. Cleanliness

purpose is to show importance of keeping the litter box clean and scooped

This is such an easy one that can lead to litter box aversion!

A good example of this is a woman I worked with that had locked her cats in her Florida room, because they kept “pissing all over the place.” I took one look at their litter box and the solution was so obvious! The litter box was completely overflowing. I mean, she was lucky that they used it as much as they did. Most cats wouldn’t even do that. It killed me!

I ended up finding those two cats a new loving home, because she just wasn’t willing to commit to giving them the care they needed, and deserved. They no longer have a problem not using the litter box!

So, please, make this a priority. I’m going to be blunt with you. It isn’t fair to your cats, it’s disgusting, and you’re the one who is going to have to deal with the repercussions.


Ideal Cleaning Schedule:

  • Scoop the boxes twice a day.
  • Scrub boxes down once every couple weeks

I’m going to be honest with you, I go back and forth between cleaning the litter boxes once a day, and twice a day. I do scrub them down once every couple weeks, sometimes more. 

But, if your cat is not using the litter box, you need to be proactive, and clean that shit twice a day! Literally…


Boxing It Up

Litter box problems can be real tricky to figure out, or they can be fairly simple. No matter where you’re at with this problem, a good thorough analysis of the entire setup (using these 5 keys) is the best first step you can take!

As I mentioned, there are 4 reasons that a cat stops using the litter box. This post only covers one reason.

Stay tuned, because I will be coming out with posts that cover the other 3 reasons!

To be sure you receive my future posts, please sign up here, and I will notify you when I release new content!

You can also sign up on the form at the bottom of this post.

If you do decide to sign up, you will also receive a FREE Kitty Checklist that outlines The 7 Things Cats Need in Order to Thrive! I’m currently working on an ebook to go along with this checklist that you will also receive for FREE as soon as I launch it, if you are part of my list.

As an added bonus, you’ll be sent exclusive tips and tricks periodically, regarding your cats behavior and wellness. Plus, you’ll have the ability to contact me personally and ask any questions you like!

Check out my post: What to Do When Your Cat is Peeing Outside the Litter Box to gain even more insight into this frustrating behavior problem!

Thanks for reading! 🙂

I encourage you to leave a comment below.

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1 year ago

Great article on how to set up a litter box for cats. I particularly liked the explanation on how cats’ natural habitat influences their litter box preferences. It makes a lot of sense and is something I will definitely consider when setting up my cat’s litter box. I also appreciated the tips on the substrate, location, and cleanliness of the litter box as these are important factors that often get overlooked. Overall, a very informative and helpful article for cat owners who are struggling with litter box issues.

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