Does Your Cat Urinate Outside the Litter Box?


Feline inappropriate urination is a problem we see on a regular basis at Lawndale Veterinary Hospital. There are actually quite a few different reasons why a cat may decide to urinate outside the litter box. We know this can be a frustrating problem for cat owners. Thankfully, there are many things that pet owners can try to help resolve the problem. As you read through the list, it is important to remember that each cat is an individual – so what works for one may not work for another. Additionally, early intervention may improve the chances of long-term success. Most importantly, identifying and treating any underlying medical cause is top priority!

  1. Rule Out Medical Concerns:
    • Physical Examination: Inappropriate urination can be associated with a variety of medical conditions. Problems specific to the urinary tract could include things like an infection, inflammation, stones, crystals, feline idiopathic lower urinary tract disease, or neoplasia (a benign or malignant mass). Cats that are stressed may urinate outside the litter box. Inappropriate urination can also occur with underlying systemic problems such as kidney disease, diabetes, or hyperthyroidism, to name a few. A physical exam by one of our doctors can help elucidate the potential for an underlying health concern.
    • Labwork: The most important test we can start with is a urinalysis. This will help us identify evidence of problems specifically in the urinary tract. The urinalysis can also give us some clues to overall kidney function. A urine culture may be useful in cases of urinary tract infections. If the doctor suspects a systemic problem, then additional labwork may be suggested (e.g. complete blood count, chemistry panel, thyroid level). Other diagnostic testing can include abdominal radiographs and abdominal ultrasound – these tests will show things like crystals, stones, or neoplasia.
  2. Litter Boxes:
    • Are there enough litter boxes?
      • The number of litter boxes needed will vary based on individual cat preferences, the size of the home, and interactions with other pets in the home.
      • A typical rule of thumb is one litter box per cat plus one. If the home is more than one level, more litter boxes might be helpful.
    • Are the litter boxes in an appropriate location?
      • Litter boxes should be placed in a quiet location away from food and water bowls.
      • If there are other pets in the house, ensure your cat is not being interrupted or pestered by the other pets while using the litter box. The disturbance can easily cause your cat to stop using the litter box and instead find somewhere else to urinate!
      • Place the boxes in areas you know your cat may frequent. If you have an arthritic cat who stays downstairs all the time, then don’t make them go up the stairs to find the litter box.
    • Are the litter boxes appropriately sized?
      • Larger cats need larger boxes.
      • Aging cats who may be developing arthritis or small kittens can benefit from lower entrances.
    • ​Does the style of the litter box suit your cat(s)?
      • There are so many different litter box styles available: open or covered; high or low rim; automatic or manual scooping; etc. Offer your cat different litter box styles and see if he or she chooses one style over another.
      • Many cats actually prefer uncovered boxes. Open boxes allow odors to escape, and they also provide your cat with a circumferential view of their environment.
    • Are the litter boxes cleaned regularly?
      • Scoop litter boxes at least once daily. Cats tends to dislike unkept litter boxes. A box that has not been scooped regularly can quickly lead a cat to find an alternate location to urinate.
      • Litter box liners may help the box stay cleaner. Keep in mind though, that some cats do not like these liners.
    • Litter Substrate:
      • Most cats prefer unscented litter.
      • Cats may prefer finer litter that is only 1 to 2 inches deep.
      • If you change litter type or brand, a gradual transition over several days to a few weeks might help your cat receive the new litter well. Alternatively, you could also fill one box with the new litter type and leave the old litter type in the other box(es). Then, watch and see which box your cat uses more!
  3. Managing the Inappropriate Urination Sites:
    • Clean the spots thoroughly:
      • Cats tend to return to the same spot repeatedly if the urine scent is still present.
      • Wash any items that can be laundered promptly. For areas like flooring and furniture, utilize a cleaner that has an enzymatic component. The enzymatic action will more fully break down the urine scent.
    • Restrict access temporarily:
      • In order to completely remove your cat’s ability to return to an old urination site, block the area off temporarily. Close doors, or cover the area with something like a plant, box, chair, etc.
  4. Behavioral Modification:
    • If you can catch your cat when he or she is getting ready to urinate in an inappropriate location, use a startle mechanism to get their attention (shake a can of coins or use a water bottle sprayer). It is important that you do not scare your cat – just startle them.
    • If there is an area that your cat has been returning to over and over, temporarily place a litter box at the site. If they start using that box, then after a few days move the box a few inches in the direction of where you ultimately want the litter box to reside. Over the next several days to weeks, gradually move the box closer and closer to the desired location.
    • You can also try changing your cat’s association with the area of inappropriate urination. For example, placing food and water bowls in the area, or having regular play sessions in the area, may cause your cat to decide that he or she no longer wants to urinate in that area.
    • If stress is a component of the inappropriate urination, consider a calming pheromone like Feliway.

As you can see, there are a number of things that may help your cat stop urinating inappropriately. Always be sure to rule out medical concerns first. Feel free to contact our staff if you have any questions or concerns!

Author: Dr. C. Noureddine, DVM, MS