Pet InfoRx®
Cat Litter Box Issues

If your cat is soiling outside their litter box, they are waving the red flag to tell you something is wrong. It’s either a medical issue, an emotional issue, or something about the litter box setup that isn’t meeting their needs.

A little detective work and an understanding of some of your cat’s natural, instinctual needs can help resolve litter box issues quickly.


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Topic Highlights

  • If your cat is soiling outside the litter box, they’re trying to tell you something is wrong.

  • You don’t have to live with your cat’s soiling. There are so many tactics that can be employed to try and resolve the issue. This is one of the issues feline behavior experts deal with more than any other.

  • It’s not spite. Your cat is not trying to punish you. Those are high-level emotions cats don’t have.

  • If your cat pees on something heavy with your scent, like your bed, couch, or clothes, they’re trying to mix their scent with yours. They usually do this if they’re concerned about their relationship with you and/or need to self-soothe.

  • Just because your cat has been using the same litter box setup for years without soiling doesn’t mean the litter box setup isn’t contributing to their soiling now.

It's More Than Just a Box

kitten sitting in a litter box

To us, the litter box is just a place to pee and poop. To a cat, it’s one of the most important elements of their environment. Where a cat chooses to eliminate in the wild can actually be a matter of life and death. Too close to a freshwater source can lead to contamination and illness. Eliminating in their hunting ground can spread their scent so their prey avoids the area and they can’t hunt. And let’s not forget about predators. Cats are prey animals. Eliminating in the wild leaves them vulnerable to attack. Just because our cats are living indoors doesn’t mean those needs and instincts change, especially if there’s another pet in the home that they don’t get along with well or even a young child who can feel like a tiny predator running around making loud kid sounds. This is why your cat’s litter box setup is such an important part of stopping house soiling.

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Reasons Cats Pee or Poop Outside the Box


The overwhelming majority of pooping outside the box has a medical component. And at least half of peeing outside the box is for a medical reason. But that’s not just medical as it relates to the urinary or digestive tracts.

Cats will soil for any sort of pain or discomfort — ear infections, paw pain, arthritis, broken bones, etc. So, a thorough exam is always your first step. Sometimes it can take more than one visit to the vet because cats are great at hiding pain and can be tough to diagnose.

Even medical issues that have been resolved can be a factor in ongoing house soiling. Pain or discomfort associated with using the litter box can create a negative association with the box even after the pain is gone. That leads us to emotional causes.


All kinds of emotions can trigger eliminating outside the litter box. Fear, stress, anxiety, territorial concerns (seeing cats outside or a new cat introduced to the home), changes in routine, changes in relationships with other pets or people, new pets or babies in the home … if it can cause stress, it can contribute to going outside the litter box.

Litter Box Setup

This may seem like the easy part. Anyone can buy a litter box at the store and put litter in it. But there’s so much more to meeting your cat’s litter box needs. Unfortunately, most of our human instincts on the matter are off track. And many commercial products are made more for people than for cats.

Cats have a ritual in the litter box. They don’t just hop in, pee, and hop out. They have to see what other smells are in the area, dig, spin around, sniff, dig more, spin more, then finally do their business before starting their post-pee and poop routine. They do all of this for specific reasons that make all kinds of sense if you’re a wild animal but may not make much sense to use in our homes. But when we domesticate pets from wild animals like cats, without doing any selective breeding to fade out those instinctual behaviors, we have to respect them.

And just because your cat has been using the same litter box setup for years doesn’t mean their sudden house soiling is unrelated to the box setup. Cats are great at tolerating something that isn’t ideal until other stressors build up. Then, much like humans, it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. Something’s gotta go, and it might be using that litter box they don’t like. Be open-minded while doing your house-soiling detective work. Look at it from your cat’s perspective, not just yours.

Is it Peeing or Spraying?

It’s not always easy to determine whether your cat is urinating or spreading their scent by spraying/marking. The following information is specific to peeing or pooping outside the box, not spraying or marking.

Spraying is most often noticed when your cat backs up to a vertical surface, raises their tail straight in the air, and sprays a liquid high on the vertical space while their tail is quivering. But cats can also spray or mark down low and on horizontal surfaces. Some even squat.

Spraying is generally smaller amounts of liquid as opposed to large pee puddles. Your cat may sniff before spraying but usually won’t sniff after because they know they’ve just deposited their scent. They may knead with the front or back feet while spraying. And they generally won’t try to scratch afterward, like they would after peeing, because they don’t want to cover the scent.

Cats can also use poop to spread their scent. This is called middening.

Related resources:

Signs that Your Cat Is In Pain

Cat Spraying – What you can do

7 Ways to Reduce Litter Box Smell

How to Effectively Clean Pee and Poop Accidents


What to Do If Your Cat Is Peeing or Pooping Outside the Litter Box

Rule Out Medical Issues

Be sure to mention to your veterinarian any other changes in your cat’s “normal” behavior. It may seem unrelated to you. But something as simple as your cat being a little less affectionate, not jumping up to sleep in their favorite bed, or being a bit more reactive to other pets could be clues that they’re feeling pain or discomfort that may or may not be related to their urinary or digestive systems. And if your cat’s house soiling comes and goes, that can often be because of pain that sometimes flares up.

Revamp Your Litter Box Setup


  • Covered litter boxes. They keep the smell in, which is great for us but terrible for your cat. They limit your ability to see what your cat is doing in the box, which can delay you catching things like straining, constipation, and possible urinary blockages. They’re often way too small, making it tough for your cat to go through their natural elimination ritual. And, especially if you have other pets or kids in the home, a covered box completely limits their ability to watch for “predators.” They can’t see if something is lying in wait, ready to pounce. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole for your cat.

