Signs A Cat Is Unhappy With The Litter Tray

Cats can’t tell us when they don’t like something, but they can, and they will show us. Litter trays are a constant source of stress for both cats and their humans. We look at common signs a cat is unhappy with the litter tray and what you can do to remedy the situation.

Related: Five steps to litter tray success

Common signs a cat is unhappy with the tray

Going to the toilet elsewhere

Nobody likes to use a dirty toilet, and that includes cats. A common cause of litter tray refusal is urinating and defecating outside the tray. That could be right next to the tray, in the bath, shower or on the bed.

Sitting on the edge of the litter box

The cat refuses to stand in the litter tray but will perch on the sides to avoid stepping inside the tray.

Not burying feces

Most cats are fastidiously clean and will bury their feces, cats who are unhappy with their litter tray may leave it uncovered, this can be due to a dirty litter tray, scented litter trays of fear of an ambush

Leaving feces uncovered can also occur in multi-cat homes when the dominant cat leaves the feces exposed as a way to claim the spot as theirs.

Feces beside the tray can happen if the litter tray is too dirty or too small, the cat stands in the tray, but his rear-end hangs over the edge.

Rushing to the litter tray as soon as it has been cleaned

Another dead giveaway is cats who hold on until the litter tray is freshly cleaned and then rush to use the tray.

What does this mean?

There are a few possible litter box issues that can frustrate cats. We must remember that the litter tray is for their convenience and not ours, and that means choosing the right tray, location, and maintaining it so that the litter tray is more appealing than anywhere else.

Dirty litter trays

Cats don’t like dirty toilets anymore than we do, some may put up with a dirty tray, but others will go elsewhere. Provide enough trays (one per cat, and one extra), and scoop out solids twice a day. Empty, wash and replace with fresh litter at least once a week.

Unhappy with the choice of cat litter

Cat litter with a strong scent can overwhelm a cat’s sensitive nose, or they may not like the type of cat litter, too little or too much litter in the tray. Aim for a depth of 2-3 inches.

Litter tray size

Too small or too large. As a guide, the tray should be 1.5 times as long as the cat. A kitten needs a small tray, which is easy to climb in and out of; this should increase in size as the kitten grows. A senior cat with mobility issues can have problems climbing into and out of a tray with high sides.

Litter tray location

Don’t line litter trays up in a row, but spread throughout the house and have at least one on each level of the house.

Cats like privacy and an escape route, so they don’t feel trapped or threatened. They also don’t like to eat close to their toilet, so make sure it is a distance away from food and water bowls.


Changes in litter tray habit should always be assessed by a veterinarian as in some cases; cats will stop using the litter tray due to medical issues which include cystitis, feline lower urinary tract disease, urinary obstruction, which is a life-threatening emergency and constipation.

Once the cat has a clean bill of health, then a review of the litter tray set up will help to identify the possible cause, all of which are easy to rectify. After all, we all want our cats to be happy, and that should extend to providing them with appropriate places to go to the toilet.


  • Julia Wilson, 'Cat World' Founder

    Julia Wilson is the founder of Cat-World, and has researched and written over 1,000 articles about cats. She is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care. Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs. Full author bio

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