By Jean Hofve, DVM

Spirit at age 20…her creaky old joints made it hard for her to access the litter box.    

Spirit Essences were named for this spunky kitty!

House-soiling, or inappropriate elimination, is a common and frustrating cat behavior problem. It’s the most frequent behavioral reason for cats losing their homes by relinquishment to a shelter, exile to the outdoors, or even euthanasia.

When a cat “goes” outside the box, she is not being vengeful or mean; she’s just trying to express her frustration about something happening in her world that’s stressing her. In the cat world, urine and feces are means of communication. Since she can’t talk, she’s using the best methods she has available. It’s up to you to decipher what’s being communicated.

If your cat is house-soiling, there are a few things you shouldn’t do, including sticking her nose in it, yelling, or using any physical punishment whatsoever. These actions will only confuse her, and make her even more stressed out–and that, of course, can make the problem even worse.

There are a whole lot of factors that can motivate a cat to avoid the litter box–making it one of a veterinarian’s least favorite problems to deal with! Here’s a quick list of the main reasons why cats eliminate outside the box:

Medical Issues

* Urinary tract inflammation (“bladder infection”, FUS, FLUTD, cystitis, crystals, bladder or kidney stones)
* Arthritis
* Kidney, liver, or thyroid disease (most common in older cats)
* Diabetes
* Inflammatory Bowel Disease (may result in pooping outside the box)
* Declaw issues (declawed cats experience intermittent or chronic pain that may become associated with the litterbox itself)

Litter Box Issues

* Not clean enough (scoop daily; change completely and thoroughly wash and rinse the box every few weeks, depending on usage)
* Not big enough
* Sides too high (especially for kittens and arthritic older cats)
* Sides too low (cat’s rear ends up hanging over the edge)
* Doesn’t like the lid
* Prefers a lid
* Doesn’t like the liner
* All boxes lined up in one location
* Box in wrong location (too noisy, too much traffic, poor access, insufficient visibility)
* Inadequate access to boxes (doors or stairs in the way; e.g., multi-level homes need a box on each floor)
* Aversive cleanser used (Pine-Sol, Lysol)
* Mechanical box too scary
* Access problems (door accidentally closed, access blocked by another cat)

Litter Issues

* Doesn’t like the texture (many cats–especially declawed cats–prefer a softer surface such as scoopable litter instead of clay, pearl, or pellet-type litters)
* Litter too deep (especially for older, arthritic cats)
* Scent too strong (try unscented litter)

Social Issues

* Too few boxes for too many cats (“1 box per cat + 1” is the rule)
* Ambushed by another cat in or around the box
* Inadequate sight lines (cats need to be able to see what’s coming; don’t put the box in a dark corner, closet, or cramped nook)
* Too much competition for a particular box
* Territorial stress (too many cats in a small space, new animals recently introduced, threats from outside cats, social changes)
* Separation anxiety
* Personality issues (timid, highly sensitive)

The top two reasons are: a box that’s not clean enough, and urinary tract issues. It’s easy enough to clean the box, but the second reason requires a veterinary visit. That visit should happen ASAP for male cats, especially if they are producing little or no urine despite multiple attempts (this can indicate a urinary blockage, which can be life-threatening).

There have been thousands of pages written on feline house-soiling, and sometimes they’re hard to wade through. Hopefully this list gives you a good idea about where to focus your investigation!

For more detailed information on litterbox issues, see our series on “Litterbox Secrets” in the Little Big Cat Library. If your cat has urinary tract issues, check out our special report, “Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease” (and many others) in the Bookstore!

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