My Cat is Urinating Outside the Litter Box – What Do I Do?

At least ten percent of all cats develop elimination problems. Elimination problems can occur for many different reasons; they can be litter box management issues, medical issues or behavioral issues. It’s very important to understand the difference as it can aid you in creating an environment suited for your cat that will prevent or solve the elimination issues. To help you gain more insight to which category your cat might fit into, we’ve provided information about each below.

The “I Just Don’t Like the Litter Box” Cat

If your cat isn’t comfortable with her litter box or cannot easily access it, she probably will not use it. The following common litter box problems might cause her to eliminate outside of her box:

  • You have not cleaned your cat’s litter box often or thoroughly enough.
  • You have not provided enough litter boxes for your household. The rule of thumb is to have the same amount of litter boxes as you do cats, plus one extra.
  • Your cat cannot easily get to her litter box at all times.
  • Your cat does not like the location due to noise or high traffic.
  • Your cat does not like the type of litter you are using.
  • Your cat’s litter box has a hood or liner that makes her uncomfortable.
  • The litter in your cat’s box is too deep. Cats usually prefer one to two inches of litter.
  • Your cat prefers to urinate on other substrates other than litter, such as dirt.
Inability to Use the Litter Box

Geriatric cats or cats with physical limitations may have a difficult time using certain types of litter boxes such as top-entry boxes, or litter boxes with high sides.

Household Stress

Stress can cause litter box problems. Cats can be stressed by events that their owners may not think of as traumatic. Changes in things that even indirectly affect the cat, like moving, adding new animals or family members to your household – even changing your daily routine – can make your cat feel anxious.

Multi Cat Households

Sometimes one or more cats in a household control access to litter boxes and prevent the other cats from using them. Even if one of the cats is not actually confronting the other cats in the litter box, any conflict between cats in a household can create enough stress to cause litter box problems.

The “It Hurts When I Pee” Cat

Medical Problems That Can Cause Inappropriate Elimination
  • Negative Litter Box Association

One common cause for this is painful elimination. If your cat had a medical condition that caused her pain when she eliminated, she may have learned to associate the discomfort with using her litter box. Even if your cat’s health has returned to normal, that association may still cause her to avoid her litter box. This is why it is very important to rule out any health problems when your cat is urinating outside the litter box.

  • Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)

If your cat is urinating outside of the litter box, she may have a urinary tract infection. You may also notice her straining or meowing when urinating as UTIs are quite painful. A common symptom of UTIs is blood in the urine, which may or may not be visible. UTIs can quickly develop into a blockage (which is life threatening) or a more severe infection if left untreated, so it is important to see a veterinarian if a UTI is suspected.

  • Feline Interstitial Cystitis

Feline interstitial cystitis is a disease that affects a cat’s bladder (“cystitis” means inflamed bladder). It is known to be triggered most commonly by stress. This can often mimic the symptoms of a UTI, but the doctor will find no bacteria causing an infection.

Cats with cystitis will attempt to urinate frequently and may look as if they are straining, but with little success. They may lick themselves where they urinate, and they may have blood in their urine. Feline interstitial cystitis can cause a cat to eliminate outside of her box, but this is only because of the increased urgency to urinate and because there is pain involved in urination. Feline interstitial cystitis can develop into a blockage (which is life threatening) if left untreated, so it is very important to see your veterinarian if this is suspected.

  • Kidney Stones, Bladder Stones or Blockage

Some cats are predisposed to kidney or bladder stones, which can be worsened by specific diets of cat food. Both kidney and bladder stones can cause pain during urination and cause your cat to have a negative association with the litter box. Kidney stones or bladder stones have been known to cause blockages in the urethra of cats, causing them to be unable to urinate properly. Your cat may frequently enter her litter box and urinate a very small amount or not at all. She may also experience pain and meow or cry when she tries to eliminate. Her abdomen may be tender to the touch. Blockages can also occur secondary to an untreated UTI. Blockages are a life threatening condition and your vet should be notified immediately without exception.

The “This House is All Mine” Cat

Behaviour Problems

Urine marking or “spraying” is something instinctual that cats will often do to mark their territory. It is less common for this behavior to occur in sterilized animals, but once the behavior has started it does not always resolve once the animal is sterilized.

