Updated on 10/12/22
If it seems like your cat is peeing everywhere except for in its litter box, you are likely feeling more than frustrated. You might be tempted to take strong action, such as yelling at the cat, rubbing its nose in the mess, or even rehoming your pet. But resist those urges, and instead, consider possible medical conditions or behavioral issues, because most often, one of those is the root of the problem.
Common reasons for cats to stop using their litter boxes include urinary tract disease or other health issues, a litter box that isn't cleaned often enough, or stress caused by a change in the household, such as a new pet or family member.
Cats are sometimes accused of being spiteful, but it's unlikely that that's why your feline family member is refusing to use its litter box. Urinating outside the litter box is an unfortunately common feline misbehavior that often leads to the owner giving up the cat. Before you go down that road, however, you should know that there's hope for your kitty.
Not only can you learn how to best deal with urinary problems in your cat, but you may be able to prevent some urinary issues in the first place. Find out below why your cat is urinating outside of its litter box and how to stop inappropriate litter box behavior.
Why Do Cats Pee Outside the Litter Box?
Before you can begin to correct a litter box problem, it's important to understand why your cat is peeing inappropriately. A cat urinates outside its litter box for one of two general reasons: a medical problem or a behavioral issue.
If your cat is peeing inappropriately, the first step is to visit your veterinarian. The vet will do a physical exam of your cat and check a urine sample. Based on the results, your vet will recommend treatment. There are a number of common urinary medical issues in cats:
Bladder stones: Some cats develop actual stones in the bladder that may cause irritation and even blockage.1 Crystals may accompany bladder stones or be a precursor to stone formation. If your vet suspects bladder stones, X-rays will be needed to determine the size and quantity of the stones. Smaller bladder stones might be dissolved with a special diet, but larger stones may need to be removed surgically (cystotomy). It's common for a cat with bladder stones to also have a UTI. If so, antibiotic treatment is necessary.
Idiopathic cystitis: The term cystitis means inflammation of the bladder. Idiopathic means the cause is unknown. Cats with cystitis often have hematuria (blood in the urine).2 Testing a urine sample is essential because the blood may only be detected microscopically. If your vet determines that your cat's urine contains blood, but there are no crystals, bacteria or stones present, the likely diagnosis will be idiopathic cystitis. Idiopathic cystitis is usually treated with a combination of diet change and environmental enrichment. Pain and antianxiety medications may also be used.
Metabolic disease: Symptoms of chronic kidney disease may include increased urination.3 Other metabolic diseases that may increase the amount of urination your cat produces are liver disease, diabetes, and thyroid issues. If your cat has been drinking more, or you have been finding yourself needing to clean the litter box more often, your veterinarian may want to run some blood work to check for these issues.
Urinary tract infection or UTI: Urinary tract infections are rare in young cats, but can be a common cause of urinary issues in older cats, either by itself or in conjunction with other medical conditions affecting the urinary system. Bacteria in the urine may cause an inflammatory response in the urinary tract. Antibiotics are used to treat a urinary tract infection. Your vet will likely recommend follow-up testing after the antibiotics are finished to make sure the infection is gone.
When one or more urinary issues are chronic, the condition is typically called feline lower urinary tract disease, or FLUTD. If your cat is diagnosed with FLUTD, your vet may recommend a special urinary diet and/or supplements to support the urinary tract.
Urinary problems can lead to a serious, urinary obstruction, especially in male cats. If your cat is experiencing urinary issues, don't delay the trip to the vet. If your cat is posturing to urinate and little or no urine is coming out, your cat might have a blockage or partial obstruction. In this case, get your cat to a vet immediately as this condition can quickly become life-threatening.
In some cases, inappropriate urination occurs when a cat has a nonurinary health problem. Your cat may be peeing outside the box because of pain or discomfort elsewhere in the body. It's a good idea to have your vet order comprehensive lab work to look for a health issue if none is found during the initial exam or urinalysis. Lab work can reveal serious health problems like diabetes or kidney disease, allowing your vet to begin treatment immediately.
If no medical cause is found for your cat's inappropriate urination, then it's important to determine what factors are causing your cat to behave this way.
Dirty Litter Box
Cats are particular about their toilets. The litter box may simply be too dirty for your cat. Or it may be perfectly clean but otherwise uncomfortable to use. For example, the box may be too small for your cat to use comfortably. Or it may be in a location that your cat doesn't like5. If it's covered, this may bother your cat. Perhaps the litter has a strong scent or an annoying feel on your cat's paws. Cat's like choice so too few litter boxes can also be an issue.
Your cat may be trying to tell you it's stressed out at home.5 It may be unhappy with another animal in the household and is marking its territory to send a message to the other animal. Or your cat may sense that it's too dangerous to access the litter box if the other animal is out and about. Your cat may also "act out" if there is a new human in the home.
Cats are sensitive to the smallest of changes in their environments. No matter what the source of the stress is, make sure your cat has a quiet place where it can get away. The new animal or human should not have access to this place of refuge.
Old Urine Smells
If your cat has peed in an area, the smell might remain even after you clean up the accident. A cat's sense of smell is much better than yours. If old urine odors remain in your home, there's a very good chance your cat is returning to the area because of the smell.5
How to Stop Inappropriate Litter Box Behavior
Perhaps the most common reason cats urinate inappropriately is that they dislike the litter box. If your cat is peeing everywhere and you've ruled out medical issues, then it's time to reassess your litter boxes.
Begin by making sure your cat's litter boxes are as clean and desirable as possible. Choose the largest litter boxes possible and try to keep them uncovered. Your cat may feel cramped inside a covered box, especially if it's a large or fluffy cat.
Place litter boxes in a quiet yet accessible area of the home. Make sure they're not placed in the area where your cat eats or drinks. For the sake of your cat's privacy and your own decor, consider a decorative screen to separate the cat litter box area from other areas.
Make sure there's a box on each level of your home.
For older cats, the litter box should be easy for your senior cat to get into. Consider getting a shallow cat box or placing a ramp at the entrance of the box.
Find a good cat litter that your cat likes. Ideally, choose an unscented, scoopable litter that cats love, such as Dr. Elsey's Cat Attract.
Many veterinarians recommend having one litter box per cat, plus one extra. This means having two litter boxes even in a one-cat household. One reason for this is that some cats like to use one box for urine and the other for stool. The other reason is to prevent competition between cats for litter box territory.5
Make sure your home is a happy place for your cat. Add plenty of vertical space and feline enrichment to make your cat's environment optimal. Remember to play with your cat and provide toys. If environmental changes are not effective, your vet may recommend a supplement or prescription medication to reduce stress and anxiety in your cat.
It's essential that you thoroughly clean any inappropriate areas where a cat has urinated using a special cleaner, such as an enzymatic cleaner, to completely eradicate the odor. Otherwise, your cat may continue to pee there.
In general, the key to stopping inappropriate urination in cats or avoiding it altogether is as simple as being a responsible, attentive cat owner. Keep your cat healthy and visit the vet for routine care and as soon as issues crop up. Minimize anxiety in your cat's environment and try to keep a cat-friendly, low-stress home.