Litter Box Woes

Cat owners frequently report that they have problems with a pet that sprays, urinates, or defecates outside of its litter box. These animals face a greater likelihood of being relinquished to an animal shelter, so it is in their own best interest that these behaviors stop. Intact male cats and animals from multi-cat households are more likely to have elimination problems than are feline "only children."




Diagnosing the cause of an unwanted behavior is the first step towards coming up with an effective treatment plan. Determining whether a cat is spraying or urinating outside of the litter box is important. Spraying typically involves a cat standing in front of and squirting a relatively small amount of urine on a vertical surface, often while rapidly vibrating its tail. Inappropriate urination usually involves larger amount of urine deposited on a horizontal surface. Spraying is a form of marking behavior while cats that urinate and defecate in inappropriate locations often have developed an aversion to the litter box. Illness or injury can also cause these behaviors, so cats should be seen by a veterinarian for a physical exam, blood work, a urinalysis and fecal exams before the behavior is addressed directly.




Multi-cat households need a lot of elevated perches, hiding places and covered escape routes so that the animals have a way to avoid each other, thereby lessening disputes over territories. If an indoor pet is responding to a cat outside of the home, drawing the drapes or blinds can help. Anti-anxiety medications often improve the situation, as does thoroughly cleaning up the urine and covering favorite spraying locations with foil.


Cats may choose to avoid the litter box when they need to urinate or defecate if they dislike the box itself or the type of litter used, if they have had a bad experience while in the box (e.g., attacked by a housemate) or if litter boxes are not kept clean. Always have one more litter box than cats in the house, try large, uncovered boxes with unscented litter, keep them very clean, and, at least initially, place them over the areas that have been soiled. If these tricks fail, a veterinary behaviorist can often help.


Written by: Jennifer Coates, DVM
Last reviewed: October 2, 2008