By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 8 January 2015)
There are a number of problems that will cause cats to urinate or defecate outside the litter box, and contrary to popular belief, spite or revenge isn’t among them. While it is commonly believed that cats go on the floor or the furniture to punish their owners, people make this assumption because humans are inclined to behave out of spite.
A cat may go in the wrong place due to anxiety over the behavior of his humans, but this is very different from doing so as an act of revenge, and punishment is unlikely to change the behaviour. Instead, it will just increase the anxiety that caused the inappropriate behavior in the first place. Common causes of litter box avoidance include medical issues, problems with the litter box or litter, and litter-box-related trauma.
If a cat is regularly going outside the box, he should be taken to the vet to rule out medical problems such as a urinary tract infection before looking for other possible causes. Cats suffering from medical problems may seek out comforting places to relieve themselves. For example, many cats that are ill or anxious will pee on their owners’ beds.
Declawing can also cause litter box problems, as the pain experienced by declawed cats makes many of them unable to dig in kitty litter.
Problems with the Litter Box
Many cats object to certain types of litter boxes, or to specific box locations. Some of the most common litter box problems include the following:
- Some cats don’t like using a covered litter box: Taking the roof off the box will fix the problem.
- The box is in a noisy, high-traffic area: Move the box to a quieter, out-of-the-way place. Even a noisy appliance can frighten a cat away from the litter box.
- The box has been bleached: Although the box should be washed with dish soap and hot water, bleach should not be used as it removes all traces of scent, and thus the signal that the box is the appropriate place to go.
- The box is too small: If the cat won’t use the box or scratches the area around the box, the litter box may be too small. The larger the litter box, the less likely it is that a cat will go outside the box.
- The box has been moved to an area the cat dislikes: Moving the box back to the original location will solve the problem.
- The cat doesn’t like to urinate and defecate in the same box: Add a second box in another location.
- The cat has a preference for going in a certain area of the house: The best solution is to move the box to the cat’s preferred area (you can always move it back later, 2-3 inches per day, once the bad habit is broken). If you can’t move the litter box, after cleaning soiled area thoroughly, make it unappealing by covering it with upside-down plastic carpet runner (pointy side up). Putting the cat’s food and water bowls in the area can also solve the problem, as cats don’t like to go where they eat. Maintain these deterrents for at least 30 days after the cat has resumed using the litter box.
Problems with the Kitty Litter
The most common litter-related problem is that the kitty litter is filthy. Using clumping litter and scooping every day, changing the litter more often, and washing the box when the litter is changed should prevent this problem. When cats urinate or defecate near the box rather than in it, the cleanliness of the box is usually the problem. Other common problems include the following:
- The litter is not deep enough: Add more litter (until it’s at least 3 inches deep).
- The litter is too deep: While most cats prefer more litter, some cats dislike having too much. One way to test whether this is the problem is to make the litter deeper on one side of the box than the other and see which side the cat chooses.
- The cat doesn’t like the brand of litter: Trying a different brand can eliminate this problem. Most cats prefer clumping fine-grained litter (though clumping litter shouldn’t be used for kittens under 4 months old as they may suffer adverse health consequences from inhaling the particles).
- The brand of litter has recently been changed: Reverting to the original brand should solve the problem.
- The litter is scented: Cats dislike perfumes and deodorants.
- Litter clings to the fur on a long-haired cat’s legs or paws, making the cat not want to enter the box: Trim fur in the areas where litter tends to stick.
- The cat prefers to go on soft surfaces such as carpet or cloth: Try a kitty litter with very small gravel.
- The cat prefers smooth hard surfaces such as tile or porcelain: Move the litter box to a hard floor and add a just a thin layer of litter at one end, leaving the other end empty.
- The cat is used to going outdoors: Put some sod or soil on top of the kitty litter.
Psychological Litter Box Problems
If the cat has been given a clean bill of health; the litter box is clean, large enough and in a quiet area; and the litter brand or box location have not been changed recently, the problem may be psychological. The three most common psychological issues that cause cats to go outside the box are litter-box-related trauma, territorial issues, change-related anxiety, and frightening events in other areas of the house.
A cat may begin to avoid their litter box because something unpleasant or frightening has happened to him while using it. In this case you may need to get a new litter box and a new brand of litter, and move the box to a new location to break the bad association. If the cat has been startled by other animals or children while using the box, it’s important to make sure that the new location is protected from such intrusions. If you are unable to prevent other pets from bothering the cat while using the box, make sure that the box isn’t tucked into a corner where there is no escape route. The cat needs to feel as though he can get away if necessary.
Some cats stop using their litter boxes because they have come to associate them with punishment. A cat that has been scolded or punished for using the wrong spot and then placed in the litter box may develop an aversion to the box. In such cases, a new litter box, kitty litter brand, and box location may be required to overcome the bad association.
Territorial Issues in Multi-Cat Households
When there are many cats in a house, you may have to provide each cat with his own box due to territorial issues. Most pet experts agree that the ideal number of litter boxes is one per cat plus one additional box. When there are severe territorial issues among cats, each cat may need to be provided with a separate feeding station as well.
Cats dislike change. Moving to a new house, introducing new pets, and other life changes may cause significant anxiety. Because the stressor often can’t be eliminated, other measures must be taken. Spending lots of quality time with the cat can help to reduce anxiety. In the case of extreme stress, if the environment can’t be modified to remove the stressor, a veterinarian may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication.
Cats can lose control of their bladder and bowels if something terrifies them. A person or animal might be frightening the cat regularly. This is particularly likely if the problem occurs near a window or doorway where another animal might look in. Closing curtains can help with this problem, as well as making sure there is no way for other animals to get into the house.
How to Prevent Future Accidents Outside the Box
Preventing accidents outside the box requires treating any medical problems or reducing psychological stress that may be contributing to the behaviour, and in some cases placing deterrents on the targeted area, such as food and water bowls or carpet runner (pointy side up).
In addition, previously soiled areas must be thoroughly cleaned. If certain areas of the house smell like urine because the cat (or another animal) has urinated or sprayed there, the cat will be more likely to use that spot. Thoroughly cleaning the area with an enzymatic cleanser such as Nature’s Miracle (available at most pet supply stores) will help. Steam cleaning without pre-cleaning the area will lock the odor in, so it’s important to use the enzymatic cleaner first.
For more articles on the way cats think and the reasons they do the things they do, visit the main Cat Psychology, Communication, and Behaviour page. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.