Cat going outside the litter box? Super smart behaviorists share their tips.

what_litterbox-01-300x235-1 Cat going outside the litter box? Super smart behaviorists share their tips. cat spraying cat outside litter box cat not using litter box cat behavior

I recently had the honor of interviewing two accomplished cat behavior consultants from my part of the world: Mikel and Dilara of Feline Minds

I was eager to get Mikel and Dilara’s take on problems that can break up a happy cat home, starting with cat spraying, and urinating or pooping outside the litter box.

Most humans find this cat behavior crazy-making, even when they love their cat. I have experienced this twice:

  • My childhood feline soul mate sprayed counters and corners in his later years. Sadly, it was only after he died that we learned his spraying was likely a medical issue. (More on preventing those medical problems in an upcoming report for subscribers.)
  • In a relationship that wasn’t working out, there was a sweet feline who insisted on peeing on the bed until we split. Then he stopped. Interesting?

(Now that you know my cat box confessions, I invite you to share yours in the Comments below.)

Let’s see how Feline Minds answers my questions about this hot topic…

Do you usually ask clients to rule out medical problems before addressing this problem as behavioral?

“Yes! We always ask our clients to take their cat for a veterinary examination when litterbox ‘issues’ arise – it’s important to rule out the possibility of any type of urinary tract issue or other issues such as diabetes or kidney problems, before addressing this as strictly a “behavior problem.”

Defecation outside the box is also frequently related to medical problems so a vet check is a must.”

What is going on in the cat’s mind–what would they say if they could speak our language?

“Most litterbox cases can be lumped into one of three categories (although some cats may be experiencing all three issues at once!):

  • There’s a medical issue that triggers the behavior – either from pain or other unpleasant sensations – that lead the cat to avoid the box.
  • There’s something about the box itself that isn’t suiting the needs of the cat.
  • The cat is experiencing stress over something in the household (or in some cases outside the home, such as neighbor cats hanging out by a window).

Eliminating in a sandy substrate is a natural, innate behavior for cats. They don’t typically need any real “training” to use a litterbox.

So, I’d say what cats are trying to tell us when they stop using the litterbox consistently is that something is wrong! The challenge is to figure out what that is!”

What are a couple good things readers should try at home for the “outside the litter box” problem?

“Assuming there’s no medical issue, anyone experiencing a litterbox problem with their cat should take a good, long look at the litterbox itself:

  1. Is it cleaned at least once a day?
  2. Are there enough boxes? (the rule of thumb is 1 per cat + 1)
  3. Is the litter acceptable to the cat? (most cats prefer a sandy, unscented litter)
  4. Is the box large enough, of a preferred style (some cats don’t like covered boxes) and in a suitable location?

One place where people go wrong is they try to change TOO many things at once.

I would say the safest thing to do is add an additional box to the existing setup and then try changing one thing at a time (from the list above) so they can tell if the cat has a clear preference.

Also cleaning soiled areas with an appropriate enzyme cleaner is very important. Anti-Icky Poo and Zero Odor are both good examples of enzyme cleaners.”

What’s the strangest or worst “outside the litter box” case you’ve ever solved?

“The strangest cases are those where animals are eliminating on very unusual or hard to access surfaces, such as in a frying pan on the stove, on electrical outlets or in heating vents.

The toughest cases are long-term problems where the behavior has gone on for many years – a good reason to deal with these types of problems immediately when they crop up!

Most house soiling cases are pretty ‘typical’ – that is, the cat is choosing an alternative location for elimination that has some desirable features that they might seek in a litterbox – a soft substrate (bedding, clothing), a location with a view (such as on the bed or the couch), away from food and water, or perhaps a more emotionally charged place such as another animal’s bed or a window where outdoor cats hang out.”

Anything I should have asked here that I didn’t?

“An important factor in this is that recent studies have shown a connection between stress and inappropriate elimination in cats.

Cats who were subjected to an unpredictable routine were more likely to demonstrate ‘sickness behaviors’ including inappropriate elimination. (Here’s a link to one study.)

This demonstrates how important it is to provide routine for our cats, but also that we must help reduce any negative response to stressors by providing lots of exercise and environmental enrichment for our cats on a regular basis.”

Dear reader, what’s your experience with cats not using the litter box?

I’d love to hear your cat box confessions (and success?) in the Comments below.

Curious about Feline Minds consulting?

Mikel Delgado and Dilara Goksel Parry offer cat behavior consultations that include an extensive interview, immediate advice, a written treatment plan, and follow up phone calls or emails.
Rates at the time  of this post in June 2011:
  • Phone consult: $60 first hour, then $15/quarter hour
  • Home consult: $125 + travel fees if extensive travel is required
  • Introducing another cat or new baby? Preventative counseling at a reduced rate. They can help you select your new cat or create a smooth transition with cat or baby introductions.
Contact Feline Minds for more information: email or call 510-619-9567

Love to hear your thoughtful thoughts! Leave a reply...


  1. I have two male cats from the same litter. They have shared the same large litter box for 6 years. Now one of them is choosing to poop outside of the box. We are using the same litter, the same box, in the same place. Why in the world is this happening after all this time? Is there any way to encourage him to go back to the same box rather than adding a second one?

  2. I have a Maltese (marley) and 2 cats. Cupcake and Houdini. I’ve had Marley the longest and Houdini was raised from the age of three weeks. He’s now 1 yr old and a terrorist to my friends ,cupcake,and even the vet! and even Marley joins in to terrorize her. He eats cupcakes food,uses her litterbox even though he has his own. Cupcake is a very timid cat and doesn’t fight back. She hides and is so nervous she’s vomiting and going poo outside the litterbox. I don’t know what to do other than keep them separated and I feel I’m punishing him. The vet has no clue what could be causing him to act like this. Could it be his breed?