Urine marking can also begin to occur when the cat is stressed that its territory is being invaded, such as other animals constantly being in your yard where the cat can visibly see or the cat noticing the scent of other animals on you. Urine marking usually occurs on vertical surfaces rather than horizontal surfaces.

Many times when a cat is urinating outside its box, the owner’s first assumption is that the cat is urine marking. It is important to consider this option last, not just because it is the most difficult to deal with, but because it often presents itself in a different way.

When a cat is “spraying” they will back up to a surface and with their tail straight up, shake their tail and eliminate a small amount of urine onto a vertical surface.

These cats will often continue to use the litter box as the amount of urine let out during “spraying” is not the same amount eliminated during normal urination.

What Steps Can Be Taken to Fix My Cat’s Elimination Issue?

It is most important to determine which category your cat falls into before taking any action as they each have different causes and also different solutions. After determining which category your cat falls into, you can begin taking steps to help your cat learn how to use the litter box again.

The “I Just Don’t Like My Litter Box” Cat

Basic Tips for Making Cats Feel Better About Using Their Litter Boxes
  • Virtually all cats like clean litter boxes, so scoop and change your cat’s litter at least once a day. Rinse the litter box out completely with baking soda or unscented soap once a week.
  • The majority of cats prefer large boxes that they can enter easily. Plastic storage containers with low sides make excellent litter boxes.
  • Be sure you provide the appropriate number of litter boxes (number of cats in household plus one).
  • Some cats prefer different depths of litter; try both shallow amounts of litter, and deeper amounts of litter.
  • Some cats prefer different types of litter – try a few different types to determine your cat’s preference.
  • Your cat may prefer the type of litter she used as a kitten.
  • Most cats don’t like box liners or lids on their boxes – try removing these items.
  • Cats like their litter boxes located in a quiet but not “cornered” location. They like to be able to see people or other animals approaching, and they like to have multiple escape routes in case they want to leave their boxes quickly.
  • Because self-cleaning boxes are generally cleaner than traditional types of litter boxes, many cats accept them readily. However, if you’re using a self-cleaning litter box and your cat starts eliminating outside the box, try switching to a traditional type of litter box.
  • Try moving your cats food away from the litterbox – cats don’t like to eat, and go to the bathroom in the same locations.
  • Clean all previous locations where the cat has inappropriately eliminated with an enzymatic cleaner such as Natures Miracle®. If a cat smells their urine in that location, they will be tempted to urinate there again.
  • If your cat soils in just a few spots, place litter boxes there. If it’s not possible to put a box in a spot where your cat has eliminated, place her food bowl, water bowl, bed or toys in that area to discourage further elimination.
  • Make inappropriate elimination areas less appealing. Try putting regular or motion-activated lights in dark areas. You can also make surfaces less pleasant to stand on by placing upside-down carpet runners, tin foil or double-sided sticky tape in the area where your cat has eliminated in the past.
If Your Cat Is Unable to Use Her Litter Box

Special needs cats such as those who are older, arthritic or still very young might have trouble with certain types of litter boxes. Boxes that have sides that are too high or have a top-side opening might make it difficult for your cat to enter or leave the box. Try switching to a litter box with low sides.

As in any situation where the cat may have eliminated outside her box, clean accidents thoroughly with an enzymatic cleanser designed to neutralize pet odors. You can find this kind of cleaner at most pet stores.

The “It Hurts When I Pee” Cat


Antibiotics may be necessary if your cat tests positive for a Urinary Tract Infection. Sometimes a diet change may also be recommended by your veterinarian. It is crucial to remember to always consult with your veterinarian before giving your cat any type of medication for any health concerns or behavioral issues. Medications can also provide additional help in treating inappropriate elimination when the behavior is in response to stress or anxiety. These medications are similar to human anti-anxiety medications.

It is important to keep in mind that medication is unlikely to be helpful if your cat eliminates outside her litter box because of litter management problems, an aversion to a particular kind of litter or location, a preference for a particular surface or location, or a physical inability to use the box.

Treatment for Negative Litter Box Association

If your cat has experienced some kind of frightening or upsetting event while using her litter box, she could associate that event with the litter box and avoid going near it. Things that might upset your cat while she is eliminating in her box include being cornered or trapped by a dog, cat or person, hearing a loud noise or commotion, or seeing something frightening or startling.

These experiences—or any other disturbing experience—could make your cat very reluctant to enter her litter box.

