My Cat Keeps Going to the Litter Box But Nothing Happens! What’s Going On?

It can be frustrating and worrying when your cat keeps going to the litter box but nothing happens. You may see them straining and spending long periods of time in the box, only to come out without doing anything. As a caring cat owner, you naturally want to get to the bottom of this behavior and figure out if there is an underlying issue that needs attention.

In this comprehensive guide, we will dive into the top reasons behind this common cat behavior, along with actionable tips and advice to help your feline friend.

Common Causes of Litter Box Problems

There are a few key reasons why your cat may be frequently visiting their litter box without being productive:

Urinary Tract Infection

One of the most common causes of litter box problems in cats is a urinary tract infection (UTI). The infection causes inflammation, discomfort, and pain when trying to urinate. As a result, your cat associates the litter box with this unpleasant sensation and avoids using it. However, the persistent urge to urinate continues, so they make frequent trips with little result.

Other symptoms of a UTI include blood in the urine, excessive licking of the genital area, and vocalizing pain or discomfort when urinating. Untreated UTIs can lead to more severe issues in the kidneys and bladder. It’s important to get your cat checked by a vet and treated with antibiotics if a UTI is suspected.

Bladder or Kidney Stones

Crystals or stones that form in the kidneys or bladder can partially or fully block the flow of urine. This causes similar behaviors as a UTI, with frequent but unproductive trips to the litter box and signs of straining.

Some cats are genetically prone to developing crystals and stones, especially males. Diet is also a major factor, since an alkaline pH promotes crystal formation. In addition to litter box issues, symptoms include vomiting, lethargy, and blood in the urine. Veterinary treatment is needed to diagnose and remove the stones.


If your cat is very constipated, the pressure on their bladder can make urination difficult or impossible. They may sit in the litter box and vocalize from the pain and discomfort. Constipation is more common in cats who are dehydrated, on medication, eat a poor diet, are stressed, or have mobility issues.

Other symptoms include small, hard stools, straining to defecate, and blood in the stool. Increasing hydration and fiber, adding moisture to the diet, and laxatives can help relieve constipation under a vet’s supervision.

Stress and Anxiety

Cats are easily stressed by changes in their environment and routine. Stress can manifest in litter box issues like perching on the edge of the box without going or screaming while inside it. The box itself creates anxiety that makes it difficult for your cat to relax enough to eliminate.

Triggers for litter box related stress include introducing a new cat, moving homes, construction noise, inadequate cleaning, unpleasant litter, small/enclosed boxes, or location next to scary appliances. Reducing the sources of stress and making the box more appealing can coax an anxious cat to resume proper litter box use.

Age Related Issues

Senior cats often develop incontinence and cognitive decline that affects appropriate litter habits. Conditions like arthritis also make it physically difficult to get in and out of the box. Your aging kitty may forget where the box is located or simply not be able to hold it long enough to get there in time.

Providing low entry boxes, additional boxes around the home, and litter box pads/liners can help accommodate an aging cat’s needs and limitations. Check with your vet to rule out UTIs, constipation, dementia, and other senior specific conditions.

Marking Territory

Unneutered male cats and some females are prone to urine marking behaviors. They will spray urine on vertical surfaces like walls, furniture, and curtains. Litter boxes can also be seen as just another surface suitable for marking.

Cats who don’t fully empty their bladder in the box may walk out and mark nearby. Getting your cat fixed, adding more boxes, and thoroughly cleaning soiled areas helps curb the behavior. If marking persists, speak to your vet to check for other underlying causes.

Tips to Stop Frequent Unproductive Trips

If your cat keeps returning to the litter box without results, here are some helpful tips and tricks:

Visit the Vet

The first step is always to rule out medical issues. Describe the frequency and any odd behaviors to your vet, and they can check for UTIs, crystals, constipation, and other issues. Medical causes must be properly treated first before behavior training methods can work.

Add More Litter Boxes

Give your cat options by placing boxes in multiple spots around your home. Different locations, substrates, box types, and levels of privacy may be more appealing when previous preferences change. Avoid cramming boxes together in one area.

Switch Litters

Your cat may dislike the scent, texture, or dustiness of the current litter. Clumping clay litters are comfortable for most cats. Try an unscented version or natural plant-based litters to rule out a scent preference. Provide at least 2 inches of litter for digging and covering.

Clean Boxes Frequently

Scoop waste from boxes 2-3 times per day. Empty, wash, and refill with fresh litter at least once a week. Cats dislike eliminating in dirty, smelly boxes. Proper cleaning encourages regular usage.

Add Litter Mats

Place mats outside the litter box to catch stray pieces of litter from paws. This keeps your home clean and makes boxes more appealing to re-enter. Plastic, rubber, grass mats or small carpets are ideal litter mat materials.

Try Litter Box Liners

Some cats don’t like touching the plastic sides of litter boxes. Liners make boxes feel more private and comfortable under their paws. Paper, plastic and other disposable liners are available.

