Critter Talk: When cats pee out of the box

When faced with a cat that is peeing outside of the litter box, the first thing many owners think is “bad cat.”

peeing in box cat madmikesamerica

Image: Cat refuge by photofarmer

Stop right there! Pets don’t choose where to urinate maliciously; they pick what will work best for them at any given point in time.

As youngsters, most cats are “hard wired” to pee in a loose substrate like soil, sand, or cat litter. This is why we don’t have to train kittens to use the litter box. Just show them where it is, and they’ll take it from there. But when circumstances change a cat will alter his behavior accordingly.

Illness is the first thing to worry about. Certain medical problems make cats produce more urine than normal (e.g., kidney failure or diabetes mellitus) or have an increased sense of urgency associated with urination (e.g., feline interstitial cystitis, bladder stones, urinary tract infections, etc.). In these cases, a cat may simply think, “Hey, I’ve got to go NOW!” and not take the time or feel well enough to find the nearest litter box.

Therefore, the first thing an owner should do when faced with a cat urinating outside the box is make an appointment with a veterinarian. He or she will perform a physical exam and run a urinalysis. Depending on the findings, other tests like blood work, abdominal X-rays, and an abdominal ultrasound may be in order. Just keep in mind that some of these problems can be easily managed (e.g., with a change in diet) so as tempting as it might be, don’t skip this step.

If your cat has been given a clean bill of health, it is time to move on to the environmental and behavioral causes of inappropriate urination. Cats may develop an aversion to using the litter box for a number of reasons, including:

  • A box that is not cleaned frequently enough. Cats are very fastidious and many will not go into a box that smells bad or that is soiled.
  • A box that contains a different type of litter from the one the cat is familiar with.
  • Litter containing a lot of strong perfumes.
  • A box with high sides, making it difficult for the cat to get in and out of it. This is especially true for disabled, sick, or arthritic cats.
  • A covered box that is too dark and small, making it uncomfortable for cats to enter and move around inside.
  • A bad experience associated with the box, like being attacked by a housemate while inside.

Given enough time, a cat that urinates on the rug or other unsuitable surface will start to feel that this is normal behavior. It can be difficult to get these cats to start using cat litter again, so owners need to deal with inappropriate urination as quickly as possible.


Dr. Jennifer Coates writing for PET MD

Ed Note:  Dr. Patty Khuly has moved on and she will be missed.  We would like to welcome Dr. Coates and are looking forward to her articles.

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Posted by on October 8, 2011. Filed under Animals,Commentary,Pets. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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3 Responses to Critter Talk: When cats pee out of the box

  1. The Lawyer Reply

    October 8, 2011 at 10:23 am

    One of our three cats likes to use baskets of dirty and clean laundry. I don’t have to explain the frustration this causes. Of the listed causes above, I think the problem is that she must have gotten attacked by the other cats when trying to use the litter box more times than she would like. We’ve trained her to go outside to perform her duties and she spend the days outside. Everyone is pleased with this arrangement.

    • jenny40 Reply

      October 8, 2011 at 10:45 am

      We have 2 cats, both females, and have no litter box problems, although a few years ago we had a male and he marked his territory everywhere. Sadly he was eaten by one of Mike’s dogs 🙁

  2. lazersedge Reply

    October 9, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    We have one of those that wants a pristine litter box every time. We have found that putting out puddle pads has help greatly. However, even though he has been neutered he will will still urinate on any piece of furniture where a female person who is new to house sits after she leaves. Very aggravating. But, he is a rescue that has not lived outside since he was about 3 or 4 weeks old and has vision problems so we are afraid to let him out side so we keep working on the puddle pads. Besides, he and my Lab/Great Dane mix are the best of friends and can’t break that up.

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