If your cat is afraid of her litter box, you may notice her running into the box and then leaving again very quickly, sometimes before she is finished eliminating. You may also notice her eliminating nearby, but not inside her box. This means that your cat is worried about using her box, especially if she has reliably used litter box in the past.

If your cat associates her litter box with unpleasant things, you can work to help her develop new and pleasant associations. Cats cannot be forced to enjoy something and trying to show your cat that her litter box is safe by placing her in the box will likely backfire and increase her dislike of the box. It is usually not a good idea to try to train your cat to use her litter box by offering her treats like you would a dog, because many cats do not like attention while they are eliminating.

Try moving your cat’s litter box to a new location or adding a few litter boxes in different locations at the same time. Pick locations where your cat can see who is approaching from any sides that are not backed by walls. These locations should also have multiple escape routes so that your cat can quickly leave her litter box if she suddenly feels anxious. If possible, make sure that children or other animals that might seem threatening to your cat cannot get near her litter box.

  • Fill the litter boxes one to two inches deep with a litter that is a little different from the litter in the boxes your cat avoids. Use a finer or coarser texture. If you’ve been using scented litter, try unscented litter.
  • Try playing with your cat near her litter box. Also, leave treats and toys for her to find and enjoy in the general area leading to her box. Don’t put her food bowl next to the box, though, because cats usually don’t like to eliminate close to their food.
  • If you have a long-haired cat, try carefully and gently clipping the hair on her hind end if you notice that it gets soiled or matted during elimination. Matting can cause the hair to get pulled when the cat eliminates. That can be painful for the cat and make her skittish of her litter box.
Treatment for Household Stress

Cats sometimes stop using their litter boxes when they feel stressed. Identify and, if possible, eliminate any sources of stress or frustration in your cat’s environment. For instance, keep her food bowls full and in the same place, keep her routine as predictable as possible, prevent the dog from chasing her, close blinds on windows and doors so she is not upset by cats outside.

If you cannot eliminate sources of stress, try to reduce them. Incorporate the use of Feliway® spray or diffusers, which deliver a synthetic pheromone that has been shown to have some effect in relieving stress in cats. You can find Feliway® products in many pet stores and online.

Treatment for Multi-Cat Household Conflict

Sometimes an elimination problem can develop as a result of conflict between cats that live together. If you have multiple cats and aren’t sure which cat is soiling, speak with your veterinarian about methods to help you determine which cat is inappropriately eliminating.  Generally, you can temporarily confine your cats, one at a time, to determine which one is eliminating outside of the litter boxes in your home.

If there is a conflict between your cats and one of them seems stressed, provide additional litter boxes in locations where the anxious cat spends the majority of her time. Also, be sure to provide adequate resting areas for each cat. It can very useful in multi-cat households to create vertical resting spots on shelves or window sills or by buying multi-perch cat trees. It may help to distribute resources such as food, water, cat posts or trees, and litter boxes so that each individual cat can make use of them without coming into contact or having a conflict with one of the other cats. Using Feliway® spray or diffusers can reduce general social stress in your household.

The “This House is All Mine” Cat

Spaying or Neutering

It is less common for a cat that is sterilized to engage in urine marking. It does not always solve the problem but it has shown promise in some animals.

Decrease Household Stress

Cats can begin marking due to territorial stress. Territorial stress can be caused by seeing other cats or other animals roaming around the house outside. Preventing your cat from seeing these animals, or preventing these animals from being in your yard is one good way to prevent the territorial stress that can cause urine marking. Using Feliway® spray or diffusers can also reduce general social stress in your household.

One Cat per Household

Sometimes cats are not always meant to live together. Consider looking into re-homing your cat to a home where he or she may be the only cat.


What NOT to Do

Regardless of what you do to solve your cat’s elimination problems, here are a few things to avoid:

  • Do not rub your cat’s nose in urine or feces.
  • Do not scold your cat and carry or drag her to the litter box.
  • Do not confine your cat to a small room with the litter box, for days to weeks or longer, without doing anything else to resolve her elimination problems.
  • Do not clean up accidents with an ammonia-based cleanser. Urine contains ammonia, and therefore cleaning with ammonia could attract your cat to the same spot to urinate again. Instead, use a product specifically for cleaning pet accidents, such as Nature’s Miracle®.