Why Do Cats Pee and Poop on Things? (Litterbox Illiterate)

Updated: October 30, 2023


Dealing with litter boxes and kitty cleanup is an inevitable aspect of cat ownership. However, what do you do when your feline friends seem determined to relieve themselves anywhere but the designated spot? Typically, if your cat is marking or spraying outside the litter box, it’s due to stress, medical issues, or hygiene concerns. While two of these issues can often be resolved relatively easily, the medical aspect may warrant more attention, as your cat’s unusual bathroom behavior could be a sign of underlying problems.

It’s understandable to feel frustrated when your cats appear obstinate about using the litter box, but it’s crucial to remember that cats, like most creatures, have reasons for their behavior. Before dismissing any potential factors for this unusual conduct, take the time to ensure your kitties are in good health. This consideration will lead to a happier and more contented relationship between you and your feline companion in the long run.

Read also: When Things Get Toothy: Why Do Cats Love to Bite?

Reasons Your Cat Marks or Sprays Outside of the Litter Box

There are several potential reasons why your cat may engage in marking or spraying outside of the litter box. These include:

Medical Issues

Medical issues are a significant factor that can lead to a cat marking or spraying outside of the litter box. Cats may engage in inappropriate elimination behaviors due to various underlying health problems. Some common medical issues include:

  • Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs): UTIs can cause pain and discomfort during urination, leading cats to avoid the litter box. They may associate the box with the pain they experience and seek alternative spots.
  • Bladder Stones: These can obstruct the urinary tract and make it painful for a cat to urinate. As a result, they may urinate outside the box.
  • Kidney Disease: Cats with kidney problems may have increased urination or changes in urine composition. This can lead to accidents as they struggle to control their bladder.
  • Diabetes: Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to excessive thirst and increased urination, which might cause a cat to miss the litter box.
  • Hyperthyroidism: Cats with an overactive thyroid gland may experience increased urination and difficulty controlling their bladder.
  • Arthritis or Mobility Issues: Older cats or those with arthritis may have trouble accessing the litter box due to pain or stiffness.
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): Cats with digestive issues may have diarrhea, which can result in accidents outside the box.
  • Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS): Similar to dementia in humans, cats with CDS may become disoriented and forget their litter box training.
  • Pain or Injury: Any type of pain, whether from an injury or an underlying condition, can lead to an aversion to the litter box.

If your cat suddenly exhibits changes in litter box behavior, such as urinating or spraying outside the box, it’s crucial to consult with a veterinarian. A vet can perform a thorough examination and necessary tests to rule out or address any potential medical issues. Treating the underlying health problem is often the first step in resolving inappropriate elimination behaviors related to medical causes.

Territorial Instincts:

Territorial instincts play a significant role in a cat’s behavior, and they can lead to marking or spraying outside of the litter box. Here’s a closer look at how territorial instincts can influence a cat’s behavior:

  • Establishing Territory: Cats are territorial animals, and they have a natural urge to establish and define their territory. This behavior is more prominent in unspayed or unneutered cats, as hormones drive this instinct.
  • Marking with Scent: Cats have scent glands on their face, paws, and the base of their tail. They use these glands to mark their territory by rubbing against objects or even spraying urine. This marking behavior is a way for cats to communicate their presence to other cats in the area.
  • Response to Perceived Threats: If a cat perceives a threat or senses the presence of another cat in their territory, they may respond by marking. This is a way for them to assert their dominance and establish boundaries.
  • Multi-Cat Households: In homes with multiple cats, territorial conflicts can arise. Cats may mark to assert dominance or to establish their own space within the shared environment.
  • Changes in Household Dynamics: Introducing a new pet, moving to a new home, or any significant changes in the household can disrupt the established territorial balance. This can lead to marking behavior as cats reassert their boundaries.
  • Outdoor Cats: If a cat is allowed outdoors, they may mark outside to establish their territory in the surrounding environment. This can sometimes lead to them marking inside the home as well.
  • Stress and Anxiety: While territorial instincts are natural, excessive marking can be a sign of stress or anxiety. Cats may resort to marking if they feel insecure or threatened.

Addressing territorial instincts involves creating a harmonious environment that allows each cat to have their own space while minimizing conflicts. Spaying or neutering can also help reduce marking behavior, especially in unaltered cats. Additionally, providing vertical spaces, hiding spots, and enrichment activities can help cats feel secure in their territory.

Stress or Anxiety

Stress and anxiety can profoundly impact a cat’s well-being and behavior, often leading to marked changes in their routines, including litter box habits. Cats are remarkably sensitive creatures, attuned to their surroundings and the emotional atmosphere within a household. Sudden alterations, such as moving to a new home, introducing a new pet, or experiencing a shift in their human family’s dynamics, can trigger stress responses.

Additionally, loud noises, unfamiliar scents, or even disruptions to their daily routines can induce anxiety. These emotions may manifest in various ways, one of which is through marking or spraying outside the litter box. Understanding the signs of feline stress and anxiety is crucial for providing the necessary support and creating a safe, secure environment for your furry companion.

By identifying and addressing these underlying emotional factors, you can help your cat feel more at ease and restore their confidence and contentment. This, in turn, promotes a happier and healthier feline-human bond.

