Unlike many other types of pets, cats have an almost instinctual ability to learn to use the bathroom in a specific area. Litter box training comes pretty naturally to cats and helps prevent unwanted late-night trips outside as well as the inevitable accidents that come with training other types of pets. However, a cat pooping on the floor or a cat not peeing in the litter box regularly can occasionally become an issue. Luckily, there is often an underlying cause for such issues. With treatment and patience, these issues can resolve.
Using the bathroom in the wrong place is often called “inappropriate elimination” or “feline house soiling” in cats. The fact that several terms exist for such an issue should indicate that the problem is not unusual. Many reasons exist for pooping and/or peeing outside the litter box, the most common of which are medical issues, territorial marking, and reactionary measures.
A common cause of cats peeing or urinating outside the litter box is urinary tract disease. Urinary tract infections or feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD, also known as idiopathic cystitis) can be painful, increase a cat’s urge to go, and prevent cats from going normally. Peeing in small amounts in several areas throughout the house, straining to urinate, and blood in the urine are common symptoms.
A common disease that may result in a cat pooping on the floor rather than in the box or peeing over the edge of the litter box is arthritis. Arthritis can make lifting the back legs to step over and into the litter box painful. It can also be painful for a cat to assume a normal posture when pooping or peeing. Cats will often poop or pee near the litter box but avoid stepping inside. They may also show other symptoms such as trouble walking, struggling to jump, or pain along the spine when being petted.
Another type of medical cause for pooping outside the litter box is gastrointestinal (GI) disease. Constipation is common in cats. It can be caused by dehydration from renal disease, hyperthyroidism, megacolon, or other intestinal issues. Usually cats will use the bathroom very little, strain to poop or pee, and only have small, dry bowel movements. On the flip side, diarrhea or loose stool will also cause trouble getting to the litter box, because the urge to go can come on suddenly. GI infection and stress are common causes of diarrhea.
Territorial marking, also sometimes called spraying, is very common in cats, especially those who live in the wild. Pooping or peeing in certain places is a normal way to send messages to other cats or creatures in the area. Usually the message is to avoid an unexpected meeting such as, “Hi. This is Fluffy the cat’s tree, move along…” Another message is to demonstrate a readiness to mate.
Urine and sometimes poop used in a marking manner is usually done in an obvious, high-traffic area (e.g. the middle of the living room, a frequently-used couch). The urine is often sprayed onto vertical surfaces rather than on the floor. This type of marking is also often done on or near a pet owner’s possessions (e.g. laundry, the bed). It is very normal behavior, especially when a new critter is in the household. Since cats don’t talk, they use body language and smell to show what they need to say.
Stress and anxiety, often associated with social problems in multi-cat households (especially if a new cat is introduced), are probably the hardest reasons for inappropriate elimination to solve. When a cat is stressed or worried, he will poop or pee outside the litter box to surround himself with his own scent. While that may sound extremely unusual to humans, having his own scent around gives him a stronger feeling of security and confidence in order to better deal with what is happening. Many owners worry that this is done out of spite- a common example reported by veterinarians is a cat pooping on the floor after a veterinary visit. But the poop isn’t so much saying, “Hey mom/dad, I am really mad at you for making me go to the vet.” What the cat is actually saying is, “Holy cow, that was super stressful. My own scents make me feel better because I know what they are and where the come from.”
Fear or anxiety of the litter box itself can also be a reactionary cause of pooping or peeing outside the litter box. If you use new litter that your cat doesn’t like, you cleaned the box with a new detergent (OR if you haven’t been cleaning the box), or you tried a fancy robot cleaning box that makes weird noises, your cat may just avoid the box and go somewhere else. Similarly, if the litter box is in a place where the cat doesn’t feel safe going, such as in reach of a nosy puppy or toddler, you may find him using the bathroom in a new spot that makes him more comfortable.
What to Do about Pooping and Peeing Outside the Litter Box
Start with a veterinary visit. A check up will help rule out major medical issues or get your cat the help he needs to feel better. If your cat is otherwise healthy, discuss the issue with your vet. Note when it started, how often it happens, whether it is poop or pee, and what other things might be going on in the cat’s life. If territorial marking is occurring and the cat isn’t spayed or neutered, your vet may recommend going ahead with a spay/neuter to remove some of the cat’s motivation. If anxiety or stress is part of the problem, medications in combination with enriching and supporting your cat in his environment may be good solutions. Regardless of the problem, patience, kindness, and a little outside expertise are often necessary to get your kitty back on track and keep everyone happy.