Cat Litter Box Problem Solved: Texture Aversion

Katherine Ayres, PhDiStock_000003487147XSmall

Eva came to us at 3 months after being a “stray at large” in Lynnwood, WA.  She was sweet, extremely social, fun to play with and of course had a healthy obsession of watching birds out the window making that amusing chatter noise.  Her litter box habits for the most part were good.  We had her using a flushable litter made from plant material.  I liked that it wasn’t clay based and flushing made it convenient.  However, occasionally Eva would poop outside her box if we left a towel on the floor or there was a particularly fuzzy rug, but these instances were rare and she was young so I didn’t think much of it.  Then, when she was about one year old, she started pooping outside the box pretty regularly, but never peeing outside the box.

A subleter had recently moved in, and for some reason Eva kept pooping in his room. Some people suggested that she was “upset” that a new person moved in and was trying to make a point. I often hear this rationale that cats are eliminating in places because they are “mad” or to get back at someone.  There is something about cats that makes humans think that they are spiteful, but many times if a cat changes their litter box behavior, it is a health issue.  Through research, I had learned this so I took Eva to the vet to have her checked out.  She was perfectly healthy so in this case, health was not the problem.

iStock_000010714892XSmallNo, this was a behavior issue of some kind so it was both frustrating and intriguing to me at the same time.  Growing up with cats, I had never had a cat with this issue.  Usually the cat is spraying or peeing outside the litter box.  So I started experimenting.  I had read that sometimes cats like to pee in one box and poop in another so sometimes you need two litter boxes per cat.  So I put another litter box in the area of the room she was pooping in.  Nope, she just pooped next to it.  I tried a bigger box, a covered box, three boxes.  I tried putting a carpet upside down so the rough underside would be aversive with the litter box on top.  This somewhat worked but the aversive carpet wasn’t big enough to cover the whole room so eventually she found an uncovered spot to go.

A break through came when my boyfriend and I went on vacation, and left Eva with a friend for about a week.  The whole time we were gone I worried Eva would be “mad” that we left her and poop all over their house.  But to my surprise, Eva used the litter box at this strange place no problem!  But, when she came home to us, she started the inappropriate pooping again.  In a state of desperation, I called the friend who she had stayed with.  “What litter do you use?”  She said she used clumping litter from the bulk box at the pet store.  Then a light bulb went off.  I decided that instead of making Eva use a certain litter or box, I would let her tell me what she liked.  So I got four different boxes and three different types of litter and put them all out in the same area as her litter box at the time.  Every few days I would vary which litter was in each type of box.  It quickly became apparent that Eva exclusively used whichever box had the clumping litter.  After months of frustration and worry and more frustration, problem solved.  Eva is picky about the texture of her litter.

iStock_000012998331XSmallI thought back to when she was a kitten.  She would occasionally poop in towels left on the floor or on soft rugs.  The subleters’ room was the only room with carpet in the house.  Eva would spend very little time digging in her box and would jump out quickly after she was finished and shake her paws off.  These were all signs that she did not like her litter.  Now, with the new litter, she spends a good five minutes digging around before and after she does anything.

Are cats spiteful? It’s questionable whether feline brains are even capable of complicated emotions like “spite”.  It seems a simpler explanation is that sometimes cats just go in places that feel good and/or safe to them.  Once I gave Eva choices, she showed me what she wanted.  So if you are having inappropriate elimination problems and you know it’s NOT a health issue, try putting out different kinds of litter boxes and litter combinations in various areas of the house and see if there is a pattern for what your cat likes peeing and pooping in separately (remember Eva had no problem peeing in the old litter).

Clumping Cat LitterWhat if you really want your cat to keep using a certain type of litter?  Another tactic is to put whatever your cat likes (a towel or soft carpet) in a litter box, then if the cat eliminates on the towel in the box, slowly introduce litter on top of the towel over time and eventually take the towel away.  This has been successful in some litter aversion situations so it could also be worth a try.

Last, you can up the ante for any litter box issues by being ready with treats when the cat successfully uses the box.  Eva’s litter box was located in the bathroom, so I kept some high value treats in the bathroom ready to go.  If I heard her using the box, I would sit and wait quietly with the treats ready in my hand.  After she used the box successfully and stepped out of the box, I would immediately give her a treat.  I think this sealed the deal for the princess.  Eva has now gone over a year with absolutely no inappropriate elimination of any kind!


  1. Mary says

    Excellent article about cats and their litter problems! What kind of cat is Eva? Short, medium or longhair? I have found that medium and longhaired cats (e.g. persians) prefer clumping litter or even better silicon crystals or shreded newspaper to clay or other types of litter. Seems that it makes it easier to clean themselves afterwards because the litter doesn’t stick to their fur. Or maybe it’s just a “taste” issue!

