litter box

What to Do When Cats Pee Outside the Box

One of the most troublesome problems for cat guardians is finding urine outside of the litter box. It can be gross and smelly, not to mention unsanitary to have urine all over the house, so it is understandable that inappropriate elimination is a common reason cats are surrendered to shelters. But it doesn’t have to end like that. If you are willing to put in the resources to figure out your cat’s reasons for peeing outside of the box, you can get them back in the box by meeting their needs.

We don’t have to train kittens to use a litter box; their urge to use litter is instinctual. Cats are closely related to their wild relatives that evolved in the deserts of Egypt where they naturally eliminated in sand. Domestic cats retain that instinct to do their business in loose substrates. They want to use their litter box. If they are peeing elsewhere, they are communicating that one or more of their needs are not being met.

If your cat starts peeing outside of the box, call your veterinarian to schedule an exam to rule out any medical issues that may be causing this behavior. This should always be your first step because health problems including urinary tract infections, kidney disease, arthritis, and many others are common causes of litter box avoidance. If you skip this step and your cat does have a treatable condition, any other changes you make will be a waste of time without addressing the root of the problem.

Meanwhile, thoroughly cleaning urine accidents outside of the box is important because remaining odors can actually attract the cat to use that spot again. If the soiled surface cannot be thrown out and replaced, be sure to use an enzymatic cleaner that is specifically designed for pet urine. Other types of cleaners do not break down the odor-causing molecules and your cat will still be able to smell it even if you can’t.

If your cat is cleared of any medical concerns by your veterinarian, it is time to evaluate your litter box set up to make sure it meets the needs of your cat. Every cat has their own preferences when it comes to their box, so you may need to do some experimenting to find out what they like. These guidelines are preferred by most cats:

  • Cleanliness: Litter boxes should be scooped at least once daily, and completely cleaned and scrubbed weekly. Some cats may tolerate going longer between cleaning, but I’m betting that you wouldn’t want to use a dirty toilet, so don’t make your cat deal with one.
  • Number of Boxes: The general rule is to have one litter box for each cat in your home, plus one. Even if you have only have one cat, it is a good idea to have at least 2 boxes because many cats prefer to urinate and defecate in different locations. If you have many cats, the “plus one” rule may not be enough. For a home with 5 cats, they may need 10 boxes to avoid confrontations.
  • Size: Cats prefer plenty of space to move around. A litter box should be at least one and a half times the length of your cat and wide enough that they can turn in a circle easily. Many commercially available litter boxes are not large enough for an average cat. You can easily DIY a large enough box with plastic tubs or under-the-bed storage containers.
  • Type of Box: Most cats prefer a simple, open design. Some cats are okay with a covered box. Most cats will avoid automatic or self-cleaning boxes, but it always depends on the cat’s preferences.
  • Location: Litter boxes should be placed in quiet, open areas near living spaces. A box tucked into the basement may be too far away. Next to a washing machine or refrigerator may be too noisy. Crammed inside a closet may make them feel unsafe if they might be cornered.
  • Type of Litter: Most cats prefer basic unscented, clumping litter. Some cats are very particular about the type and grain size of their litter, so you can experiment with smaller or larger grains, like sand or wood pellets. They may also prefer deeper or shallower litter, so you might try different depths. A good rule of thumb to start with is about 2 inches of litter.

Besides the litter box set up, you may also consider other aspects of the cat’s life that may be contributing to their litter box avoidance. If they recently recovered from a medical issue, they may still have negative associations with the box from when they were sick. Stress can also contribute to inappropriate elimination, so causes of stress should be addressed.

Cases of inappropriate elimination can be complex, so you may want to seek advice from a professional early on before your cat develops a bad habit. For help getting your cat back in the box, contact me at Pawsitive Vibes Cat Behavior and Training.

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