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Litterbox avoidance: or why is my cat urinating everywhere but where I want him to?

Updated on March 2, 2010

You love your cat, but you also love your laundry. You can't understand why that spot by the door is such a draw. You really can't imagine recarpeting your whole house. Why is Fluffy doing this to you?!?!

Cats are naturally neat and somewhat finicky creatures. They bathe themselves daily, they (most of them) bury their excrement. Why is it that some cats suddenly start urinating or defecating outside of the litterbox?

When does the maid get here?

Most commonly, a cat will choose to stop using its litterbox because something about the litterbox itself is unpleasant. Many things that we humans think about litterbox care don't take into account the cat's point of view. Most cats prefer a litterbox that:

  1. is 1.5 times its length. Many commercial litterboxes are too small for the average cat. More recently, there has been an increase in the number of options for larger size boxes, but in reality, a $5 Rubbermaid under-bed box or 18 gallon tub with a door cut in it are just as good if not better than the more expensive boxes at the pet store.
  2. is uncovered. A cover is great for us humans = now we don't have to smell the box! Unfortunately, a cat, with a sense of smell 200 times stronger than ours, is now trapped in a small, confined space with the odor of its own bodily waste. How much do YOU like Port-A-Johns?
  3. is easily accessible and well lit. Despite the fact that cats can see in 1/16th the light that humans can, they still need some light to see where the box is. If the ideal spot in your house for a litterbox is in the basement, give Fluffy a night light to help her navigate to her potty. Also, litterboxes tend to be out-of-sight, out-of-mind. If the box is in the back corner of the basement behind the Christmas tree, you're not likely to be in a hurry to scoop it regularly, and Kitty might not be in a hurry to battle the cobwebs to get to it, either.
  4. is filled with 2-3" unscented scoopable clay litter. This is important. As much as we like to be kind to the environment, Fluffy doesn't much care if corn litter is more biodegradable than clay. Most cats will not use corn, wheat, or other grain-derived litters, or if they do use the litter begrudgingly, they still prefer the clay. They definitely have a preference for scoopable vs. plain clay litters. They also don't care if it seems like a waste to top off the box the day before dumping the litter; Kitty requests that you refrain from filling the box completely on day one and scooping down to crumbs by day 30. And most importantly - hearkening back to that super-strong sense of smell, they definitely prefer non-fragranced litters. We think they smell nice. Cats think they smell like a little old lady who dumped a bucket of perfume on herself.
  5. is scooped one or more times daily. Really. Do you want to use a toilet that someone else just used? Nobody likes to do it, but it has to get done. Be glad if your cats tolerates only once daily scooping. Some prefer it be scooped immediately after use.
  6. is completely dumped and thoroughly cleaned every 4-6 weeks. Even scoopable litters leave behind little bits occasionally, and these little bits add up - just like the toilet water refreshes each time you use it, but you still need to use the Tidy Bowl. You don't need to bleach out the box or pour boiling water in it - a mild dish soap will do. You can also hose down the box outside in the summer if you are so moved. However, be careful with clay and your household drain pipes. Too much clay WILL clog them up.
  7. contains no plastic liners or other additives. If your cat has front claws, they will shred any plastic liner. In addition, most cats just don't like the feel. Baking soda additives may help eliminate odor, but it has a bitter taste, so can be a deterrent. When Kitty walks out of the litterbox and sits down to groom her feet, she tastes that bitter baking soda and thinks, "Ugh! I am never walking there again!"

In addition, you should have at least one more box than the number of cats in your home. This means that if you have 4 cats, you should have a minimum of 5 litterboxes. You should also try to place one litterbox on every level of your home.

Lemmee at 'im! Lemmee at 'im!

Sometimes cats stop using the litterbox for territorial or frustration issues. If your cat is urinating near a window or door, or spraying vertical surfaces, you may have a behavior issue on your hands.

Male cats that are unneutered have a strong inclination to back up to vertical surfaces and spray small amounts of urine on things to mark territory. Contrary to popular belief, females can also spray, and spaying or neutering your cat, while significantly decreasing the likelihood of this problem, is not a 100% guarantee that your cat will not be territorial - especially if there are stray cats in the neighborhood. Cats can also be stimulated to urinate near a window or door due to frustration about prey-inaccessibility. If they see rodents or birds outside and want to chase them but can't, they may urinate or defecate outside the box in frustration.