  2. Katherine Ayres says

    Thanks for the comment Mary! Eva seems to be mostly American shorthair. From her coat pattern and behavior, we speculate that she may have a hint of bengal in her. It’s hard to tell though, since she came to us as a stray kitten. But, yes, her hair is fairly short.

  3. Laura says

    OH MY GOSH thank you SO much! I was at my wit’s end. I could NOT figure out why my kitten hated the litter box. Everything else I read online either didn’t work or didn’t describe the situation. The towel on top of the litter was BRILLIANT! I don’t know if it worked or not just yet, but at least she isn’t hopping out of the box 5 seconds after I put her in. Now she’s been in there for an entire 5 minutes and doesn’t seem to want to come out. We may not be all the way there, but it’s progress, which is something I haven’t seen in the month we’ve had her.

  4. says

    Hello Laura,
    That’s great news! Baby steps and patience are important when trying to figure out litter box issues. Also, keeping a very detailed journal of your cats “elimination” type, time and location can be helpful. Don’t forget to positively reinforce your kitty with treats when they first go into the litter box, then when they dig around in the litter box, and throw a treat party if they eliminate in the litter box. Be careful though as we do not want to interrupt them when they are getting ready or are in the process of urinating or defecating. Wait and give the treat right after they are done with “business”.

    Keep up the good work and let us know how it goes!

    -Dr. Ayres

  5. Kay says

    I love you! My cat was peeing EVERYWHERE. I tried a million different cat litters assuming this was the reason. She hated them. I didn’t think her preference for spoiling my sons rice play box (sand box with rice) would help me train her to potty in the litter pan. I filled the pan with an inch of rice and she hopped in an peed immediately. We will be switching to crystals tomorrow. I had forgotten about crystals which are similAr to the rice texture. Brilliant!

  6. Linda D. says

    I am currently fostering an almost blind kitten (former stray) and have yet to get her to eliminate in a litter box. At first I thought it was the box was too large/litter different and she was hesistant to step in it, so I got a lower litter box and put the same litter (Tidy Cats) that they used at the shelter. No luck, she preferred the linoleum. I heard about the Kitten Attract Litter and have tried that with a lower litter box used for rabbits and put down puppy piddle pads. Still no use of the boxes, but will use the piddle pads to pee and sometimes poop, however she still prefers the linoleum or my walk-in shower. Any suggestions? Should I try a different litter, like the stuff they put in hamster cages or the crystals?

  7. says

    I would recommend starting with what the kitten prefers and slowing introducing the cat attract litter. Put the wee pads in the litter box and see if you can start getting her to go on the wee pad in the litter box reliably. If you can find a wonderful food treat, you can reward her with a treat whenever she uses the box with the wee pad in it. You can also try plugging in a Feliway diffuser near the litter box.

    Give her at least 3 months of using the wee pad in the box without accident and then, introduce one tablespoon of cat attract litter. Each week you can add an additional teaspoon of litter. Week 1 = 1 tblsp, Week 2 = 2 tblsp, Week 3 = 3 tblsp and so forth. Hope this helps!

  8. Simone says

    My cat has no problem with her litter she spends a long time playing in there so what is and no there are absolutely no health concerns

  9. Phoebe says

    I don’t know if my cat is spiteful but she knows that she shouldn’t poop on the floor. She poops in her tray when I am around and poops outside when left alone. I have also noticed that when I catch her in the act, she stops pooping and starts running towards her litter while poops drips from her behind.

  10. ana says

    I have to try that!! I have a female persian cat and it only have one year old and for a few weeks she started pooping out of her box but still pee in there. It’s only poop and she’s healthy! We have tried everything since give her some treats to change the type of sand used. We have talked to her veteranian and she says it might be some kind of misbehaviour. But we don’t know what to do anymore. Going to try what you explained.

  11. Joyce says

    Thank you so much for your extremely interesting story about Eva. I have a female calico who is doing the very same thing, and she has had numerous vet appointments seeing if she has a medical issue. She has most definitely targeted the carpets throughout the house, and it happened out of no where. She pees in the box, but for some reason if I place her in the bathroom with the boxes and patiently wait for her to go as she shows all the signs like a dog, she zips out of it so fast.

    I have tried the crystals, and she wouldn’t even go in. I have tried Cat Attract, but she only pees in it, and always use Arm and Hammer Unscented. Feliway has been a continuous product I do use, but it doesn’t seem to have any affect.

    May I ask as to what the prize winner litter was that Eva ended up liking? I have tried adding carpet in the litter box, but she ended up thinking it was her bed.


  12. beatty123 says

    I’m afraid I don’t know the exact type of clumping litter Eva preferred, but it was a fine, clay type. We have also found cats often prefer a wheat based litter such as Swheat Scoop. Best of luck!

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