How To Stop Your Cat From Peeing Outside the Litter Box

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Cats have accidents. It’s the unfortunate reality of being a pet parent. Here's what to do when your cat pees outside the litter box and how to prevent future messes.

Cats are known for their tidy bathroom habits, practically litter training themselves. But despite their usual cleanliness, a cat peeing outside the litter box is not unusual.

Messes are unfortunately an unavoidable part of pet ownership. But there are some steps you can take to keep the damage at a minimum. If you’re dealing with cat accidents, here’s why your cat pees outside the litter box, and what you can do about it.

Why Do Cats Pee Outside the Litter Box?

There isn’t one explanation for why cats pee outside the litter box; it’s usually not as simple as “I gotta go.” Cats are surprisingly particular about their bathroom environment. What seems like a small thing to us can make all the difference to a cat. Even choosing the right style of litter box involves a lot of trial and error.

Ragen McGowan, an animal behavior scientist for Purina, cites five reasons for cats peeing elsewhere: marking territory, strange smells, anxiety or health issues, overcrowding and issues with the box itself.

Urine marking and smells

Cats, like many animals, mark their territory. Urine marking is most common with unneutered male cats, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). But other cats can do it too. “Doors and hallways are common targets since they’re highly trafficked by pets and people,” says McGowan.

If your cat starts peeing outside the litter box after you bring something new into the home, like a new piece of furniture, it may be due to the unfamiliar smell. Another clear sign is if your cat marks the furniture. McGowan says, “Your cat may be trying to mark it with its own familiar scent” — like a bad air freshener.

Anxiety and health issues

When cats are anxious, it often shows in their bathroom habits. They may refrain from going at all. Or they may go in an inappropriate place, like the carpet behind the couch.

“Anxiety can be caused by a variety of things, including moving to a new house or loud noises,” says McGowan. Cats may also be stressed by the litter box location. They like peace and quiet while doing their business.

More serious health problems, such as urinary tract infections, could cause it, too. “If your cat suddenly stops using the litter box or starts eliminating in other areas of your house, a health issue could be to blame,” McGowan says. Check with your vet when your cat displays unusual behavior, especially if your cat has no history of marking or reacting to loud noises.

Overcrowding

Cats, like people, don’t like to share a bathroom with a bunch of siblings. “The rule of thumb is the number of litter boxes you should have should equal the number of cats, plus one,” Purina animal behavior scientist Dr. Jean-François Savard says. “So if you have two cats, for example, you should have three litter boxes available for them to use.”

If the litter box itself isn’t cleaned out regularly, cats may pee elsewhere. Nobody wants to use a full toilet. And while cats may dislike the smell of a full litter box, the physical obstacles are the bigger issue, according to a study by Nestlé Purina. Cats like to dig and cover up when they’re done. That’s hard to do when the box is full.

Litter box problems

If a litter box isn’t big or deep enough, if you’ve changed to a new type of litter, or if you haven’t washed or replaced the litter box in a while, your cat may decide not to use it. “Switching litter back might be an easy way to restore proper litter box behavior,” McGowan says.

How To Stop a Cat From Peeing Outside the Litter Box

Once you know the reasons why, it’s easier to work on a solution. But first, rule out a health condition with your vet.

Keep the litter clean

Devon rex Cat using a litter box with white bentonite sandCasarsaGuru/Getty Images

“Scoop waste daily,” McGowan says. Keeping litter fresh and available for digging will encourage your cat to use it.

It’s also important to dump the litter and clean the box itself. “Wash the litter box monthly with water and mild detergent and refill with fresh litter,” says McGowan. “It’s all about keeping things tidy.”

Adjust the litter box

Determine if your litter box is undesirable. “Undesirable can mean a few different things: too small, too hard to get to, or too close to their food — just to name a few,” says McGowan. A larger or deeper litter box, or a box without a lid, may be what your cat wants. You can also move the litter box to a better location.

Choose a private, easily accessible location with as little foot traffic and noise as possible. Savard gives the laundry room as an example. “While the laundry room might seem like a good ‘non-public’ space to hide a litter box, your cat might not feel comfortable with the noise of a running washer and dryer,” he says.

Some cats may be unbothered by the noise. Others prize quiet over privacy.

Help your cat adapt

If stress is causing your cat to pee outside the litter box, there are a few things you can do — depending on the stressor.

“If you recently got another pet, or if there are more pets around than they’re used to, try getting some more litter boxes to help reduce their urge to mark territory,” McGowan suggests. Remember the number of cats plus one rule. You may also want to keep the litter boxes in separate, private locations.

Moving and travel are big stressors for cats. “If you’ve recently moved, try making your cat’s world smaller and more predictable by keeping them in a space with their own litter box and toys for a few days,” says McGowan. Keep that space as calm and quiet as possible to encourage litter box use.

Finally, reassurance goes a long way with cats. “Be sure to give your cat plenty of love and attention to help ease the transition,” McGowan says. Eventually, they’ll get used to the change.

How To Clean up Cat Pee

Cleaning cat pee is critical to preventing future accidents. “The more cats can smell their scent, the more likely it is that the incident will happen again,” explains McGowan.

The cleaning method depends on the soiled surface. Bathroom tile is easier to clean than a sofa. An enzymatic cleaner is the best way to remove cat urine smell, whether it be on carpet, laundry or upholstery. “Pheromone sprays can also help prevent repeat violations,” McGowan says.