Similarly, the addition of a new cat to the household, a new baby, a new dog, a change in work schedule, a long vacation, the departure of a young family member off to college - these are all upsetting situations that may cause a cat enough stress that they may eliminate inappropriately. For most of these situations, easing the cat into the idea of a may help prevent such stress. For example: if you are going to be adding a new cat/dog/baby to the home, prepare the cat by making preparations in advance of bringing the new family member home (setting up new cat bed, dog crate or crib well in advance, playing the sounds of dogs barking or babies crying, letting the cat investigate baby paraphernalia, dog toys, bringing home items that smell like dogs, cats or babies, etc.) .

These types of problems can also be medically managed with various types of anti-depressant medications, which your veterinarian can prescribe for you.

You may also want to visualize your cat's route to the litterbox. Is it next to a washer, dryer or furnace? Perhaps he has gotten startled by tennis shoes bouncing in the dryer while he was in the box? Or the furnace fan kicked on while he was doing his duty? Does he have to walk past the dog crate to get to his box? Is there a big plug-in air freshener right by the box? These are all things that have been known to make cats go elsewhere in search of relief.

I feel funny....

Often, an older cat may indicate that he is not feeling well by starting to urinate or defecate inappropriately. Sometimes, (rarely) it is an incontinence or senility issue.

More often, inappropriate urination in older cats is linked to increased water intake. This can be a sign of several disease processes in cats: renal (kidney) insufficiency and failure, diabetes, and hyperthyroid disease,  to name the most common. Often the first two signs of illness in a cat are a change in appetite and a change in litterbox habits, so house-sioling is not an issue to be taken lightly. If one of these problems is suspected, your veterinarian will want to perform one or more blood tests to determine the underlying cause of your cat's urination issue. Fortuantely, diabetes and hyperthyroidism are very treatable diseases. Kidney insufficiency and failure is a manageable but not curable disease process. However, if kidney failure is caught early, there are many things we can do for our cats to make them feel good despite the disease.

In younger to middle-aged cats, inappropriate urination can also be linked to urinary tract infections and urinary crystals or stones. Recently, at the hospital where I work, we removed 60 bladder stones from a kitten! This is a rare occurrence, but even very young cats can have these issues. In male cats, crystals and stones can very quickly become an emergency situation. The male feline urethra (the tube that connects the bladder to the outside of the body) is very narrow, so large numbers of crystals can become clustered inside, or a small stone can pass part-way but not all the way out, and cause a blockage. If the urine is blocked from exiting the body, it backs up into the bladder. When the bladder stretches to its fullest capacity, it is in danger of rupturing (like a balloon popping when it is filled with too much air). In addition, the urine backs up even further into the kidneys. The kidneys can't push urine out, so they basically throw their little hands up in the air in frustration and say "I quit!" and stop making urine. This means that all the toxins that the kidneys usually flush out of the body start to build up in the blood stream and throw the body's chemistry balance out of whack. All this adds up to one very sick, very painful kitty. A cat cannot last very long in this condition, so if you ever see your cat in the litterbox (or on the carpet or anywhere else) squatting but not producing any urine, or just a few dribbles or drips of urine, call your veterinarian ASAP.

As for infections, they are treated with a course of antibiotics. Most veterinarians will want to check another urine sample after the antibiotics are finished - this is to make sure the infection is gone and you don't need a second course of medication. This is a very important recheck - otherwise, you may find yourself right back at the vet's office a few months (and a much worse-for-wear carpet) later. Most cats' symptoms will clear up long before the bacteria are fully eliminated. If an infection seems recurrent it is likely that the bacteria is antibiotic resistant and may need a culture and sensitivity test performed. This test is more expensive and takes longer for results because the laboratory is basically growing the bacteria from the cat's urine and then testing it against various antibiotics to see which ones work best. This type of testing is usually only performed in the more extreme cases.

I smell a smell...

Lastly, your cat may be urinating in a spot that smells like urine. If you are not the first owner of your home or apartment, you may be dealing with someone else's pet problem! Or your cat may continue to urinate on a spot that he previously used because it wasn't fully cleaned up.

