Cat Behavior: Litterbox Issues

There are three primary reasons why a cat urinates or defecates outside the litter box. Once the reason for the cat's inappropriate elimination is identified, your veterinarian can work with you to design a treatment plan.

1. Medical Issues

Any cat that eliminates outside the litterbox needs a veterinary examination to rule out medical causes. Diabetes or kidney disease may result in increased volume of urination. Urinary tract infection, cystitis or bladder stones can lead to increased frequency of urination. The pain or discomfort associated with spinal arthritis, hip dysplasia or chronic constipation can also lead to inappropriate elimination. Proper treatment or management of these conditions is crucial for the ultimate resolution of the house-soiling.

2. Marking

Urine spraying, when a cat deposits urine on a vertical surface such as a wall, is the most common form of marking. However, marking can also involve urine and/or feces deposited on a horizontal surface, although fecal marking is rare. Marking is a form of communication which can be associated with a heightened state of emotional arousal or stress in the cat. Marking typically occurs in locations of “social significance” in the household. For instance, a cat may mark the living room wall or the owner’s bed.

In order to address this issue, it is helpful to try to figure out the cat’s triggers—a new cat in the household, changes in routine, aggression between cats, etc. Potential solutions involve removing or reducing the intensity of the identified triggers as well as providing plentiful resources for feeding, elimination, perching, scratching and playing, all of which should be tailored to your cat's social situation and personal preferences. Pheromone products and medications may also help with marking issues. Consult with your veterinarian to see if these might be an option for your cat.

3. Toileting Problems

Toileting problems occur when a cat does not use the litterbox for its normal elimination. Typically, an owner will find urine and/or feces on a horizontal surface. This issue is often related to aversions—the cat may not like a dirty litterbox, the litter type, or the box size, style or location. Cat owners should have at least one litterbox per cat, plus one more. The boxes should be dispersed throughout the home. The boxes should be scooped daily and completely changed and washed regularly—the frequency will depend upon litter type, but this could range from weekly to monthly.

If a toileting problem is suspected, your veterinarian may recommend that you offer your cat various different litterbox setups to discover your cat's preferred toileting option(s). Most cats prefer a clay clumping litter in a large, open box. For certain cats, the litterboxes may need to be moved to a low-traffic/quiet area. If another cat or a dog is “guarding” the box, or if the cat feels like it’s too stressful getting to a box located in a busy area of the home, the cat may choose to go wherever it feels safe. You can also try putting a litterbox over the spot where the cat has been house-soiling. If you have senior cats, make sure the boxes are accessible. Low-sided boxes work best for cats with joint or arthritis issues.