Why Your Cat Won’t Use the Litter Box (and What to Do About It)


Cats laying in the litter box for extended periods can be concerning for owners, as this behavior is often a sign that something is wrong. In this article, we will cover some of the main reasons why cats lay in the litter box, with a particular focus on urinary tract infections (UTIs). We’ll look at the symptoms of a UTI, like increased urination and smelly urine, that can cause discomfort and lead cats to spend more time in the litter box. Understanding the potential reasons for this behavior and how to identify a potential UTI can help owners seek proper treatment for their cat and resolve the issue.

What is a UTI?

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection in any part of a cat’s urinary system, which includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra (1). UTI’s are typically caused by bacteria, with the most common being E. coli, Staphylococcus, and Streptococcus (2).

The main symptoms of a UTI in cats include (1,3):

  • Straining or crying out when urinating
  • Urinating frequently but only passing small amounts
  • Blood in the urine
  • Excessive licking of the genital area
  • Strong smelling urine

UTIs develop when bacteria enter the urinary tract and multiply, irritating the bladder lining. Risk factors include bladder stones, tumors, anatomical defects, and illnesses like kidney disease or diabetes that weaken the immune system (2). UTIs are more common in female cats due to their shorter urethras. Treatment involves antibiotics and sometimes surgery if there are complicating factors like stones or tumors (1).

Litter Box Behavior

Cats have an instinctual desire to bury their urine and feces as a way to hide their scent from potential predators. According to the ASPCA, this behavior dates back to cats’ days of living in the wild when they needed to disguise their scent in order to avoid conflict. They would seek out loose soil or sand to dig a hole and then cover up their waste.[1]

So when a cat is not feeling well and experiencing pain or discomfort when urinating due to a UTI, they may feel an even stronger instinct to bury their waste. The act of entering the litter box and digging in the litter material can provide a source of comfort and security for the cat.[2] The litter box is a place they associate with their innate burying behavior. Spending time laying in the litter may help ease their stress and tension from the UTI symptoms.


[1] https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/common-cat-behaviors-explained

[2] https://www.livescience.com/33147-why-do-cats-bury-their-poop.html

Discomfort and Pain

A UTI often causes a cat discomfort and pain when urinating. The inflammation from the infection can make urination very painful or cause dysuria, which is difficulty or pain when urinating. Cats will often cry or meow when trying to urinate due to the discomfort. They may also spend a long time straining in the litter box while only passing small amounts of urine (AVMA).

The litter itself can feel soothing on painful urinary tract tissues. Cats may start spending time laying in the litter box as the litter can provide some comfort from the pain and inflammation associated with the UTI (Banhc). The cat isn’t necessarily trying to urinate when laying in the litter box with a UTI, but rather seeking some relief from their discomfort.

Increased Urination

One of the most common signs of a UTI in cats is increased urination. Cats with UTIs frequently feel the urge to urinate more often than usual. This is because the infection causes inflammation and irritation in the bladder, triggering more frequent signals to urinate even when only small amounts of urine are present (https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/urinary-tract-infections-utis-in-cats).

Cats with UTIs may visit the litter box more frequently, sometimes as often as every 10-15 minutes. They often produce only a small amount of urine each time. The constant urges make it more convenient for the cat to just remain in or close to the litter box (https://bluecrossvethospital.com/cat-urinary-tract-infection/).

In addition, the inflammation makes urination painful. Having fast access to the litter box helps the cat avoid having to walk far when feeling the urge to pee. Lying in the litter box allows them to urinate immediately when needed.

Smelly Urine

A UTI often leads to a stronger, more pungent urine smell in cats. The ammonia odor associated with UTIs comes from bacteria multiplying in the bladder and urethra (Source). As the infection progresses, urine becomes concentrated with bacteria, intensifying the smell. Cats may produce smelly urine more frequently too as they feel the urge to urinate more often.

Using clumping litter can help contain some of the odor in the litter box. The clumps formed can trap much of the smell, which gets discarded when cleaning the litter box. However, the smell may still linger in the air or on surfaces if urination occurs outside the box. Thorough cleaning is required to remove urine odor during a UTI flare up.

Hiding Illness

Cats have a strong instinct to hide any signs of illness or weakness. This instinct likely originates from their wild ancestors, who needed to mask vulnerabilities to avoid being targeted by predators (1). In the home environment, this instinct persists and cats will often retreat to secluded areas when sick.

The litter box offers privacy that appeals to a cat’s desire for concealment when not feeling well. The enclosed space allows them to withdraw from sights, sounds, and interactions that could reveal their weakened state. Lying in the litter box can feel protective for an ill cat seeking comfort and solitude (2).

Some signs that a cat may be hiding illness include (3):

  • Increased time spent alone
  • Decreased appetite
  • Changes in litter box habits
  • Less interest in play or petting

If a cat spends prolonged time in the litter box and exhibits other behavioral changes, it is important to monitor their health. Schedule a veterinary exam to identify and properly treat any underlying medical issue.


If your cat has a urinary tract infection, it’s important to seek veterinary care for proper diagnosis and treatment. Self-treatment or home remedies alone are not recommended as UTIs require prescription medication prescribed by a veterinarian.

Veterinarians commonly prescribe antibiotics to treat bacterial UTIs in cats. Antibiotics help clear the infection by killing the bacteria causing it. Some common antibiotics used include Amoxicillin, Cephalexin, Clavamox, and Orbifloxacin. The type and dosage will depend on factors like the cat’s medical history and the results of a urine culture to identify the bacteria.

It’s crucial to follow the veterinarian’s instructions closely when giving antibiotics to your cat. Give the medication exactly as prescribed, for the full duration specified, even if symptoms improve earlier. Stopping antibiotics too soon can allow bacteria to persist and become resistant. Alert your vet if the medication does not seem to be working.

In addition to antibiotics, your vet may recommend pain relievers to help with discomfort. Hospitalization for IV fluids may be required if the cat is dehydrated or unable to urinate. With prompt veterinary treatment, most feline UTIs can be cured within 7-10 days.


There are several ways cat owners can help prevent their cat from developing UTIs in the future, according to sources like Elanco, Bond Vet, and FetchFind.

Increasing your cat’s water intake is one of the best ways to prevent UTIs. Make sure your cat has access to clean, fresh water at all times. Consider getting a cat water fountain, which encourages drinking. Feed wet food, which has high water content. Ice cubes or diluted low-sodium broth can also boost fluid intake.

Feeding a veterinary urinary or urinary tract health prescription diet may help. These foods are formulated to promote a healthy urinary tract environment and pH balance. Discuss an appropriate diet with your vet.

Maintaining good litter box hygiene is also important. Scoop waste out at least once a day and change the litter completely every 1-2 weeks. Use unscented clumping litter. Place multiple litter boxes around your home for easy access. Keeping the litter box clean reduces bacterial growth.


In summary, there are a few reasons why a cat may lay in the litter box with a UTI. Primarily, urinary tract infections cause pain and discomfort during urination, which can cause the cat to associate the litter box with these negative feelings. As a result, the cat may avoid the litter box and look for other places to urinate. Other symptoms like increased urination frequency and smelly urine can also motivate unusual litter box behavior.

If your cat is displaying any symptoms of a potential UTI, including litter box avoidance, it’s important to schedule a veterinarian visit as soon as possible. UTIs can worsen quickly in cats and lead to dangerous health complications if left untreated. With proper medical care from your vet, your cat’s UTI and litter box habits should improve.

Scroll to Top