Use Cat Attract Litter

These litters contain herbs and pheromones that specifically attract cats and trigger their natural elimination instincts. It can re-train cats to use the box consistently without issues.

Rule Out Stress Triggers

Assess any recent changes to the home or routine that could be causing anxiety. Limit loud noises, foot traffic by the box, small children/pets interfering, and bully cats. Make litter box areas calmer and more private.

Improve Accessibility

Older or disabled cats may have difficulty climbing in and out of certain boxes. Try lower sides, ramps, or cut-out entryways to improve accessibility. Place mats outside the box for traction on slippery floors.

Consider Litter Box Size

Large or overweight cats may not comfortably fit or turn around in standard size litter boxes. Upgrade to a jumbo box so your cat has plenty of room. Likewise, kittens and small breeds may be scared of cavernous boxes.

Add a Nightlight

If location is an issue, place a low wattage nightlight nearby so your cat can easily find the litter box in low light conditions at night. Avoid bright lights that create shadows, which can scare cats.

Get Cat Checked for Obesity/Diabetes

Obesity makes it difficult for cats to squat and eliminate properly. Obese and diabetic cats are also prone to UTIs. Veterinary guidance on weight loss, diet, and insulin regulation may be needed.

Use Feliway Spray

This calming pheromone spray helps reduce anxiety and stress related to the litter box. Spritz it around the box and entryways to encourage usage without fear. It may relax your cat enough to relieve themselves normally.

Try Different Litter Box Types

Self-cleaning, hooded, top entry, and other box designs cater to specific preferences cats can develop. Buying a few inexpensive trial boxes lets you see which style your cat is most comfortable with.

Restrict Access to Marking Areas

If inappropriate urine marking is the issue, restrict access to vertical surfaces like walls until the behavior resolves. Clean soiled areas thoroughly with enzymatic cleaners to remove odors.

Consult a Vet Behaviorist

For long term litter box issues, seek advice from veterinary behavior professionals. They can assess if anxiety, trauma, or other root causes are at play, and provide prescriptions and training guidance.

When to Seek Veterinary Help

While simple fixes like adding litter boxes and switching litters often do the trick, it’s important to seek veterinary help if you notice these signs:

  • Blood in urine or stools
  • Signs of pain/discomfort when eliminating
  • Increased frequency/urgency to urinate
  • Urinating outside the litter box
  • Excessive licking of genitals
  • Changes in appetite, activity and mood
  • Straining or vocalizing when trying to eliminate

A vet can diagnose and treat any underlying infections, pain conditions, organ disease, and other problems that require medical intervention. If behavioral approaches fail to resolve the litter box issues, your vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medication or pheromone supplements to help.

The Bottom Line

Frequent yet unproductive trips to the litter box are no fun for cats or their owners. In most cases, easy solutions like adding more boxes, switching litters, or cleaning more frequently will do the trick. But medical problems can also cause these behaviors, so don’t hesitate to involve your vet if basic fixes fail.

With some patience, troubleshooting, and TLC for your cat, you can solve the litter box dilemma and help your furry friend feel relaxed and comfortable again. Maintaining open communication with your vet is key to getting to the bottom of litter box problems when they arise.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why does my cat sit in the litter box and nothing comes out?

The most common medical causes are urinary tract infections, bladder/kidney stones, or constipation, which make it painful or difficult to urinate. Stress, territorial marking, litter box aversion, and mobility issues can also prevent cats from eliminating normally in the box.

Why does my cat go to the litter box frequently?

Frequent trips without results often indicate medical issues like UTIs or bladder stones making it uncomfortable or impossible for a cat to urinate. Kidney disease, diabetes, anxiety, new litter, dirty box, and environmental stressors can also increase trips to the box.

Why does my cat scream in the litter box?

Cats in pain from UTIs, constipation, diarrhea, obstructions or other conditions may cry out when trying to eliminate. Older cats with arthritis also vocalize when stepping into the box. Anxiety, stress or being ambushed in the box can scare cats and elicit screaming as well.

Why does my cat pee right outside the litter box?

Marking territory, dislike of litter type, dirty box, stress, ambush by another pet, privacy issues, and trouble stepping into box can cause cats to perceive the box itself negatively and avoid it. Urinary tract infections also make cats feel urgency and unable to get to the box in time.

Why does my cat go poop and pee in the house?

When litter box issues arise, cats seek out loose, absorbent substrates like carpet, piles of laundry, potted plants and other “kitty litter” to urinate and defecate in. This signals an underlying problem with the location, ambience, cleanliness or accessibility of their main litter boxes.

Key Takeaways:

  • Frequent but unproductive litter box trips usually indicate medical issues like UTIs, kidney/bladder stones, constipation, marking, etc.
  • Easy fixes include adding boxes, new litters, cleaning frequently, liners, and calming aids like Feliway.
  • Rule out stress triggers like new pets, loud noises, small boxes, and dirty boxes.
  • Improving accessibility is key for senior cats or those with mobility issues.
  • If simple solutions fail, veterinary assistance is needed to diagnose and treat underlying problems.