  • Litter that strays too far from what a cat would choose in the wild — sand or soil. Pellets, anything with sharp edges, and scented litter are all unnatural choices for cats and can aggravate or cause respiratory issues, even be painful, especially for senior and declawed cats. Some cats are put off by litter made from food products like tofu or corn. And litter that doesn’t clump is very hard to keep clean. Cats like clean litter boxes.

  • Automatic litter boxes. Unfortunately, there has yet to be an automatic litter box on the market that meets a cat’s needs well. The area for the cat to eliminate in is usually very small. They’re often covered. They remove your hands-on involvement with your cat’s pee and poop, which is a huge indicator of your cat’s health and wellness. And they move. It only takes once when your cat is startled by the activation of the cleaning mechanism for your cat to create a negative association it.

  • Putting all the boxes in one room, down one hallway, on one floor, etc. Multiple litter boxes side-by-side aren’t multiple litter boxes to your cat. It’s one box with annoying obstacles. And if all your boxes are in the same room, down the same hallway, or on the same floor of a multi-level home, access to every litter box can be easily blocked if something or someone is in that doorway, hallway, or stairs.

  • Dark areas. Cats see well in low light. But they can’t see in no light. A litter box in a dark room or basement with no ambient light will be difficult for your cat to access at night.

What to do:

  • Provide more litter boxes. Ideally, you want one more box than the number of cats. 1 cat = 2 litter boxes; 2 cats = 3 litter boxes.

  • Create a tester box. If your cat is using one litter box more than the others, even if they’re also house soiling, consider leaving that box as-is while you test different things in other boxes. Once you see what your cat responds to you can make changes to their primary box.

  • Choose an appropriate box type
    • Always go with uncovered boxes.
    • Most commercial litter boxes are too small. Shoot for something as long as your cat including most of their tail — 1 ½ times the length of your cat’s body without the tail. Try using an under-bed storage container if you like low-sided boxes. They’re nice and long if you get the right ones. For high sides, use a clear tote, so they still have an open sightline to watch for “predators.” Just make sure that if you make any cuts that the edges are smoothed down or wrapped with duct tape.

  • Choose ideal locations – we’re all limited by our space so do your best to:
    • Spread litter boxes out across your home, so there’s always one accessible if another is blocked.
    • If possible, try placing a box where your cat is soiling. They may be soiling to deposit their scent in that area for a reason.
    • Avoid boxes in busy, loud, high-traffic areas like your children’s or dog’s favorite playroom.
    • Place boxes in open areas away from prime stalking and pouncing spots, if you have other pets. A perch above the box or a hiding spot next to the box can make using that box feel like an ambush.
    • Place boxes away from food, water, and favorite resting spots like cat trees.
    • Make sure there’s at least ambient light in the rooms.
    • Keep your cat’s mobility in mind. Make sure they can easily get to the boxes.
    • Don’t be afraid to test boxes in locations that aren’t ideal for you. If it solves the house soiling problem, you know location is important. You can slowly move the box to a better location for you and see if your cat continues using it.
  • Choose an ideal litter
    • Most cats prefer a fine grain, clumping clay litter.
    • If you want to test other non-clay options, look for something fine grain and clumping that closely resembles sand.
    • Two to three inches of litter is preferred by most cats. Too little makes it hard for them to dig. Too much can make them feel unstable.

Consider your cat’s emotional needs

  • Think about any changes that occurred around the time the soiling started — new schedule for you or your cats, change in food, feeding time, or feeding amount, houseguests, medical issue, etc. If a change may have triggered the soiling and you can reverse that change (or reverse it and then make the change more gradually), that may help with the soiling.

  • Use play and other types of mental and physical enrichment to reduce stress. Try using the prey sequence when playing.

  • If there are any relationships with other pets or people that are strained, work on those relationships.

  • Give your cat a little extra love and attention where possible.

  • Remove stressors where possible.

  • Try plugging in a pheromone diffuser in each location of your cat's litter boxes. Pheromones are compounds that animals naturally secrete. They can sometimes help decrease stress and anxiety in cats when used appropriately. 

  • Treating your cat with calming supplements may help. When looking for calming treats for cats, try to find ones that contain pheromones, tryptophan, rosemary, chamomile, L-theanine, colostrum, and/or alpha-casozepine (hydrolyzed milk protein).

  • While research continues to be ongoing with regard to the benefits of probiotics, they are known to boost the immune system, which aids in the prevention of illness. They help maintain overall digestive health (especially in times of stress) and support healthy microflora of the mouth and skin. There are studies evaluating their benefits, how they help ease anxiety, and how gut flora affects behavior. They're worth a try.

What Can Make It Worse

Don’t punish your cat for peeing or pooping outside the litter box. For a cat to eliminate where they feel safe and comfortable is the most natural thing in the world. They don’t look at the litter box as the “right” option and choose to do wrong by going somewhere else. Something is driving them away from the box. It’s not their fault.

Don’t lock your cat in a small space with their litter box to try and retrain them to use it. While that is a tactic some use, it should be done in a very careful and controlled way, if at all. And it should only be a last resort after you’ve tried many other things. It’s more likely to cause your cat a lot of stress, making soiling worse. Talk to an expert before trying this.

When to Get Help

Don’t wait. If your cat has been cleared medically and simple litter box changes aren’t doing the trick, reach out to a feline behavior expert. The tactics recommended above are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can be done to help resolve your cat’s soiling. There’s so much more in the toolbox. So, don’t suffer or let your cat suffer. Let a professional work with you to find potential triggers and develop a modification plan.

Know that your cat isn’t being spiteful or trying to punish you or get revenge for something you’ve done or didn’t do. Those are high-level emotions cats don’t have. Soiling is as simple as your cat saying, “Hey, look over here! Something is wrong, and I need your help.”


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