Educational Resources

Inappropriate Elimination

Inappropriate elimination is defined as urinating or defecating outside of the litter box. Most cats will use a litter box readily because of an instinctual desire to cover their eliminations. However, it should also be noted that some litter box behaviors, like covering or hiding urine or feces, is learned (kittens learning from their mother). In nature, cats may have several different areas in which they urinate or defecate. These areas may be of different substrates (leaves versus soil or sand) and are often isolated so that no other cat uses these areas. When we are trying to understand why a cat is not using a litter box, we need to understand that cats are solitary, territorial animals and preferences for type, location, and content of litter box may exist.

Four Main Reasons Why Cats May Have Inappropriate Elimination

  1. Medical problems: Urinary tract or intestinal diseases that may cause pain or discomfort.
  2. Litter box avoidance: Something about the litter box is offensive to the cat or causes discomfort (high edged boxes in older, arthritic cats) so the cat is reluctant to use it.
  3. Something attractive about the area where elimination is occurring
  4. Territorial marking

Medical Problems

**All cats with inappropriate elimination need to have a complete physical examination to rule out any diseases that may produce discomfort in the litter box. Your veterinarian will decide if blood work, urinalysis, or radiographs are necessary to further evaluate the problem.**

Cats with medical problems may avoid using a litter box if it is associated with pain or discomfort.

Possible medical causes of inappropriate urination that cause pain or discomfort:

  • Urinary tract diseases (Infections, bladder stones/crystals, inflammation of the bladder wall, cancer)
  • Kidney Disease
  • Diabetes Mellitus
  • Osteoarthritis

Possible medical causes of inappropriate defecation that cause pain or discomfort:

  • Intestinal diseases (diarrhea, constipation, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, neoplasia)
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Anal gland disease

Litter Box Avoidance

We often make changes to the litter box to suit our needs (perfumes, odor eliminators, putting the boxes in a laundry/utility room) without considering the fact that these changes may be the reason your cat is reluctant to use the litter box.

Cleanliness - Cats are extremely fastidious animals as evidenced by their grooming habits.  In nature, cats have many areas to choose from to eliminate. Indoor cats are forced to a selected area to eliminate. If litter boxes are not clean from urine or feces from one or multiple cats, elimination problems may occur.

  • Scoop litter boxes of urine and feces at least ONCE daily.
  • Clean litter boxes with warm water and soap once weekly. Avoid heavily fragranced cleaners like Pine-sol™, Lysol™, or bleach
  • Avoid scented litters or litter box liners (cats have a much more sensitive sense of smell than we do—if we can smell it, it’s probably overwhelming to your cat). Baking soda may be added to the litter for odor control
  • Make sure litter boxes are large enough—at least 1½ times the length of the largest cat- consider using large plastic containers like Rubbermaid™ storage containers for multi-cat households or large cats.
  • Offer litter boxes with and without a cover—cats may have a preference for one or the other.
  • A number of boxes: The rule of thumb is ONE LITTER BOX PER CAT PLUS ONE for multi-cat households.
  • Place a litter box on each floor of your residence to facilitate use.

Location - Litter boxes should be in a quiet area. While we often place boxes in laundry rooms or utility rooms, loud noises from washers and dryers or furnaces may be intimidating to your cat.

Older cats need to have litter boxes placed in more accessible locations (avoiding stairs, etc) because of arthritis or other illnesses that affect mobility. Kittens may also need a litter box located more closely than an adult.

If your cat is having inappropriate elimination issues, look to where the behavior is occurring- is there something about that area that is more preferable to the cat?

Substrates - Cats may have preferences for the type of material they use to eliminate: sand, pellet, or clay litter, smooth surfaces (like sinks or bathtubs), or cloth. If your cat is having elimination problems, offer a variety of litter boxes with different substrates like those listed above or offer a litter box with nothing at all in it.  REMEMBER: No scented litter!

Attractiveness of Areas Other than the Litter Box for Elimination

Cats may find another area appealing for the reasons listed above. Also, if an area has been previously soiled, the odor of the urine or feces may be enticing for a cat to eliminate over. Thorough cleaning of soiled areas should be performed.

  • Use an enzymatic cleaner that helps break down the proteins in the urine or feces thus neutralizing odors. Soak the area thoroughly and allow it to dry. (Nature’s Miracle, Urine Off, Anti-Icky Poo, Urine Away)
  • Use objects or deterrents to make the affected area less appealing
    • Plastic liners, aluminum foil, furniture, or plants placed over the area
    • Fragranced deodorizers or perfumes or SSScat™ air spray to deter from area
    • Fill sinks or tubs with water to discourage use.

** If you only clean and deter from an area and do not change the litter box so that it is more appealing for your cat, your cat will find another area to eliminate**

Territorial Marking

Cats are territorial animals. In the wild cats are solitary and spend most of their time alone. Most cats will develop an area of territory that is outlined or marked by urine or feces to ward off other cats. This is an instinctual behavior. While spaying or neutering will lessen this instinct, it is not eliminated. Indoor cats still have defined areas or territory and while they often tolerate living in multi-cat households, behavioral-territorial elimination problems are common.

  • Other cats within the house or outside (seen through doors or windows) are the strongest stimulus for territorial marking but new dogs, babies, or visitors may stimulate a marking response
    • Eliminate visual access to doors or windows if outside cats may be a problem
    • Try to redefine your cat’s territory by using cat trees or providing hiding places or using pheromone sprays.
    • Use safe deterrent systems (like motion-activated or ultrasonic sound systems) to deter outdoor cats.
    • In some cases, it may be necessary to reduce the number of cats within a household.
  • Occasionally medications may be recommended to try to lessen your cat’s instinctual need to mark its territory. Your veterinarian will discuss this option with you.
  • Offering some cats access to the outside may eliminate inappropriate elimination problems. Letting cats go outside is not without risks. Potential hazards include toxins, trauma, or disease transmission from other animals. If other options have been tried and the inappropriate behavior is still a problem, this may be an acceptable option. Cat safe fences and enclosures can provide safe outdoor access while reducing the risk of exposure to safety hazards.

We understand that inappropriate elimination is an extremely frustrating problem. It is our hope that the guidelines above will help identify some of the areas that may be a source of house soiling. In some cases, the problem may not be as easily identified. Veterinarians that specialize in animal behavior are available in the area for consultations or to make house calls to try to help in these cases. We work with these specialists to identify possible causes of the inappropriate behavior and to try to remediate the problem. Inappropriate elimination is the most common behavioral problem in cats. It is also the number one reason why cats are surrendered to shelters or euthanized. We are here to try to avoid this and help in any way we can.

Websites with Information on Inappropriate Elimination


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