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cat behaviour >> Accidents Outside The Litter Box

Having accidents outside the litter box is one of the most common behavioural complaints from cat owners. There can be both medical and behavioural causes for this problem. Sometimes the problem starts out as a medical issue but then becomes a learned behaviour or habit making it more difficult to deal with.

This article first describes the causes of accidents, then the medical work-up for this situation and then deals with the behavioural aspect. There are other good links at the end of the article as well.

Whatever the cause or situation, never physically punish a cat for going outside the box. They are not doing this to be spiteful. Only humans are spiteful, dogs and cats are not. Stress and fear will worsen the situations dramatically. Cats that eliminate inappropriately are trying to communicate to you that something is wrong!

Causes of Accidents

  • Dirty litter boxes
  • Changes in box style or size.
  • Aversions to the litter, the box, the liner etc. (texture, smell, absorbency can make a big difference).
  • Anything that causes pain on urination or passing a bowel movement (it hurts when I go in the box so I’ll go somewhere else). Also pain or difficulty getting into the box.
    • Arthritis
    • Urinary tract infection, bladder stones, bladder inflammation
    • Pelvic fractures after an accident
    • Lameness
    • Obesity making mobility a challenge
    • Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease
      • This is a life threatening problem.. if your cat (especially male cat) is straining, yowling and leaving small drops of pee or is unable to urinate.. seek medical care immediately.
    • Constipation (which is usually due to other issues)
  • Dislike of the litter box location:
    • concerns about going around another cat
    • noisy, dark, unpleasant smelling areas can create problems
    • furnace or washing machine making noise that annoys or frightens the pet
    • self cleaning litter boxes that start up when the cat is in them
  • Size of the litter box… the bigger the better
  • Medical problems that create an increased volume of urine or stool or increased frequency:
    • Diarrhea
    • Parasites
    • Diabetes
    • Kidney Disease
  • Stress:
    • Changes in routines
    • Changes in the people living in the dwelling such as new babies, boyfriend/girlfriend, roommates etc.
    • New pets
    • Sometimes dynamics between pets change and cause stress
    • Moving
    • New cats in the neighbourhood coming to doors and windows
    • Renovations in your house or nearby
    • New noises

Medical Work-Up

So, as you can see, this is not an easily diagnosed problem. Medical problems have to be ruled out and then behavioural questionnaires, home visits and an assessment may be necessary to determine the best methods to help your pet. Sometimes the answers will be obvious when you read the information below so don’t give up.. Keep reading. You may want to make some notes if you think any of the above may be occurring. Takes these with you to your veterinarian and this will help him/her to decide what testing might be necessary. Depending on the history and the physical exam findings some or all of the tests below may be recommended:

  • Complete blood count to look for signs of infection, anemia, dehydration etc.
  • Chemistry Panel to look for signs of kidney, liver issue, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, dehydration.
  • Urinalysis to look for symptoms of urinary tract infection, crystals, inflammation, diabetes, kidney disease, liver problems.
  • Urine culture to rule out infection.
  • Fecal analysis or other testing if there is diarrhea.
  • Radiographs if there is evidence of lameness or pain.

Other tests may be recommended based on the findings of the above tests.

If the problem is determined to be behavioural then the tests above will usually be normal. Although it can seem like a lot of money to spend to find out that your pet is physically healthy it is very important. The problem won’t resolve if we don’t correct the underlying medical problem and your pet could end up very sick.

Behavioral Management Suggestions

  • Have a litter box for each cat in the house plus one extra. (Some recommendations say one box per group plus one but I feel the more the better).
  • Be sure there are boxes in all the different areas and levels of the house.
  • Most cats prefer quiet areas and boxes that aren’t in corners so they don’t feel trapped. 
  • Watch for cats growling or hissing or even just staring each other down..  These are signs of aggression that might block a cat from getting to a litter area.  Take this into consideration when placing boxes.
  • Boxes should be scooped daily and cleaned out with warm water and soap (if you are pregnant the husband should do the litter box duties).
  • Plastic boxes absorb odour and should be thrown out after thirty days. 
  • Clean all areas where there have been accidents with an enzymatic cleaner and consider placing a box temporarily over this site or any site that the pet is frequently using as a bathroom.
  • Citrus sprays or double sided sticky tape may detract cat(s) from areas of the house where there have been accidents.
  • There are attractant litters with cat nip in them that may be useful for some cats.
  • If you have an aggressive cat or multi cats see the hand out on multi-cat households for tips.
  • If you have stray cats in your neighbourhood, put up window barriers so your cat(s) cannot see them. 
  • If stray cats are spraying outside and near doorways clean these areas with enzymatic cleaner and consider buying motion activated sprinklers or compressed air devices to humanely keep these cats away.
  • Consider getting a Feliway dispenser (calming product) to use in the home if you have a stressed cat.
  • Have interactive play sessions with each cat separately.  See the article ‘What A Cat Needs to Promote Mental Health’.
  • Consider leaving classical music playing when you leave as it has a calming effect.
  • Feed your cat a veterinary recommended diet to prevent urinary tract issues.
  • For cats that have been having this issue a long time, confining them in a small area with no rugs or mats with a large litter box can help start the process.  If stress is an issue or in multi-cat households this can help the cat(s) a lot.  Once the cat is using the box consistently for a couple weeks then you can experiment with methods for introducing a new cat to reintegrate this kitty into the group.
  • Also, in multi-cat households grouping pets can help if there are pets that don’t get along.
  • For cats that are spraying (leaving urine on walls or doorways), prop a litter box up on its side against that area to make a kitty urinal.  Secure with some masking tape so it doesn’t fall and scare the cat or spill.
  • A litter box cafeteria may need to be set up if you continue to have issues.  This will help sort out their litter and box preference.  To do this, buy 5 different brands of litter and 5 different types of boxes (large, high sides, low side, covered, lined, etc).  Put a masking tape on each box and number the box and note which type of litter you put in it.
    • Most cats like unscented, clumping, sand type litter in a large low box such as a plastic storage container.
    • For cats that have arthritis or are obese you can make an opening in the box that is easy for them to get in.
    • Once your cat shows a preference, record the litter box type and the litter preference.  Then put the preferred litter type in all the boxes and see which box the cat goes for.  Then set up all your litters using this type of box and this type of litter.  Set them in different areas and note if they have an area they prefer as well.
    • You can continue experimenting with liners as well.  If your cat is OK with liners a very inexpensive litter box can be made out of large boxes with sides cut down appropriately.  A garbage bag can be placed over the box and then when it is time to change the litter the bag can be taken off the box with the litter inside for easy clean-up.   Change the box any time it is soiled or at least once/month.

So, I hope I haven’t caused your brain to explode with information overload..  LOL.  But as there can be many causes and many situations to address with this issue I wanted to give you lots of options. Obviously not all these suggestions will apply to every situation and not every owner will be able to do them all.   As there is often some trial and error, I wanted to give you lots of options to pick and choose.  Note, only make one change at a time so you know what worked.
Wishing you success in your retraining process. 


Links to other useful information sites: