Cat laying by litter box

How to Manage Litter Box Woes

Dr. Harris

Written by Dr. Harris



Is your cat peeing outside the litter box? One of the most common behavior problems reported by cat owners is house soiling. House soiling is when a cat urinates or defecates on objects or surfaces that are outside the litter box. In this blog, we will discuss medical reasons for this behavior in cats, discuss ideal litter box management, and how to manage problems around the litter box.

It is essential to start with a thorough history of the problem – when did it start? How frequently does it occur? Is there a particular spot the cat is repeatedly soiling? And so on. 

It is always a good idea to keep a log of incidents that will help you and your veterinarian look for any patterns. Next, your veterinarian should do a thorough physical exam of your cat, which can help determine what diagnostics may be useful to rule in or out any medical causes for the house soiling.

Medical reasons for house soiling could include urinary bladder stones, chronic kidney disease, urinary tract infections, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, arthritis, or other orthopedic diseases, and neoplasia. It is always important to rule out any medical causes for the behavior to treat your cat appropriately. 

One disorder that causes urinating outside of the litter box and becoming more prevalent in our indoor cats is feline idiopathic cystitis.

Feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC) is a condition that can cause cats to exhibit house-soiling behaviors. FIC is diagnosed after a cat has had an episode or several episodes of lower urinary tract disease that after a medical workup, there is no cause found for the behavior (no bacterial infection, no bladder stones, etc.). 

Unfortunately, there is no single test for this disease, and it is often reoccurring. Increased risk factors for FIC include excessive body weight, decreased activity, multiple cats in the home, and cats who live inside. 

This condition can be chronic, wax, and wane, or stop suddenly. We are learning more and more about FIC, and recent research has shown associations between the bladder and the nervous system, which has led to further study on how we can best help these cats. FIC is often treated with pain medications, diet change, and improving a cat’s environmental needs.

Environment Changes Can Cause Changes in Cat Soiling Behavior

There are many factors related to the litter box and its environment that can cause changes in soiling behavior. 

Overcrowding around the litter box can cause less confident cats to seek out other areas to soil. Cats should be able to use the litter box without having to encounter other cats. 

Cats will also avoid the litter box if they had negative experiences around it such as getting medications in or around the box, if they have been trapped in or around the box (either by another cat, human or child), or there is a noisy appliance near the box. A dirty litter box may also cause a cat to avoid it.

What is the Optimal Litter Box?

The optimal litter box should be rectangular in shape and 1.5 times the length of the cat. There should be one more box than the total number of cats in the home, and at least one litter box should be on each level of a multi-level home. Avoid placing food and water near the litter box as some cats will be discouraged from using the box if it is near their food. 

Research has shown that cats are divided in their preferences for an open box versus a closed box, but are equal in their choice for a clean litter box. 

Remove waste from the litter box at least once a day and add litter as needed. The box itself should be washed with hot water and soap every 1-4 weeks as necessary to keep your cat happy. 

Most cats prefer a fine, sand-like, non-scented, clumping litter, but you may need to try several different litter types until you find one your cat likes.  

Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment

The American Association of Feline Practitioners has developed five pillars of a healthy feline environment. Fulfilling these five pillars is a great way to prevent or correct house soiling behavior.

  1. Provide a safe space. Provide raised locations like perches and an enclosure where a cat can hide to avoid strange smells, noises, or unfamiliar people/cats/objects.
  2. Provide multiple and separated resources of food, water, toileting areas, scratching spots, play areas, and rest areas. There should be multiple areas that provide all a cat’s needs to avoid stress and competition with other cats. Even in single cat homes, cats can benefit from having various options to meet their needs.
  3. Provide opportunity for play and predatory behavior. Boredom can cause stress in cats. Cats should have access to toys and devices that require a cat to be active in their environment. Multiple periods of playtime throughout the day with a laser or other toys can help decrease boredom.
  4. Provide positive and predictable human-cat social interaction. The handling of a cat should be consistent, gentle, and friendly. Allow the cat to initiate and stop interactive behavior.
  5. Provide an environment that respects a cat’s sense of smell. Cats evaluate their surroundings using smells, and these smells can affirm their sense of security and comfort. Avoid introducing odors or substances that disrupt a cat’s ability to perceive its environment by smell.

House soiling is emotionally exhausting for the cat owner and clinically challenging for your veterinarian. It is often due to a cat’s physical, social, or medical needs not being adequately met. As veterinarians, we are interested in keeping your cat healthy and happy and fostering a relationship between cats and their humans. Effectively managing house-soiling problems can improve your cat’s welfare and strengthen the human-animal bond in your home.

About Brook-Falls
Brook-Falls Veterinary Hospital and Exotic Care is dedicated to providing quality care to all companion pets and exotic animals. Brook-Falls is a Menomonee Falls, WI-based full-service veterinary hospital with an extensive range of comprehensive medical, dental, diagnostic, and surgical services to meet the varying needs of all patients. Brook-Falls Veterinary also offers informational and educational media and seminars for pet owners by way of blogs, digital TV series (Expert Veterinary Television), e-books, whitepapers, infographics, and more.
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