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updated 7/23/2007 9:35:45 AM ET 2007-07-23T13:35:45

When people think outside the box, it’s a good thing. When cats think outside the box, it’s not. The No. 1 behavior problem reported in cats is doing No. 1 and No. 2 outside the confines of their litter box.

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But your cat might not be simply rebelling. It might be trying to tell you in the clearest way it can that something is wrong.

Cats beat out your mother-in-law any day of the week when it comes to cleanliness. Their willingness and instinct to use a litter box even at an early age is one of the reasons they're so attractive as companions. So when they stop using the litter box, it’s because there’s something they don’t like about it.

Let’s run through the list of possibilities:

• You changed litters because the new one was on sale.

Cats hate change. Once they’re used to a certain type of litter, they don’t want to try something new. It smells funny, it feels different beneath their paws or maybe it just doesn’t kick as well.

Cats tend to prefer clumping litter. Maybe the sandlike texture resonates with their heritage as desert animals. But whatever their favorite type is, they don’t want you to change it, no matter how much money you’re saving. If you really want to try a different brand, gradually mix it in with the regular litter over several weeks.

The other thing to remember is that individual cats may have different preferences, usually because they were raised on different types of litter. If you have more than one cat, you may need to provide a box for each with the preferred litter.

• You’re using a scented litter.

Cats have an exquisitely keen sense of smell. What may smell perfumed to us may be sensory overload for a cat, says feline behaviorist Alice Moon-Fanelli, a clinical assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. Of course you want your house to smell nice, but it’s going to smell a lot nicer if your cat likes its box.

• You’re not scooping the box often enough.

You flush every time you use the toilet, so why wouldn’t you scoop every time your cat uses the litter box? It doesn’t want to step into a filthy litter box any more than you want to use a dirty toilet.

“People think if they put four or five inches of litter in a box, they won’t have to clean it that often, and that’s asking for trouble,” says John C. Wright, a professor of psychology who teaches applied animal behavior at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. “Most cats will tolerate a clump or two, but a bit more than that and they may decide to go right next to the box. Other cats seem to be clean freaks. If they’ve peed or another cat has urinated in the box, they won’t enter the box at all.”

• You’re not cleaning the box.

Beyond scooping the box, you need to clean it regularly. Plastic retains odors, so even if you scoop the box daily, it’s still going to get stinky after a while. Dump the litter and clean the box every week or two with warm water and a mild dishwashing detergent (no harsh-smelling chemicals.) Between cleanings, Moon-Fanelli recommends using Zero Odor litter spray, an odor neutralizer, every time you scoop. After a year, consider getting a new litter box.

• Your cat doesn’t like the location of the box.

Cats have the same real-estate priorities as people: location, location, location. They don’t want the litter box anywhere near where they eat, they want it in a quiet area and they don’t want to be interrupted. Place it in a room away from the food bowl with easy access and few interruptions. Make sure it’s where no dogs or people are running in and out, no dryer buzzers are going off. Ideally, put it in a place near an escape, such as a door or a tall cat tree, so if something does scare them, they can exit.

• You don’t have enough boxes.

The rule of paw is one box for every cat, plus one extra. This ensures that bully cats don’t guard a single box and prevent lower-ranking cats from using it. If you have a two-story house, place a box on each floor. This is essential for young kittens or aging cats who may not have the best physical control.

• The box is too small or has a lid.

Most cats prefer a large, open litter box. A typical litter box is fine for a kitten, but a 20-pound Maine Coon needs a larger box. Look for one that’s one and a half times longer than the cat’s body length.

Many people prefer having a covered litter box, but cats like to be able to see if anything dangerous is approaching, like a dog or a bully cat. A lid blocks their view and inhibits their escape. It also concentrates the smell inside the box.

• Cats can’t tell us when they don’t feel good, so they have to show us.

If you’re doing everything recommended above and your cat goes outside the litter box, don’t assume it's being spiteful. It may have a painful bladder infection or some other problem that can be diagnosed by your veterinarian. If your cat has been declawed recently, it may be painful to dig in the litter. And if it’s old and arthritic, it may be having difficulty climbing in and out of the box. Consider making a cutout so your cat can easily enter and exit the box.

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.

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