There’s nothing like the smell of cat pee to make you drop everything to search for an answer. A cat that is peeing outside the litter box can do damage to both your house and your relationship with them. Finding a solution to get them back in the box, and quickly, is important.
Peeing outside the litter box isn’t about anger, spite, or jealousy. Instead, litter box avoidance is often a symptom of something else entirely. We’ll focus on four factors that can lead to peeing (or pooping) outside the litter box and what you can do about them.
A quick note: it’s important to identify whether your cat is spraying (leaving urine on a vertical surface) or urinating (squatting and leaving a puddle). Both can have answers in the information below, but if your cat is spraying, you might also want to check out this post.
Rule Out Medical
First and foremost with litter box problems is to rule out any medical issues. This is particularly true if this behavior is:
- A sudden change in behavior
- An increase or change in previously stable behaviors (ex. A cat who always used to pee outside the box when owners were away but is now doing it when they are home as well)
- Happening for the first time in a senior cat
- Poop (rather than pee) outside the box
As a rule of thumb, visit the vet first and work on the behavioral side only after a thorough medical investigation.
There are many medical reasons why a cat might start avoiding their litter box, either sometimes or all the time. These include, but aren’t limited to, urinary tract issues, GI upset, and pain anywhere in the body. If you’ve seen a change in your cat’s behavior, a urinalysis (a common first test) may not be enough to fully rule out medical causes. Your vet may recommend additional diagnostics and/or medication trials.
If you treated your cat for a medical cause of litter box avoidance in the past and the issue is still happening or has returned, this could be a sign that there is a behavioral component as well. But it could also be a sign that the medical issue hasn’t been fully resolved or has reoccured. Make sure your vet has confirmed that the medical concern is fully resolved or managed before assuming that you are dealing with a new issue.
Check the Box
After medical rule out, you’ll want to look at the litter box itself. Often, though not always, pee outside but right next to a box suggests it is something about the box itself that is causing the avoidance.
If you have recently made changes to your box (type, litter type, location, etc), try going back to what you were using before. If that resolves the issue, you now know your cat has a strong preference. If you really need to make changes to the box, you’ll need to do it very gradually. Otherwise, try to keep things the same.
Addressing litter box setup includes looking at location, box type, litter type, and cleaning routine. Many cats will tolerate things they don’t like or aren’t comfortable with for a while or at least until something else changes in their life. Even if your cat previously used their litter box without fail, improving their litter box setup may help them use it more consistently now.
You can check out this post on the “perfect” litter box for more suggestions.
Address Conflict Between Cats
Conflict between cats in the home or stress related to outdoor cats around the house can both be causes of litter box avoidance. Particularly if you are having issues with spraying (pee up a vertical surface), look for signs of trouble between the cats, though pee on the ground can also be related to conflict.
If you’ve seen your cats fight, get tense around each other, block each other’s paths, bully each other, or any other signs that there is trouble between them, then you’ll likely need to address that problem in order to see progress with the litter box issues. This may include changes to their routine and play, modifications to their home setup, separation and supervision, and training. When you’re facing the challenges of both cat conflict and litter box issues, professional behavior support can be invaluable.
Reduce Stress Wherever You Can
The final, but big, cause of litter box issues is stress. Just generally, and vaguely, stress. This can be obvious things, like a cat who won’t leave the bedroom now that there is a puppy in the house, or subtle things, like not having appropriate outlets for natural cat behaviors. You might see clear signs your cat is stressed in daily life or you might only see the litter box issue (which is itself a sign of stress).
In particular, stress can be a culprit when the issue is intermittent and your cat is using their box sometimes but not others. This post can help shed some light on that phenomenon: Unstacking Triggers.
Ultimately, you don’t necessarily have to identify the exact cause of your cat’s stress to start reducing it. Interactive play, environmental enrichment, food puzzles, and home setup can play a role in reducing stress without ever knowing the source.
Peeing Outside the Box: A Solvable Mystery
The vast majority of cats can get back in their litter box when the big four reasons are addressed fully: medical, litter box setup, relationships between cats, and stress. It can take time and work from multiple angles, but there is hope for a cleaner house in the future!
If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.