Why Do Cats Have Accidents Outside the Litter Box?

Tabby Cat
Cat, Image Courtesy of bk images, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There are a number of problems that cause cats to urinate or defecate outside the litter box, and contrary to popular belief, spite or revenge isn’t among them. Although many people believe that cats go on the floor or the furniture to punish their owners, people make this assumption because humans do things out of spite.

A cat may go in the wrong place due to anxiety over the behaviour of his human companions, but this is very different from doing so as an act of revenge. Punishment is unlikely to change the behaviour because it increases the anxiety that caused it 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.

Medical problems

If a cat that had good litter box habits begins going outside the box, he should be taken to the vet to rule out medical problems before considering other possible causes. Cats suffering from medical problems may seek out comforting places (such as their owners’ beds) to relieve themselves because they are frightened or in pain.

Declawing can also cause litter box avoidance because newly declawed cats experience severe pain when they try to dig in kitty litter, so they get into the habit of going in other places where they don’t have to dig.

Problems with the litter box 

Many cats object to certain types of litter boxes or 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 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.
    • The cat has a preference for going in a certain area of the house: Move the box to the cat’s preferred area (you can always move it back later, 2 to 3 inches per day, once the bad habit is broken). If you can’t move the litter box, after cleaning the soiled area thoroughly, make it unappealing by covering it with upside-down plastic carpet runner (pointy side up) or Sticky Paws tape. Putting the cat’s food and water bowls in the targeted area can also solve the problem, as cats don’t like to eliminate 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

When cats urinate or defecate near the box rather than in it, unclean litter is usually the problem. 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. Other common litter-related problems include the following:

    • The litter is not deep enough: Add more litter (until it’s at least 3 inches deep).
    • The cat doesn’t like the brand of litter: Try a different brand. Most cats prefer a clumping fine-grained litter (though clumping litter shouldn’t be used for kittens under 4 months old because they might eat it).
    • 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 – switch to an unscented litter.
    • Litter clings to the fur on a long-haired cat’s legs or paws: 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: Add a very thin layer of litter at one end of the box, 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 and in a quiet area of the house, and the litter brand and box location have not been changed recently, the problem may be psychological. The 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.

Litter-box-related trauma

A cat may avoid the 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, make sure that the new location is protected from such intrusions. If you are unable to prevent other pets from bothering the cat while he uses 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 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 this case, 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.

Change-related anxiety

Cats dislike change. Moving to a new house, introducing new pets, and other life changes can cause significant anxiety. If the stressor cannot be eliminated, spend lots of quality time with the cat to reduce anxiety. In the case of extreme stress, a veterinarian may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication.

Frightening events

Cats can lose control of their bladders and bowels if something terrifies them. This is particularly likely if the problem occurs near a window or doorway where another animal might look in. Closing the curtains and making sure there is no way for other animals to get into the house can solve this problem.

How to prevent future accidents outside the litter box

Preventing future accidents outside the box requires treating medical problems or reducing psychological stress, and in some cases placing deterrents on the targeted area, such as food and water bowls or carpet runner (pointy side up).

Previously soiled areas must be thoroughly cleaned because if certain areas of the house smell like urine, the cat will be more likely to target those spots in the future. 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 use the enzymatic cleaner first.

For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.


    • Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. (2006). “Feline Behavior Problems: House Soiling.” Vet.Cornell.edu.
    • Cats International. (2007). “The Unabridged Guide to Litterbox Problems.” CatsInternational.org.
    • Mar Vista Animal Medical Center. (2009). “Feline House Soiling.” MarVistaVet.com.Nash, H., DVM,
    • Drs. Foster & Smith. (2010). “Inappropriate Elimination (Urination, Defecation, Spraying) in Cats.” PetEducation.com.

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