Inappropriate elimination is one common reason cats end up in shelters. When cats urinate outside their litter boxes, it can be messy and frustrating. However, when this happens, it’s not out of spite or revenge. It’s usually a sign of some deeper issue that we can solve with some investigation and care.

Fear or Anxiety

Like you and me, cats prefer to do their business in peace. If a litter box is in a high traffic or loud area of the house, they may feel exposed and disturbed. Also, if a cat associates their box with something negative or scary (chased out by another pet) they may want to stay out of it for fear of revisiting that trauma.

Changes in routine or environment can also cause stress that may lead cats to abandon their litter boxes. Events such as moving or introducing new pets into your household can be unsettling.

Allow cats time to settle into new situations, experiment with box placement, and help your cat associate their box with positivity by playing or giving treats around the area.

Types and Quantities of Boxes

Size matters. Many litter boxes are too small for cats. If this is the case, cats may have trouble positioning themselves comfortably. They may also miss their mark even when using the box.

Enclosed boxes can also pose a problem. Cats can feel trapped in tight quarters and uncomfortable moving around in a dark potty.

Also important is having enough litter boxes. It’s fine for multiple cats to share boxes, but there should be at least as many boxes as cats in a household. This helps avoid overfilling and cats having to wait until a box is free to use.

Uncomfortable Filler

What you use in the litter box matters as much as the type of box and its placement. Cats’ noses and toes are sensitive to certain litters.

Perfumes in litter that help please our senses can overwhelm cats and motivate them to seek an alternative elimination spot. For odor control, keep boxes clean and sprinkle baking soda along the bottom.

The grain type and size of litter can irritate paws. In general, cats prefer a soft, fine grain. Experiment with different kinds of litter to find the one that suits your cat.

Age, Pain, or Disease

As cats age they get aches and pains like everyone else. They can develop arthritis, which hinders their movement and creates pain. Litter boxes that are upstairs, have high sides, or are top-entry are difficult for arthritic cats to reach.

Cats of any age can experience pain or other medical troubles that prevent them from using their litter boxes.  Ailments such as feline urologic syndrome, diabetes, cognitive dysfunction, and others can interfere with appropriate elimination behavior.

Keeping regular visits with your veterinarian and watching for signs of painor changes in behavior will help prevent and catch problems early.


It makes sense that a dirty litter box is unappealing to cats. For comfort and odor control, cleanliness is necessary. Clean boxes twice per day and do a full change every month when using clumping litter or every week when using non-clumping litter.

When cats urinate outside their box, it can be due to one or more of the above reasons. We can assume that cats want to solve the issue as much as we do. If your cat is having trouble keeping it in the box, do what you can to provide a comfortable and safe place for them to eliminate. Watch for pain or medical troubles, and have a conversation with your veterinarian about possible causes and solutions.

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