  3. I went through a divorce and moved to a new house. There is a neighbor cat that would comes to the doors and windows and harasses my cats. my female cat started pooping outside the box sometimes. She has had anxiety issues. I have tried all kinds of diets and currently use Hill’s Science Diet C/D Calming. The thing that has made the biggest difference is I now use Feliway (pheromone diffusers). My house is 1500 SF. As long as I keep two these plugged in, I rarely have problems with her going outside the litterbox. Whenever, she starts to leave a bit of feces on the floor, I check the diffusers. Usually one of them is empty. That is my que to replace them. Of course, I try to check them regularly. Even my Vet was interested in learning about Feliway. I also use unscented litter and clean out the boxes 2-3 times daily. Another thing I purchased and used is a Scarecrow motion activated sprinkler. It has helped keep the neighbor’s cat away from my sliding glass door. I don’t have many problems anymore. Hope this helps others

  4. My 15 yeqr old indoor female kitty developed liver disease, and began tolerating only canned food and baby food (chicken flavor) after a lifetime of refusing anything but premium dry food. Then she started wetting in the living room, in spite of having her box cleaned 2-3 times daily. (Liver disease makes her pee a lot.) One day I had left a shallow cardboard box on the floor after putting away the groceries and she used that. I had an aha moment. I lined the box with a kitchen garbage bag and then paper grocery bags and a layer of newspapers. I clean out the newspapers regularly and now she is faithful to use either the litter box or the newspaper box near the kitchen. Sometimes if she starts to prowl around the part of the living room where she used to pee, I call her to walk with me into the room with the litter box, and she uses it. The vet says she may be getting a bit senile. Maybe.(Maybe one or both of us!) My motto is, whatever works. When you’ve had a friend for 15 years, it’s a huge relief to stumble on solutions for problems like this. She’s survived her liver disease for over a year and a half, so I’m very grateful. She’s the sweetest cat and a faithful friend.

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  6. Our kitty is about 8 yrs old but this is a problem for as long as I can remember. She uses the litter box just fine except when she has to pee…she goes only part way in the box and pees on the floor. I finally bought a hugh litter box with a hood and and a swinging door and patted myself on the back for being so clever. She used the box perfectly EXCEPT when she has to pee. She goes part way into the box, pees on the floor, goes all the way in the box, turns around and comes out.

  7. I know this is an old post but wanted to share my problem and solution in hopes it will help someone else.

    I had my Russian blue cat for a few months when he suddenly started pooping outside the litter box. He always pooped in places where my previous (sick) cat would pee outside the litter box. I tried many things to get the smell out of the carpet to no avail.

    I’m sorry to say that I would banish my cat to his room (the laundry room) whenever he failed to use the litter box. The problem went on for about 14 months until I took my cat to the vet for bloody stools. The vet said his anal glands were swollen and the secretion was thicker than normal. She thought that my cat’s “litter box optional” philosophy was driven by discomfort in his anal region, which led him to try to find a soft place to poop. The bloody stool may also have been related to the swollen anal glands since my cat didn’t have any parasites or intestinal issues.

    I’m happy to say that my cat has had only one poop outside the litter box. I will definitely pay attention to his anal gland needs with regular visits to the vet every few months.

  8. I have two male cats (Harold and Nasdaq) who have lived together for all of their 12 years. Harold is the dominant aggressive cat and when he is angry or bored he will beat up on Nasdaq. Harold chases Nasdaq who will start growling and hissing. Before long, Harold drives Nasdaq into a corner and taunts him. He is such a bully! When I am around, I break up their fights and try to keep the peace. In the past year, I started seeing a man who loves my cats but doesn’t enjoy having them sleep with us. When he stays over, the cats stay out of the bedroom. Additionally, I am at his place a night or two during the week, so Nasdaq and Harold spend more time alone. Even when I am around, they don’t have my undivided attention anymore. They have to share it with my boyfriend. In the past two months, Nasdaq (the tortured one) has started urinating and defecating outside the litterbox. I have an upcoming vet appointment to see if he is ill, but I know he is under stress and affected by recent life changes in our household. I recently bought him a cat tower so he can hide up there without being taunted. I bought a feliaway diffuser and give both cats extra love and attention when I am home. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be working. I’m pretty distraught and not sure what to do.

    1. Hi Sam,
      That does not sound like any fun at all!

      Cats not getting along is another common cat behavioral dilemma and I hope to interview Mikel and Dilara about it. You’ve got 2 of the worst behavioral issues happening at once, and they are probably related. Plus the stress of change. Good for you for getting the cat tower and the Feliway. Sorry they aren’t helping much!

      Did you try adding another litterbox yet? Good chance that could help.

      Jackson gives some brief instruction about helping cats get along in his recent youtube video. Skip to about halfway through to get it:
      He talks about actually separating and gradually “reintroducing” them to each other while helping them associate each other with something happy: food.

      You’ve got a few things going on that will take some time, but I have faith it can work eventually. Perhaps a phone consult with Feline Minds. Best wishes that the vet visit will go well too.

  9. My cat started peeing on the heater one year, in the middle of a particularly cold winter. OMG it STUNK! I’d throw him out of the room, only to have him deliberately (maintaining direct eye contact) come back in and pee on the heater again. The vet told me we were having a turf war, and not to escalate but rather to make him feel like that room was a happy place for him. We used Feliway effectively (and got rid of the heater!). Interestingly enough, there was nothing overtly stressful in that we hadn’t changed his routine or anything, but my boyfriend and I were having problems in our relationship and clearly the stress was making my fur kid unhappy.

    1. Oh dear, cat urine emanating through a heater—how lovely!

      Thanks so much for mentioning your Feliway success, as I’m always collecting notes on what works for people.

      The relationship theme is very interesting indeed.