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By Carol McCarthy

If your typically fastidious cat is ditching the litter box and peeing just about everywhere else in the house, it can easily become a problem for pet parents. Between the constant cleaning and the strong smell, a cat that is not using the litter box properly can be a source of frustration. But why do cats pee outside of the box and what can you do about it? Here are some common causes of litter box problems.

Medical Issues

Health problems might be causing your cat to pee outside of the litter box, says Dr. Cathy Lund of City Kitty, a feline-only veterinary practice in Providence, Rhode Island. This behavior could be the result of a urinary tract infection, kidney disease, or diabetes. Other health problems that are painful or simply make your cat feel “off” also could be to blame. For example, an older cat with severe arthritis might have trouble getting into a box with high sides or a cover, says Lund.

“Anything that changes a cat’s feeling of wellbeing can create a change in behavior, and in cats that means litter box habit changes,” she says.

With that in mind, the first step for any litter box problem is to consult your vet, says Dr. Neil Marrinan of the Old Lyme Veterinary Hospital in Connecticut. “Simple blood and urine tests can exclude most medical causes,” he says.

An Unclean Litter Box

“I use the analogy of a Porta Potty,” Lund says. Who wants to use one of those when it is dirty, and you can smell it before you see it, she says. The same is true for litter boxes. If you are lax in keeping the litter box clean, your cats will find somewhere else to go.

Marrinan agrees that the litter box “experience” is almost always a reason for cats peeing outside of the box—even when a medical issue is present. “The trick is making the litter box the first and only place they go—regardless of why they started to pee elsewhere,” he says.

To keep your litter box clean, it’s important to scoop the litter every day—or multiple times a day if you have multiple cats in your home. Refresh the litter and do a deep cleaning of the box every few weeks. Keep in mind that the feline sense of smell is much stronger than ours, so a box that seems “clean enough” to you might still smell disgusting to your cat. This is especially true in multiple cat households. Smelling your own waste is one thing, being forced into close proximity to someone else’s is an entirely different problem.

A Hard to Reach Litter Box

In addition to litter box cleanliness, the placement of the box could cause your cat to “go” elsewhere. A box that is in a basement can be a problem for an older cat that has trouble with stairs or her eyesight, Lund says.

In addition, the box should be in a relatively active area of the house. While pet parents often don’t want a litter box in the living room, removing it too far from social areas may make the box hard to find or unappealing to your cat. “Generally you want litter boxes that are out of traffic but not at the end of a scary, trappable tunnel,” says Marrinan. Along the same lines, litter boxes that are next to machines that make loud noises or odd vibrations—such as the spin cycle of the washing machine—can be a “no go zone” for cats.

Try placing the box in a nearby hallway, bathroom, or office with easy access to a garbage can. The proper litter box set up will offer your cat privacy and peace and quiet, but still be easy for your cat to find.

The Type of Litter

Pet parents have a variety of litters to choose from, but not every type of litter will work for every cat. Some clay litters, or litters made from corncobs or recycled newspaper may not “feel good on the foot,” says Lund.

Lund also notes that kittens learn what type of litter they prefer from their mothers at about three weeks old. So using a different litter than the one that was used when your cat was a kitten, or deciding to switch the type of litter your cat is used to, could be at the root of litter problems. Pet parents may have to try a few different types of litters to find the one that works best for their cats. 

Multiple Pets in the Home

Peeing outside the litter box happens more frequently in a household with multiple cats, particularly if one is a bully who prevents another cat from getting to the box, Lund says. To address this, always have multiple litter boxes in your home and place them in multiple rooms, Lund advises.

If you have a timid cat in your home, be sure to devote a space and a litter box to her that other cats cannot access easily. Lund says you may also want to avoid covered litter boxes if you have multiple cats. Covered boxes may make some cats uneasy because they can’t see if another cat is coming in, she says.

Stress and Anxiety

Even in cases with an environmental or medical cause, the behavioral component remains a factor, Marrinan says.

An anxious cat might pee elsewhere as a way to relieve her anxiety because the smell of her own urine makes her feel safer, Lund says. Outdoor cats lingering in your yard may also cause stress for your cat—who might choose to pee near the front door as a possible response, Lund says. Cats use a special type of urinary behavior (spraying) to mark their territories, which they will do more when they feel stressed.

Getting to the Bottom of Litter Box Problems

Unfortunately for cat owners, there is no quick-fix solution to litter box problems, and each instance has to be addressed based on your cat and your home. “You really have to treat these things holistically and make sure you are covering all the bases,” Lund says.

If you are keeping your litter box clean and have it set up in an easy-to-access place with your cat’s favorite litter, make sure to consult with your veterinarian to rule out medical problems. If your cat’s health checks out, you may also want to call on a cat behaviorist to help you work through the litter box problems with your cat. With a little bit of time and energy, you’ll restore harmony to your home and stop your cat from peeing outside of the box.

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