Feline inappropriate elimination — a fancy name for those times when kitty pees (or poops) outside the litterbox — accounts for about half of all reported behavior problems in cats. Sadly, it’s the reason pet owners give most often when they relinquish their kitty to an animal shelter. According to Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a professor at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and founder of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic:

“It is a cold, hard fact that cats who fail to use the litter box once a week are four times more likely to be relinquished; if they eliminate outside the litter box daily, these odds increase to over 28:1. About 4 percent of cats urinate outside the litter box weekly, and 1 percent eliminate outside the litter box daily.”1

Cats relieve themselves outside the litterbox for a number of reasons, some having to do with natural feline tendencies, and others involving their environment. Often there are both natural and situational factors underlying a problem with inappropriate elimination. The three main causes for feline inappropriate elimination are:

A medical problem
Urine marking
Aversion to the litterbox
Estimates are that 10 to 24 percent of all kitties have an inappropriate elimination problem at some point in their lives.

Medical Conditions That Can Cause Inappropriate Elimination


If your cat suddenly forgets her manners and starts either peeing or pooping outside the litterbox — especially if she starts using the bathtub or a sink instead —the first thing I recommend is a visit to your veterinarian. There are a number of medical conditions that can contribute to inappropriate elimination, including feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), urinary tract infection, cystitis, obstruction of the urethra, diabetes, cognitive dysfunction and hyperthyroidism.

Diagnosing and treating an underlying medical condition is extremely important to your kitty’s health and to resolving inappropriate elimination behavior. Your veterinarian will perform a physical exam, and order a complete blood count, a blood chemistry profile, a urinalysis and check the thyroid if your cat is older. If the problem involves pooping outside the box, a fecal sample will be taken.

If your cat gets a clean bill of health from the vet but is a senior or geriatric kitty, it’s possible the aging process is causing changes in her elimination habits. For example, does she have to climb stairs to get to the litterbox? Is the box easy for her to get into and out of? It can be challenging to determine if a cat is uncomfortable or in pain. If your older cat is otherwise healthy but could be experiencing joint pain, make sure you’re doing all you can to make it easy for her to use her litterbox.

Urine Marking
Urine marking can be hormonally driven, but it’s most often the result of a natural system of feline communication, or stress. Both male and female cats spray, as do both neutered and intact cats. However, neutered cats spray less, and neutering can reduce or eliminate spraying in some cases.

Kitties who urine-mark generally use the litterbox normally, but also perform marking behaviors. Some cats do both house soiling and urine marking, but it’s easy to tell the difference between the two once you know what to look for.

Urine marking, when it takes the form of spraying, typically happens on vertical surfaces. However, some cats urine-mark on horizontal surfaces, which can make it more difficult to determine whether you have a marking problem or a house-soiling problem. Where your cat marks is of primary significance. Generally speaking:

If he marks under windows or on baseboards, he may perceive a threat from animals outside, usually other cats
If he marks on or near furniture or doors inside your home, he might be having problems with other cats in the household
If your cat marks personal belongings, such as clothes, bed linens, a favorite chair or a computer keyboard, he’s probably experiencing some anxiety about the human who owns those things
Other places cats are known to urine-mark are on shopping bags just coming into the house, heating registers and household appliances.

Resolving urine marking involves identifying and addressing the source of your kitty’s stress. When did the marking begin, and what was happening in your cat’s environment at that time? Just as cats favor certain scratching surfaces, they also return to the same spot to urine-mark. You’ll need to use an enzyme-based product for cleanups to remove stains and odor.

You might also want to spray a synthetic pheromone like Feliway on kitty’s favorite marking spots. Cats also “mark” by rubbing their cheeks against objects (for example, the top of their human’s head), and Feliway may encourage your cat to mark with his cheeks instead of his urine.

It’s important to note that urine marking can be difficult to manage, as often the root cause, if determined, can’t be resolved completely. And sometimes despite addressing all possibilities, cats still mark.

Litterbox Aversion
Cats who are happy with their bathrooms behave more or less like this:

Approach and jump or climb into the box without hesitating
Take a little time to poke around and choose a good spot
Dig a hole
Turn around and do their business
Inspect the result and then cover it up with litter
Cats who are developing a litterbox aversion may approach it tentatively. They may balance on the side of the box or put only two feet in. They may actually use the litter, but immediately leap from the box when finished. Worst case they may walk to the box, sniff at it, turn, walk away — and eliminate elsewhere. Pooping outside the box, but very close to it, is almost always a litterbox aversion problem.

Your cat can decide she doesn’t like her litterbox for any number of reasons. Perhaps it isn’t being cleaned frequently, or not frequently enough for her comfort. Maybe she’s sensitive to a chemical used to clean the box, or perhaps she’s not fond of a box with a hood. The box may be in a noisy or high-traffic location, or where another pet in the household can trap her in there.

Tackling Kitty’s Litterbox Aversion
• Extra boxes for multi-cat households. If you have multiple cats, you may need to add more boxes. The general guideline is one box per cat, and one extra.

• Litter preference. It could be kitty doesn’t like the type of litter in the box, or it’s not deep enough (4 inches is recommended). You can discover your pet’s litter preference by buying the smallest amount available of several kinds of litter, and several inexpensive litterboxes. Place the boxes with different litters side by side and see which box gets used most often.

Studies on the types of litter cats prefer show they are quite particular about particle size. The cat's evolutionary substrate, for potty purposes, is sand. When kitties started living indoors, clay litter came along and most cats were okay with it. But clay has its own issues, as do corn- and wheat-based litters.

These days, there's a wide selection of organic and natural types of litters on the market, but many of them feature big particle sizes, which don't appeal to most cats. Kitties also don't like synthetic scents or odor control additives in their litter. The litter I use for my own cats is our own Biocharged Kitty Litter made with organic biochar. Biochar has a large surface area and is a recalcitrant, which means the charcoal itself holds onto things such as water and smells.

Our litter has incredible clumping properties, which means it lasts longer and there’s less total wetness and mess. It’s also 100 percent biodegradable and compostable. And it's entirely fragrance-free, because the carbon helps to lock in odors.

• Litterbox location. Find locations for litterboxes that are somewhat out of the way, and away from noisy household machinery and appliances. Choose warm locations in the house rather than the basement or garage. And make sure boxes aren’t close to kitty’s food or water bowls.

• Litterbox cleanliness. Boxes should be kept scrupulously clean. They should be scooped at least once a day and more often if you’re dealing with a potential litterbox aversion situation. Dump all the used litter every two to four weeks (I recommend every two weeks, minimum), sanitize the box with soap and warm water (no chemicals), dry thoroughly and add fresh litter. Plastic litterboxes should be replaced every year or two.

To review, litter box aversion can usually be resolved by:

Determining the type of litter and litter box your kitty prefers
Using the right amount of litter (4 inches, minimum, at all times)
Keeping the boxes scooped, and doing a thorough cleaning at least every two weeks
Having enough boxes and locating them in safe, easy-to-access locations


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