6 Reasons Your Cat Is Peeing Outside the Litter Box and How To Stop It

By PetMD Editorial. Reviewed by Barri J. Morrison, DVM on Mar. 3, 2024
tiny calico kitten looking into a litter box

iStock/Adene Sanchez

If your typically fastidious cat is ditching the litter box and peeing just about everywhere else, it can easily become frustrating to deal with the constant cleaning and strong cat pee smell.

Most of the time, cats peeing outside the box are dealing with issues that can be treated—whether it’s a medical condition, stress, or a behavioral issue. Addressing the underlying reason is the best way to stop your cat from peeing outside the litter box

Before getting upset with your feline friend, contact your veterinarian. They can help guide you through an investigation of what is causing the behavior. Your cat may need some easy environmental changes or medications that will greatly improve their quality of life.

Key Takeaways

  • If your cat suddenly begins peeing outside of the litter box, it's most likely due to a medical issue.
  • If your cat is medically cleared by their veterinarian, the behavior may be due to an environmental issue.
  • Never punish your cat for peeing outside of the litter box.

Why Is My Cat Peeing Outside the Litter Box?

So why do cats pee outside of the box, and what can you do about it? Here are some common causes of litter box problems.

1. Your Cat Has a Medical Issue

When you’re dealing with litter box issues, the first step will always be to call your vet. Most medical conditions can be ruled out through urine and blood tests.

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

Medical issues that can cause your cat to pee outside their litter box include:

  • Urinary tract infection (UTI): Bacteria in the urine can affect a cat’s bladder and/or their kidneys, leading to inflammation. Straining to urinate, frequently urinating small amounts, and/or blood in the urine can be signs of UTI in cats.

  • Crystalluria (urinary crystals in the urine): Crystals can form in a cat’s urine due to abnormal urine pH, which can be genetic, caused by certain diets, or come from lack of water intake. These crystals can cause microscopic inflammation in the bladder wall, eventually leading to bacterial overgrowth (UTI) and/or bladder stones.

  • Cystic calculi (bladder stones): Stones in the bladder can roll around and cause inflammation of the bladder wall, which then leads to an urgency to go. This inflammation can also put cats at a higher risk for bacterial invasion, leading to a UTI. These stones can also cause blockage of the urinary tract in severe cases, which is a medical emergency.

  • Hyperthyroidism (hyperactive thyroid gland)The thyroid gland produces thyroid hormone, which affects metabolism. Cats are prone to hyperthyroidism as they age (though it can occur in younger cats), causing them to lose weight/muscle mass, vomit chronically, and vocalize more, as well as drink and urinate more frequently.

  • Degenerative joint disease (arthritis): Pain in the joints may cause cats to avoid their litter box, especially if they have to climb or jump into it. Discussing cat joint supplements and pain medications with your veterinarian can be helpful for your cat’s quality of life.

  • Kidney disease: Kidney disease can affect young and old cats, though it’s seen most commonly in aging cats as a chronic, progressive disease process. The most common signs are increased thirst and urination, decreased or “picky” appetites, vomiting, and weight loss

  • Feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC)This condition is caused by stress or a change in the environment. Cats are creatures of habit, so any minimal change—even the location of their litter box or type of cat litter—can lead to stress. When cats get stressed, they will often urinate in odd places or more frequently in small amounts, and they can even get blood in their urine in severe cases. FIC can lead to both urinary tract infections and potentially life-threating urinary obstructions.

2. The Litter Box Isn’t Clean

“I use the analogy of a Porta Potty,” Dr. Lund says. “Who wants to use one of those when it’s dirty, and you can smell it before you see it?” 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.

Dr. Neil Marrinan, DVM, of the Old Lyme Veterinary Hospital in Old Lyme, Connecticut agrees that the litter box “experience” is almost always a reason for cats peeing outside of the box. “The trick is making the litter box the first and only place they go,” he says.

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 one to two 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.

3. The Litter Box Is Hard To Reach

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

The litter box should be in a relatively active area of the house. While you might not want a litter box in the living room, moving it too far away from social areas may make the box hard to find or unappealing to your cat.

Before getting upset with your feline friend, contact your veterinarian. They can help guide you through an investigation of what is causing the behavior.

“Generally, you want litter boxes that are out of traffic but not at the end of a scary, trappable tunnel,” says Dr. 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—might not be ideal for your cat.

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

Keep in mind: Most cats do not like when the location of the box is moved too often (or at all!) and this can cause them to inappropriately urinate as well.

4. Your Cat Doesn’t Like Their Litter

Not every type of litter will work for every cat. Some types of litter may not “feel good on the foot” for a particular cat, says Dr. Lund.

Dr. Lund also says that kittens learn what type of litter they prefer from their mothers at about 3 weeks old. Switching to a different litter when your cat is older could be at the root of litter box problems.

You may have to try a few different types of litter to find the one that works best for your cat. If you’re looking to switch, set up three litter boxes with different litter types to see what your cat prefers.

5. There Aren’t Enough Litter Boxes

“Peeing outside the litter box happens more frequently in a household with multiple cats, particularly if one is a bully that prevents another cat from getting to the box,” Dr. Lund says.

This is why you should have one more litter box than the number of cats, and they should be placed in different rooms. For example, if you have two cats, you need three litter boxes.

If you have a timid cat in your home, devote a space—and a litter box—to them that other cats cannot access easily. Dr. 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 around.

6. Your Cat Is Stressed or Anxious

Cats don’t like changes in their environment. Any change—big or small—can affect them substantially, like loud noises near their litter box or moving the box to another spot in the house.

“An anxious cat might pee elsewhere as a way to relieve their anxiety because the smell of their own urine makes them feel safer,” Dr. Lund says.

Try to make changes gradually and ask your veterinarian about good options to keep stress to a minimum when you know that a major change is coming. Preventing stress is easier than treating it later. You can also use calming pheromones to help your anxious kitty.

When To Go to the Vet

If your cat is suddenly urinating outside the litter box, consult with your veterinarian to rule out medical problems first. If your cat’s health checks out, you may also want to call on a cat behaviorist to help you work through the problems.

There is no quick-fix solution to litter box problems, but they can be solved. Each instance must 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,” Dr. Lund says.

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.

Health Tools

Not sure whether to see a vet?

Answer a few questions about your pet's symptom, and our vet-created Symptom Checker will give you the most likely causes and next steps.

Cat Peeing Outside the Litter Box FAQs

1. Why is my cat peeing outside of the litter box suddenly?

Most cats urinate outside the litter box due to an underlying medical issue. Behavior issues and the sanitation, location of, and litter chosen for the litter box are things to consider if your cat is cleared medically by their veterinarian.  

2. Why is my cat peeing over the edge of the litter box?

Cats often urinate over the side of the litter box if the box is full or not clean enough for them. This can also be a behavior to mark territory.

Cats normally squat low to empty the bladder, so if they have pain, weakness, or other mobility issues, they will go over the side of the box to avoid this posture.

3. Should I punish my cat for peeing outside the litter box?

Never punish your cat for urinating outside the litter box, as most sudden changes in urination habits are due to a medical issue. Punishment can make the behavior worse, and it might even cause the issue to persist longer than necessary.

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health