In order to detect locations of urine spots you may have missed (or old spots from another pet), get yourself a small black light (now available in many pet aisles and pet stores). Urine will fluoresce a yellow-white color. If you have already cleaned up spots, you will see a bluish-white color where your cleaner has penetrated. Vomit and stool will also fluoresce, but the color is much more yellow than urine. You may be surprised (and possibly dismayed) by the spots you find. Clean all spots thoroughly with an enzymatic cleaner (Nature's Miracle, Nok-Out, Urine-Off, Simple Solution, etc.), not just a deodorizer. Again, cats have that peskily strong sense of smell, and cleaners that cover up the odor for humans, still leave traces of scent that cats can detect. Enzymatic cleaners actually break down the odor molecules so they don't smell anymore.

Thoroughly saturate the spots. Don't use the cleaner sparingly - you may be surprised at the small size of the urine spots you see. What happens is that your cat's urine falls in a stream that penetrates the backing of the carpet and then soaks into the padding. The spot you see will be quite small, but the spot underneath may be quite large. If you are handy with tools, you may wish to pull up the carpet to inspect the backing and the padding with your black light and to ensure that you clean it all thoroughly.

If it is in your budget, a professional carpet cleaning works well, also.

So there you have it - you don't have to get rid of your favorite furball, and you don't have to live with your cat going everywhere but the litterbox. You just need to do a little detective work with your veterinarian to figure out the root of the problem.

Fluffy's just trying to tell you to listen to her the only way that she knows how...and she sure knows how to get your attention!


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    • Jennisis profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      Generally if an older cat starts urinating outside of the litterbox when they have not done so before, it is due to a medical issue such as diabetes, thyroid disease or kidney disease. These are things that a qualified veterinarian will help you to identify. Have you noticed a change in how much water your cat is drinking or weight loss or gain, recently? Knowing these things will help your veterinarian discover the cause of the problem.

    • Nick Warren profile image

      Nick Warren 

      4 years ago

      I have had my cat scooby for about 16 years and he has never pee outside the litterbox and now he is peeing everywhere I dont know what to do can somebody please help

    • Jennisis profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      Ashli - Are you certain he is only 5 months old? Many male cats start to mark their territory at 6-9 months of age unless they are neutered.

      Maybe he is the type of cat who prefers to urinate in one litterbox and defecate in a second box. The ideal number of litterboxes is 1 more than the number of cats in your house, however most single cats will tolerate or get by with only one box. Try adding a second, large uncovered litterbox filled with a clumping, non-scented litter, no liners or other additives, in another location in your house. Ideally, you should have one litterbox on every level of your home.

      Lastly, but most importantly, have your veterinarian examine your cat. A normal, healthy cat should use the litterbox. It is not unheard of for cats with intestinal parasites to avoid the litterbox, and while uncommon in young cats, they can develop urinary crystals and stones as well as bladder infections - we have had two at our veterinary hospital within the last year who were under 5 months of age and had a terrible case of crystals in their urine.

      If there is nothing medically wrong with him, and you have done everything you can to make his litterbox situation the best it can be, then it may be a behavior issue. If your veterinarian is not comfortable addressing behavior issues in cats, seek advice from a veterinary behavior specialist who can counsel you in how best to manage, treat and hopefully eventually cure his issue.

      As for where he eliminates outside - I am not sure that you can influence that, much, but perhaps building him a little sandbox outside and cleaning it regularly like a litterbox would encourage him to eliminate where you wanted him to and not right off the patio.

      Good luck!

    • Ashli Eker profile image

      Asli E. 

      6 years ago from Australia

      My cat who is now only 5 months old has begun to poop everywhere.

      When we first got him, we kept him inside the large bathroom at nights so he wasn't scared. He was used his litter from day one except a few accidents from time to time. We started getting him to sleep outside about 3 months ago in his own little kennel. He used the litter box for a while but then he started to poop and pee everywhere! On the couch on the grass - right where we walk to get off the patio. I kept his litter box clean in the hopes that he would use it. We moved it around to the areas where he was pooping so that he would use it again but he didn't use it. Now, he is continuing - he goes everywhere and doesn't even try to dig it up. I don't know what to do - I am at my wits end and my family has started to complain as it is effecting our lifestyles as well. Please help!


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