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Cats Peeing Outside the Litter Box: Causes, Prevention, and Solutions

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cat spraying or peeing outside litter box


Cats peeing outside of the litter box is one of the most frustrating (and stinky) issues a cat owner can face.

Contrary to what many people think, kitties aren't spraying on the walls, peeing on clothes, or eliminating outside of the litter box just for vindictive funsies. But, they are trying to tell you something.

Feline trainer and behavior consultant, Dr. Marci Koski, is back to talk about the many reasons your cat could be spraying or having litter box issues.

 

Summary

Unfortunately, cats who have been labeled as having litter box issues, or who frequently spray, are often relinquished to shelters, or in some cases are euthanized.

The goal of this podcast is to give you the tools to determine why your cat is spraying or eliminating outside of their litter box, so you can use that data to come up with a solution. So put on your sleuthing pants!

Why Do Cats Pee Outside of the Litter Box?

Medical Issues

Frequently when a cat is peeing outside of its litter box, it means there is a medical issue that needs to be checked out. Both Dr. J and Marci say, if you start noticing any change in litter box behavior, it's time to take your cat to get looked at by the vet.

There is no way you will be able to make a behavioral change if it's actually a medical issue.

Some of the medical issues that could have a cat peeing outside of the litter box include:

  • Arthritis (which is an incredibly under-diagnosed issue, mostly due to lack of regular exams)
  • Diabetes
  • Urinary obstruction (side note: If you're reading/listening to this because your cat has been going into the litter box frequently, your cat can't pee, or your cat is peeing frequently but in small amounts, grab your cat and go directly to the vet or emergency vet immediately
  • Cystitis
  • Chronic kidney failure
  • The list goes on

What often happens, and what happened to my cat, Mazel, right after his experience with Urethral Obstruction, is he developed a bad association with his litter box because his condition made it incredibly painful for him to pee, and so he went in search of a place that would be less painful. Unfortunately, that often meant the kitchen floor, his brother's dog bed, or our basket of blankets.

mazel contemplating lifeHere he is contemplating life while sitting on his brother's new bed.

By the way, if you're listening and reading along, I whipped together a little mockup of a potential t-shirt for us all to wear and spread more preventive education about Urethral Obstructions. What do you think? I would totally rock this look.

best shirt for veterinarians

Stress

Stress is a huge factor when it comes to house-soiling issues (and really, most issues seem to start with stress when it comes to cats). Some stressful situations may include, but aren't limited to:

  • A bad relationship with another cat in the home
  • Change in routine
  • Insecurity
  • Environmental changes
  • Neighborhood cats outside
  • Litter box dissatisfaction
  • Family dynamics have changed (new dog, new baby, new living situation)

Marci says that in her line of work, about 75% of her clients come to her due to aggression issues in multi-cat households, and about 75% of her clients come to her because of peeing and spraying issues, and all of these issues are usually intertwined.

The good news is, there are a lot of easy ways to prevent, decrease, and mitigate cat stress. It's actually amazing when you minimize your cat's stress through things like environmental enrichment, how many of the problems get better or go away completely.

While most people tend to think of cats as chill little predators, Marci likes to think of them as cute little stress buckets. A cat's stress bucket can only hold so much, and as cats get older their stress bucket shrinks.

Every day, there are plenty of opportunities for little things to fill that stress bucket. It can be as simple as, "That other cat gave me stink eye," — drop in the stress bucket. Or, "My person didn't clean out the litter box today," — drop in the stress bucket. Or, "Someone recorded over my favorite episode of 'My Cat from Hell'!" — drop drop drop into the stress bucket.

At the point where that stress bucket overflows, that's when behavior issues start to take place.

So to reduce the level of stress that is in the bucket, you can do one of two things: You can either stop the inflow of stress by preventing the stressers in the first place (i.e. cleaning the litter box every time your cat uses it, using a deterrent to make neighborhood cats stay away from your house, getting your cat their own DVR, etc.)

Or, you can relieve stress by providing your cat with play, and environmental enrichment. They won't address each individual stresser, but they will reduce overall stress level for your kitties.

Here are Marci's "Stress Bucket" infographics to explain this concept more easily:

DYK5 - Stress Bucket InDYK6 - Stress Bucket Out

What's the Difference Between Cat Spraying and a Cat Peeing Outside the Litter Box?

While different, they can definitely have common roots. Both can be stress related, but the location, quantity, and the purpose are usually very different.

It is unclear as to whether or not the chemical makeup is different when a cat sprays vs. pees outside the litter box.

When cats spray, they are basically scent marking, and making a big overt gesture. They are saying, "I am here! You will smell me! Mine!" When a cat is eliminating outside of the litter box, it's usually for a much different purpose.

The amount of urine being released when a cat sprays tends to be less than when a cat pees outside of the litter box — though Marci has seen some kitties mark "their" territories using more of a Super Soaker method.

