It’s of course very frustrating when your cat is urinating and/or defecating outside the litter box. Fortunately, the reason for this behavior can typically be identified and the problem likely resolved.

In fact, there are only five reasons why your cat is avoiding the litter box:

1. Your male cat is not neutered and has an impulse to mark his territory.

Make a vet appointment as soon as possible to get him neutered. This will typically resolve the problem, although it may take a few weeks after the surgery for this marking impulse to stop.

2. The litter box setup is not meeting your cat’s needs.

Cats prefer to eliminate in a large, open box in a quiet, but accessible area of the home that allows them to see their surroundings. Cats prefer an unscented scoopable (clumping) litter that is scooped twice a day. Also, be aware that the location of the box may no longer be meeting your cat’s needs. For example, as cats age, their agility declines and they can get arthritis. An older cat who used to have no problem going to the litter box in the basement may now have trouble doing so. Another example: Your cat was comfortable using the litter box until something spooked them in that location (maybe a sudden noise or the appearance of an outdoor cat in the window) and they now do not feel comfortable using this box.

Often, the easiest solution is to place a new litter box where the cat is choosing to eliminate. Cats don’t think in terms of right or wrong. They think in terms of meeting their needs. For example, if your cat routinely pees in the dining room, this means that, for whatever reason, the dining room best meets your cat’s needs as a place to eliminate. You could try denying your cat access to the dining room (if possible), but the other option is to place a litter box in that location. It may not be an ideal location for you, but it’s ultimately going to be easier to scoop waste out of a litter box than to consistently clean the floor.

Also, if you need to add a litter box to a location, don’t move an existing litter box in the home that is already being used by the cat. Always add boxes, don’t move boxes.

Preventing Litter Box Problems

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3. Your cat has a medical issue.

Medical issues can cause cats to avoid the litter box for a variety of reasons. For example, they feel discomfort when eliminating and associate this negative sensation with the litter box and choose to avoid it; or they may have a condition that requires them to eliminate suddenly and often before they can get to the litter box; or they may not want to eliminate because of pain they feel and only eliminate when they can no longer hold it in (wherever they may be).

Make a vet appointment, particularly if you notice your cat eliminating more or less often than normal, vocalizing or appearing in discomfort when eliminating and/or notice other changes in the cat’s behavior or routine.

4. You have multiple cats and one or more cats is feeling stress, possibly being bullied by another cat.

First, make sure you have several open litter boxes throughout the home so the cat being bullied has various options of where to eliminate. Second, work on improving the relationship between the two cats. This will take time and, likely, a consultation with a cat behaviorist. The cat doing the bullying needs to learn that it’s not in their interest to do this behavior. For example, the bullying behavior leads to timeouts, while neutral or positive interactions with the other cat leads to human attention and treats. This will help the bullied cat to feel safe and secure in the home, as will more interactive play.

5. Stress is causing the cat to mark territory (even if spayed/neutered) and/or to seek out areas to eliminate other than the litter box.

There are a vast number of potential stressors for your cat to experience. For example, new people or animals in the home, unfamiliar routines, smells, sounds in the home, animals outside the home or loss of people or animals from the home. There is a good chance you may not figure out the exact cause of your cat’s stress and that’s OK because often stress can be addressed without knowing the cause. That said, it’s helpful to determine if there is a pattern to when the cat eliminates outside the box. For example, is it overnight? Or when left home alone? Or when you went on vacation?

Resolving litter box issues that are stress-related can be challenging as they often require a detailed understanding of the cat and the home environment. These cases in particular may require the guidance of a cat behaviorist. The following solutions are general:

If you can identify the stressor, try to remove it (if possible) or limit impact on the cat or change the cat’s association with the stressor from negative to positive.

  • Example 1: If your son’s decision to play the drums is the stressor, perhaps he can practice in a location other than the home.
  • Example 2: If outdoor construction is the stressor, try to isolate your cat in a room away from the noise with some classical music or white noise to muffle the construction sounds.
  • Example 3: If a new animal in the home is the stressor, work on creating positive associations.

Introducing Your Cat to Other Pets

  • Make sure your litter box setup meets your cat’s needs. For example, if your cat is peeing overnight in an open area of the home and the litter box is a covered box, the issue may be that your cat doesn’t feel safe at night (maybe because of outdoor cats) using a covered box which doesn’t allow them to see their surroundings. In this case, the solution could be as simple as having an open, instead of a closed, box.
  • Provide your cat with two to three interactive play sessions a day. Play is the best way to reduce stress.
  • If your cat continues to eliminate in a specific are of the home, temporarily denying them access to that location may be necessary.

Final notes

If the above guidance does not resolve your cat’s litter box avoidance, contact a cat behaviorist.

If your cat is consistently peeing in the same location and it’s not possible to limit the cat’s access to that location and it’s also not possible to place a litter box in that location, then it’s important to deter the cat in other ways. For example, if your cat is peeing on your couch you should temporarily cover the couch with thick plastic (a tarp, or a shower curtain or shower curtain liner). Your cat is less likely to pee on the plastic and if they do it will be easier to clean.

Clean the areas where the cat has peed with soap and water and then use an enzymatic urine cleaner which can be bought online or at any pet store. This will help to remove the urine smell.

In rare cases, there is a sixth reason that cats avoid the litter box: They have a preference to urinate and/or defecate on surfaces other than litter. For example, the cat prefers to pee on a hard surface. If you have likely ruled out the other five causes as the reason for the cat avoiding the litter box, contact a cat behaviorist.