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Getting to the Bottom of Litter Box Problems

House soiling, also known as inappropriate elimination, by cats is one of the most common behavior-related complaints of cat owners. Sadly, urinating outside the litter box is also one of the most common reasons why pet owners abandon or surrender their cats.

No one quick-fix solution is available to address all litter box problems. Resolving feline house-soiling behaviors starts with figuring out the underlying cause of the behavior. Once you understand why your cat is urinating (or defecating) outside the box, you and your veterinarian can develop an appropriate treatment plan. Here, we’ll review some common reasons for kitty litter box troubles and some steps you can take to manage the situation.

Why cats eliminate outside the litter box

Health conditions, behavioral or social problems, environmental issues and territory marking can all trigger inappropriate urination in cats.

Health concerns

Any medical condition of the urinary tract can result in inappropriate urination and litter box troubles. Bladder stones and crystals, bacterial urinary tract infections and feline idiopathic cystitis are the most common medical causes of outside-the-box urination. These conditions cause pain and an increased urgency to urinate. Affected cats may associate their litter boxes with pain and, as a result, they urinate outside of the box.

Health issues such as kidney disease, liver disease and diabetes can cause your cat to drink more and urinate more frequently. If litter box cleaning doesn’t keep pace with increased urination, these cats may opt to urinate elsewhere.

Age-related medical issues such as arthritis and cognitive dysfunction, which is similar to dementia in people, might lead to changes in urinary habits. Arthritic cats may find it difficult to climb into a litter box with high sides or a cover or to find a comfortable posture to urinate. Older cats with cognitive dysfunction may forget where the litter box is located or lose the ability to voluntarily control urination.

So if you find that your cat has urinated outside of the litter box — and assuming that the litter box has been kept clean — your first step is to consult with your veterinarian. A complete physical exam, urinalysis, blood tests and possibly X-rays and/or urine culture for bacterial infection can identify or exclude medical causes for inappropriate urination. Other changes may be necessary for senior cats with arthritis or cognitive decline, including moving the litter box to a more-accessible location (no stairs!) or providing a larger litter box with lower sides or low entry.

Behavioral or social problems

Once a cat has repeatedly urinated outside of the litter box for any reason, including health issues that have been treated and resolved, litter box training and/or behavioral therapy may be needed to re-establish routine box use. A complete and thorough behavioral history will be essential for you and your veterinarian to figure out what is going on and to help formulate a treatment plan. A behavioral history collects information about:

  • Your cat’s home environment, including the presence of other pets, especially cats
  • Type of litter used
  • Litter box number, types, hygiene and locations
  • Start, frequency, duration and progression of elimination problems
  • Social relationship between cats in the home, including obvious and subtle signs of aggression
  • Previous attempts to treat the house soiling

Urinating outside the litter box happens more frequently in multi-cat households, particularly if one or more cats in the home control access to the litter box. Even if conflict between cats isn’t obvious, it could create enough stress to cause litter box problems. Other stressors in the home — like moving, adding new pets or human family members, or changing your routine — can make your cat feel anxious. And an anxious cat may urinate in an inappropriate spot to help relieve anxiety and feel safer.

Multiple litter boxes placed in different rooms around your home provide litter box access to less confident and timid cats while also letting them avoid conflict with other cats in the home. As a general rule of thumb, you should have one litter box for each cat in your home plus one more. You’ll want to avoid covered litter boxes because some cats are uneasy using them if they can’t see whether another cat is close by. And since different cats may prefer different litters, you may need to offer options to satisfy the preferences of all your feline friends.

Environmental issues

Even if your cat has been diagnosed with a medical condition that resulted in outside-the-box urination, the litter box “experience” also contributes to the reason for your cat to urinate elsewhere. What do we mean by litter box experience? It’s the sum of box hygiene, type (e.g., covered, uncovered, size), numbers and location, and the type of litter used (e.g., clay, clumping, scented, unscented).

Like dogs, cats develop preferences for where they urinate and what they urinate on. They also can develop aversions to their litter box, including the location, the litter, the box itself or some combination of all three. Litter boxes that are dirty, hard to reach or placed next to appliances that make loud noises or odd vibrations could cause your cat to urinate someplace else. Remember that cats are notoriously clean and want their “toilets” clean, too. Litter boxes should be scooped every day, deep cleaned every few weeks, and the litter changed weekly.

Remember, too, that cats have a much better sense of smell than we do. A litter box that seems clean to us may still smell dirty to your cat. This also applies to scented cat litters, which are designed for human noses and aesthetics. If the fragrance from a scented litter seems overwhelming to you, imagine what your cat smells and thinks!

To learn more about cat litter boxes, litter and much more, check out The Spruce Pets’ ultimate guide to all things litter box, starting with the basics.

Territory marking issues

Cats use urination and defecation as ways to communicate with other cats. One normal way cats communicate and mark their territory in the wild — and unfortunately, sometimes in your home — is by spraying small amounts of urine.

Cats usually spray urine on vertical surfaces like walls and doors rather than on horizontal ones. Typically, the cat backs up to the wall or other vertical surface, raises its tail which often quivers, treads with its back feet and sprays a small amount of urine backward. Stress or the perception of a threat to your cat’s “territory,” such as an outdoor cat in your yard or new pets or people in your home, can trigger urine spraying.

Getting to the bottom of litter box issues

Dealing with house soiling and outside-the-box elimination issues in cats can be challenging and may require considerable time and effort. And the longer the situation persists, the more difficult it may be to resolve. That’s why you want to talk with your veterinarian at the first sign of litter box issues. And it’s also why you want to make sure you’re keeping your cat’s litter box as clean and appealing as possible. To learn more about common litter box problems, be sure to check out this article by the staff of the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).


RELATED POST: Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Your Cat’s Urine

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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