Why Does My Cat “Go” Outside the Litter Box?

By Julia Williams

I saw a funny cartoon on Facebook recently, where a cat had made a little Zen Garden out of his litter box. A woman commented that her cat had started pooping next to the litter box and they were going to find it a new home. Dozens of angry retorts from cat lovers followed, and while some of the comments were a bit harsh, I think their wrath was justified. Had the woman said she’d tried everything to figure out why the cat was doing this, and asked for help, it would have been a different story.

Unfortunately, there are people who, instead of trying to change this common but undesirable behavior, just dump the cat at the shelter. That doesn’t solve anything, and innocent animals suffer needlessly. It’s absolutely not the cat’s fault that it starts going outside the litter box. There is always a reason, and a responsible pet owner has a duty to figure it out and find a solution. Anything else is just unacceptable. Sometimes it’s not easy, but no one ever said life would be without challenges.

There are five main reasons a cat might start “doing his business” outside the litter box. Let’s take a look at them.

A Medical Problem

Many medical issues – including diabetes, cystitis, bladder stones and urethral blockage – can cause a cat to stop using the litter box, and some can be life threatening. Therefore, it’s imperative to take your cat to the vet to rule out a medical problem first, before considering other reasons for the litter box aversion.

Type of Litter

Back in 1947, when Edward Lowe “accidentally” invented the first commercially packaged kitty litter, pet owners weren’t faced with a gazillion choices like they are today. How do we choose one? It depends somewhat on your personal preferences, but in the end it’s really about which one your cat likes and will use. If you love the natural kitty litters made from corn or wheat but your cat doesn’t, guess who has the final say? If you think scented litter smells nice, but your cat (whose sense of smell is infinitely greater than your own) prefers unscented, then unscented is what you’ll have to use. Some litter has a rough texture, and your cat might prefer a finer, sandy feel.

If your cat doesn’t like your choice of litter for any reason, she’s going to let you know with inappropriate elimination – and you will never convince them to accept a litter they find objectionable. You may have to try many different brands and types to discover which one is the holy grail of kitty litters in your cat’s eyes, but once you do, stick with it.

Box Location 

The classic real estate adage “location, location, location” is also important for the litter box. Situate the box in a safe, low-traffic location that’s easily accessible, offers some privacy and is not near appliances that make startling noises. Litter boxes should also not be placed next to food and water bowls, because cats don’t like to eat or drink near where they go to the bathroom any more than humans do. If you have multiple cats and more than one litter box, don’t put them all in the same place if you have a bully cat who might try to keep a timid cat away from the box.

Cleanliness 

Most people flush their own toilets after every use, yet some think it’s perfectly acceptable to let several days’ worth of offerings accumulate in the litter box. Aside from the issue of smelling up your house, stepping in poo is offensive to your fastidious feline’s sensibility. That’s not to say you have to be like some obsessive-compulsive people I know (okay…it’s me) who hover over the litter box to scoop immediately after the cat finishes his business. But you do have to clean it often – daily, if possible.

The Box Itself

Size matters for many things … litter boxes among them. Don’t expect an adult cat to keep using the itty bitty box you got when he was a kitten, and don’t expect a large cat to feel comfortable using a medium sized box. Actually, I’m not sure there is such a thing as “too big” when it comes to the litter box, at least in terms of the cat’s acceptance.

The number of litter boxes is also important for many cats. The Litter Box Golden Rule is one for each cat, plus one extra. That being said, I have three cats and only one litter box (gasp!) and my cats don’t seem to mind. It probably helps that I have OCD and scoop that one box several times a day, but even so, it seems the golden rule might not apply to every household.

There are other reasons why a cat might start going outside their litter box. One might say this post has only “scratched the surface” (sorry!) so if more research is needed, the website catinfo.org is a good place to start.

Top photo by Tracie Hall
Bottom photo by Graham Smith

Read more articles by Julia Williams

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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11 thoughts on “Why Does My Cat “Go” Outside the Litter Box?

  1. One of my cats stands up to pee, and the urine then lands on the wall behind the box. I got a very large storage container with high sides; it's so deep that he can't possibly pee over the top. I have a step stool next to it so he can get in and out of the box easily. This might work for your cat as well.

  2. I am so upset with my beautiful loving Miaoko. Is it reasonable to say forever means “until you pee all over the house”? She refuses to use the basement litter box–too far away. I went and got an upstairs litter box, which I really hate. Unfortunately, she is capable of putting all 4 paws in the box and peeing over the edge all over the floor. I put down a vinyl tablecloth, and cover it with enough litter to soak up the pee when she misses the box. This helped but it didn't prevent damage to my hardwood floors. I recently got a covered box–she won't use it. Arggh! I can't live with this, no matter how much she cuddles and purrs. And no matter how many litter boxes I get, or how big they are, she will still be peeing over the edge. And as far as pooping goes, she tries to go in the box, but she eats so much hair, she ends up with a string of turds hanging from her butt. Actually the turds are easier to clean up and do no damage. But the peeing is a major issue. What can I do?

  3. I never had problems with my cats going outside the litter box until my male cat reached the advanced age of 20. His eyesight began to fail, arthritis struck his joints, and he began having kidney and bladder issues. Often he couldn't get to the box in time but he always made it to the room where it sat. When the vet and I determined it best to let him go, I had to replace the carpet, pad, and the entire sub floor of that room, as no carpet shampoo was ever going to get it out. But I never considered dumping him because I knew he couldn't help it. Carpet can be replaced, he was my lifetime companion and deserved my love, understanding, and respect.

  4. That really was great info and you are so right about the litter selection. While we never had that “problem” we auditioned several litters before we all agreed on one.

  5. I don't remember ever having a problem with a cat not using the litter box correctly. However, my cats are outdoor/indoor ones, so they generally use the neighbour's garden ;) Seriously, very good info. Thanks!!

  6. In spite of the fact I am not a lovey-cuddly cat, I *am* a PERFECT GentlemanCat about my litter box. I have never, EVER sprayed or anything, even though I did not get neutered ::shudder:: till just last year when I was eight (don't worry–I NEVER went outside so I was not making kittens!) The Human thinks that if I ever go outside my box she will know I am sick and whisk me off to the Stabby Place.

  7. I am with you on this one and it is the reason why I never do cat litter reviews. My gang of 8 are very happy with the litter I use and I am not about to jeopardize that in any way, shape, or form! I also am a bit neurotic about scooping, but in my case with 8 cats, I have to be. I know the rule about a litter box for every cat, but that would be just ridiculous in my house. I find by keeping the two boxes we have crystal clean, that it works for us. We scoop all day and night long and that's just how it is!

  8. Brilliant post. And thank you so much for the heads-up to the catinfo site. Let's hear it for the interwebs. What a contribution to quality of life. Yay you.

  9. I was once given a free bag of a brand of cat litter using pine pellets. Huge mistake as the cats completely boycotted the litter box until I threw the offending litter away. It was back to Johnny Cat unscented and we never change. I learned my lesson and the cats kept me in line.

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