Spraying can be in response to things like:

  • Territorial insecurity
  • A self-soothing measure
  • In response to strays outside
  • Issues with another cat inside the home
  • It can even be in response to smells coming into the home from outside

Gathering as much data about when, where, and what is happening at the time, will help solve the issue of "why", and get you closer to finding a solution. For this, Dr. J and Marci both suggest having a web camera set up to record the circumstances surrounding the unsolved pee mystery.

unsolved kitty pee mysteries

Review the Tapes

If you want to figure out whether your cat is spraying vs. peeing outside of the litter box watch what your cat does after they eliminate.

If the cat is attempting to bury or cover what they just did, that is a huge clue that this cat is peeing outside of the litter box vs. marking or spraying*. If a cat is spraying, they are doing it with purpose and they want everyone to know it.

(*As a caveat, not all cats will cover their pee or poop.)

And if you're able to review the tapes, hopefully you'll also be able to catch everything leading up to the event and can see the stressor in action, giving you the "why". Having visual data of everything is only going to help.

Theodore's Story

One example of this data collection method in action, is Marci's client with a cat named Theodore. He is part of a 5-cat household, and the boy and girl cats were kept separate due to in-fighting, so they all took turns in a super glammed up cat room.

When Theodore started spraying around the area in front of the door of the cat room, his human called in Marci and they installed cameras to see what was happening as a catalyst to this behavior.

What they saw was Theodore starting to pace around the room between 3-4am, looking around, licking food bowls, but they were empty because the cats were only fed two times a day (no judgements there, I only feed Mazel two times a day but thankfully he doesn't seem to mind).

So, from the clues gathered, Marci and her client were able to determine that Theodore was hungry and feeling insecure about his food. They set up automatic feeders to fill Theodore's dish just before the time he would get up.

It took a couple of weeks, but once Theodore knew he could rely on that snack being there for him in the middle of the night, he stopped the pacing, and he stopped peeing in front of the door. So they were able to feed him smaller meals more often throughout the day, and this made Theodore a very happy boy.

The Smells Are Coming from Inside the House

Marci has had several clients whose cats would pee near the coat or hall closet. It turns out, the cats were spraying in response to all of the foreign smells being brought in on their owners' shoes!

cat spraying can be in response to outside smells coming in on your shoes

Location Location Location

Litter Box Dissatisfaction is Very Real

If your cat is peeing just outside of the litter box, there's a good chance that their stress bucket has been filling up for some time due to litter box dissatisfaction.

Did you know that most litter boxes on the market are actually way too small for cats? Your cat's litter box should be 1.5 times the length of your cat, not including their tail. If your cat is perched up on the side of the litter box, that's a good sign that it's too small for them, or it could be that they don't like their litter.

Cats should enjoy digging around in their litter, if your cat does their business and then bolts out of their litter box as fast as they can, that's another big sign that something is wrong with their setup.

Here's a great video demonstration on how to make your own kitty litter box for cheap, and have it be the appropriate size so your cat will want to use it:

Learn more about how to choose the best litter box for your cat, learn how to set up your cat's litter boxes to best prevent potty accidents, and how to choose the best litter for your cat.

Cats Peeing on Beds, Sofas, and "People Places"

If your cat is peeing on beds, sofas, clothing, and generally where people have spent time, there may be an issue that the cat is having with that particular relationship and they are in need of more assurance. Or, it can even be that they need their human to feel more secure, and so they will intermingle scents. How cute, albeit smelly, is that?!

Dr. J points out that people will often think, "Oh my cat hates my boyfriend, he pees on his clothes," but what the cat is actually communicating, is that they are still there too, and they want to establish a bond and more sense of security in that relationship.

Neighborhood Cat Woes

If your cat has been spraying along the edges closest to the exteriors of your house, like by the doors and windows, there's a pretty good chance the neighborhood cats are driving them nuts, and they're marking your home as their territory.

If this is your issue, you may need to start thinking about ways to set up deterrents for those neighborhood cats to stay away.

Cats Aren't Jerks

Despite what many people think, cats really aren't spiteful jerks. They, like dogs, live in the moment, so they aren't plotting ways to pee in your suitcase in response to something you've done to them.

So please don't give up on them or think they're trying to get back at you. Use the resources you have available to collect the clues your kitty is leaving for you, and devise a plan of action from there.

There's SO much more to discuss (I can't believe it!) so don't forget to join us for part 2 of our cat pee soon-to-be-solved mysteries show.

Quick Links:

Get in touch with Dr. Marci Koski at her website Feline Behavior Solutions

Follow Marci on Instagram, Facebook and if you're having cat behavior issues, join her private Facebook group

Meet Marci at the Pop Cats Convention in Portland this September

Topics: Cat Health, Litter Box, Feline Urethral Obstruction, Cat spraying, Cat pee

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Please do not ask emergency or other specific medical questions about your pets in the blog comments. As an online informational resource, Preventive Vet is unable to and does not provide specific medical advice or counseling. A thorough physical exam, patient history, and an established veterinary-patient-client relationship is required to provide specific medical advice. If you are worried that your pet is having an emergency or if you have specific medical questions related to your pet’s current or chronic medical conditions, please contact or visit your veterinarian, an animal-specific poison control hotline, or your local emergency veterinary care center.

Please share your experiences and stories, your opinions and feedback about this blog, or what you've learned that you'd like to share with others.

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