“Why is my cat urinating outside the litter box?” is a common question at Liberty Veterinary Hospital. Unfortunately, the answer is not always obvious, and this frustrating behavior can be a result of multiple factors. Inappropriate urination by cats is always indicative of a problem, and prompt attention is necessary. Here are some common reasons why cats may suddenly start to conduct their business elsewhere. 

Rule out feline illness and pain

To give your cat the best care, always presume a behavioral change is because of illness or pain until proven otherwise. In a multi-cat household, determine which cat is the offender, and have them examined by your veterinarian. An examination and lab work may reveal a common health problem such as:

  • Urinary tract disorders — A range of conditions can result in painful urination.
  • Kidney failure — Increased water consumption can lead to urinary accidents.
  • Diabetes — Diabetic cats drink more water, and need to urinate often.
  • Osteoarthritis — Aching joints may make high-sided boxes painful to use.

Cats who urinate inappropriately because of a medical condition will commonly return to normal box behavior with treatment or lifestyle modification. 

Cats who are straining to urinate, crying or vocalizing while urinating, or producing bloody urine should be seen by a veterinarian. They may have a urinary blockage and require emergency treatment.

Cats may not like their litter box

Once any medical cause has been ruled out, consider your cat’s home environment. When it comes to the litter box, cats have high standards and individual preferences. If they take issue with a particular variable, such as any of the following, they may seek alternative locations.

  • Cleanliness — Some cats will not use a dirty box, so scoop frequently.
  • Location — Boxes should be easily accessible and in quiet, low traffic areas.
  • Box size — Large and obese cats need a spacious box, while kittens and senior cats need a box with low sides.
  • Substrate — Many cats prefer soft, unscented clumping litter. 
  • Box style — Open boxes allow cats to watch for threats such as fellow house pets or other disruptions.

If your cat begins to urinate inappropriately after a change to their litter box (e.g., a relocation or new litter brand) they may be expressing frustration or disapproval. Return to the original setup and see if things improve.

Cats can develop preferences

What begins as a health issue or an aversion to the litter box can become a habit if your cat discovers a preference for urinating in a specific location, or on a new texture such as soft carpet, laundry, or tile. Addressing your cat’s behavior at the first sign of a problem is important—the longer they are allowed to rehearse incorrect behavior, the more difficult it will be to change their ways.

Minimize opportunities for your cat to practice their new habit by:

  • Denying access — Block access to favored areas. 
  • Temporary compromise — Place a litter box in the new location. If your cat returns to the box, move it gradually back to the original location. If your cat stops using the box during transition, look more closely at the original location to determine whether a problem is evident. 
  • Adding litter boxes — Your cat may be unable to make it to the box if the location is too far away. Ensure that your home has one litter box per cat, plus one, and that a box is on each floor.
  • Removing temptation — Store laundry in a hamper. 
  • Leaving no trace — Locate all soiled areas with a black light and clean thoroughly with an enzymatic pet urine cleaner. Breaking down and removing urine molecules with an enzymatic cleaner removes any future temptation.
  • Listening to preference — If your cat is seeking soft items, try a fine litter. If they favor tile, line the bottom of the box with old tile with a small amount of litter, slowly adding more over time.

Cats may be spraying, not urinating

Spraying or marking is a natural behavior performed most frequently by intact male or female cats, but any cat may spray. Spraying involves urinating small amounts on mostly vertical surfaces. Rather than squatting, cats spray while standing up. If you observe your cat in this posture, their house soiling may have an emotional component such as:

  • Territorial concerns — Your cat may perceive a threat from a new cat, nearby outdoor cats, or a change to the home environment such as new furniture.
  • Frustration — Cats may spray when social or play needs are not being met.

Spraying cats are experiencing stress. To resolve the behavior, remove the stress:

  • Spay or neuter intact cats — Removing powerful hormones can alleviate your cat’s desire to mark their territory.
  • Separate contentious cats — Ensure you introduce new cats gradually to give them time to get used to each other.
  • Remove visual stimuli — Block access to windows if outdoor cats are near.
  • Create calm — Use a pheromone diffuser or spray to promote calm.
  • Pay attention — Devote time to playing and interacting with your cat.
  • Clean soiled areas — A cat will return to previously soiled locations, so clean thoroughly and promptly with an enzymatic cleaner.

Inappropriate urination is one of the most common behavioral issues in cats, and one of the most frustrating for owners. If your cat is urinating outside the box, understand that there are many possible reasons for this. Never punish or shame your cat because their behavior may be beyond their control, and negative reactions will exacerbate their stress. Contact Liberty Veterinary Hospital to schedule your cat’s appointment.