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 that urinate outside of the box are dealing with issues that can be treated—whether it’s a medical condition, stress, or a behavioral issue.
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.
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.
When you’re dealing with litter box issues, the first step will always be to call your vet. Most possible medical conditions can be ruled out through simple 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. Diagnosing the urinary tract infection, specifically, which type of bacteria is causing the infection, will allow your vet to prescribe the appropriate antibiotic therapy to help clear the infection.
Crystalluria (urinary crystals in the urine): Crystals can form in a cat’s urine due to abnormal urine pH (too acidic or too alkaline), 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. Making sure your cat gets more water and changing them to specific “dissolution” diets can help slow the formation of crystals or even dissolve certain types of crystals.
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. Surgical removal of the bladder stones and/or specific prescription diets which help dissolve certain types of crystals can help alleviate the frustrating signs.
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. If you have your cat diagnosed with blood testing, you can get the proper medication to help lessen the clinical signs and manage the condition.
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. Find litter boxes that are easy to walk into and keep them close to where your cat likes to hang out. If your cat has to walk down and up a flight of stairs to use the litter box, they may decide that it hurts too much and urinate wherever they choose. Discussing cat joint supplements and pain medications with your veterinarian can be helpful for your cat’s quality of life, and it can relieve your frustrations about having to clean constantly.
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. Diet changes, kidney supplements/antioxidants, and in some cases, fluid therapy at home, can help slow the progression of kidney disease and lessen the frequency of urination outside of the box.
Feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC): This condition is caused by stress or a change in the environment, not bladder stones, crystals, or bacterial infection. 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. A cat’s stress organ is their urinary tract. For dogs and humans, it is the gastrointestinal tract. Thus, 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. Keeping stress to a minimum, adding more litter boxes around your home, using kitty pheromone “calming” diffusers/sprays, and in some severe cases, trying behavior modification medications can help with your cat’s quality of life as well as your own.
An Unclean Litter Box
“I use the analogy of a Porta Potty,” Dr. Lund says. “Who wants to use one of those when it is 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 of the Old Lyme Veterinary Hospital in Connecticut 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 boxes 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 1-2 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.
A Hard-to-Reach Litter Box
In addition to litter box cleanliness, the placement of the boxes 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 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.
“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—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. There are also litter box enclosure options that serve as furniture pieces with hidden entrances for cats to use the litter box that would be undetectable to houseguests.
The Type of Litter
Not every type of litter will work for every cat. Some may not “feel good on the foot” for a particular cat, says Dr. Lund.
Dr. Lund also notes that kittens learn what type of litter they prefer from their mothers at about 3 weeks old. So 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 litters to find the one that works best for your cats. If you’re looking to switch, set up three litter boxes with different litter types to see what your cat prefers.
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,” 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.
If you have a timid cat in your home, be sure to 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.
Stress and Anxiety
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.
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.
“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. 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. 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
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.
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 litter box problems.
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.
Featured Image: iStock.com/Adene Sanchez