Litter Box Preferences:

Litter box preferences are a crucial aspect of a cat’s toileting behavior. Every feline companion has their own unique preferences and sensitivities when it comes to their designated bathroom area. Understanding and accommodating these individual inclinations is key to ensuring consistent and appropriate litter box usage. Here are some essential points to consider:

  • Litter Type: Cats may have specific preferences regarding the texture, scent, and even color of the litter. Some may prefer clumping, non-clumping, scented, or unscented varieties.
  • Box Size and Depth: Cats vary in size, and a litter box should be spacious enough for them to comfortably turn around and dig. Some cats prefer deeper boxes for added privacy.
  • Location: The placement of the litter box matters. Cats generally prefer a quiet, low-traffic area where they can have some privacy. Avoid placing it near their food and water bowls.
  • Cleanliness: Cats are meticulous creatures, and a clean litter box is essential. Regular scooping and complete box changes help maintain a welcoming environment.
  • Number of Boxes: In households with multiple cats, it’s crucial to provide enough litter boxes. The general rule is one box per cat, plus an extra.
  • Avoidance of Covered Boxes: Some cats may be averse to covered litter boxes, as they can trap odors and make them feel confined.
  • Changes in Litter Brand: Abruptly switching to a new litter brand may disrupt a cat’s routine. Gradual transitions can help them adjust.
  • Avoidance of High-Traffic Areas: Cats may be hesitant to use a litter box in a busy area with a lot of foot traffic or noisy surroundings.
  • Preference for Disposable or Non-Disposable Liners: Some cats may have a preference for using liners, while others may prefer to dig directly in the litter.

Understanding and respecting your cat’s litter box preferences is a vital part of maintaining their well-being. By providing a comfortable, clean, and appropriately placed litter box, you can help ensure that your feline friend feels at ease and has a positive toileting experience. This, in turn, promotes good litter box habits and a harmonious living environment for both you and your cat.

Aging or Mobility Issues:

As cats age, they may experience a natural decline in mobility, which can affect their ability to access the litter box. This phase of life comes with a set of unique challenges, and understanding and accommodating your aging cat’s needs is essential for their comfort and well-being. Here are some important considerations regarding aging or mobility issues in cats:

  • Decreased Mobility: Arthritis and joint stiffness are common in senior cats. These conditions can make it difficult for them to climb into or out of a high-sided litter box.
  • Choosing an Accessible Box: Opt for a litter box with lower sides or even a shallow tray to facilitate easier entry and exit for your aging cat.
  • Avoidance of Covered Boxes: Covered litter boxes may pose a challenge for older cats due to the need to navigate an entrance or exit. Open-top boxes are generally more accessible.
  • Placement of the Litter Box: Ensure that the litter box is located in an area that is easily accessible without the need to navigate stairs or obstacles.
  • Non-Slip Surfaces: Consider placing a non-slip mat or rug around the litter box to provide stable footing for your aging cat.
  • Proximity to Resting Areas: Place the litter box near your cat’s favorite resting spots to minimize the distance they need to travel.
  • Frequent Cleaning: Older cats may be more sensitive to odors and cleanliness. Regularly clean the litter box to maintain a pleasant environment.
  • Consider Multiple Locations: If your home has multiple floors, consider providing litter boxes on each level to reduce the distance your aging cat needs to travel.
  • Seek Veterinary Advice: If your cat’s mobility issues are significant, consult your veterinarian for recommendations. They may suggest mobility aids or adjustments to make your cat more comfortable.
  • Monitor Health Conditions: Keep an eye on your aging cat’s overall health. Conditions like diabetes or kidney disease can lead to increased urination and may require more frequent access to a litter box.

By taking these steps, you can help ensure that your aging cat has easy access to their litter box, promoting a comfortable and stress-free toileting experience. This, in turn, contributes to their overall quality of life during their golden years.

Negative Associations:

Negative associations can significantly impact a cat’s behavior, particularly when it comes to using the litter box. These associations are formed when a cat experiences discomfort, fear, or anxiety related to the litter box or its surroundings. As a result, they may avoid using it altogether. Here are some common scenarios that can lead to negative associations:

  • Startling Events: If a cat is startled while using the litter box, such as by a loud noise or sudden movement, they may associate the litter box with fear or anxiety.
  • Uncomfortable Surfaces: Cats are sensitive to the texture and feel of the litter. If they find the litter uncomfortable on their paws, they may develop a negative association with the box.
  • Strong Odors or Harsh Cleaning Products: Using strong-smelling cleaning products near the litter box can create an aversion. Cats have a keen sense of smell, and overpowering scents may deter them.
  • Unpleasant Interactions with Other Pets: If a cat is bullied or harassed by other pets while in or near the litter box, they may develop anxiety about using it.
  • Inadequate Cleaning: A dirty or poorly maintained litter box can lead to negative associations. Cats prefer a clean environment and may avoid a soiled box.
  • High-Traffic Areas: Placing the litter box in a noisy or high-traffic area can be stressful for a cat. They may feel exposed and vulnerable, leading to avoidance.
  • Medical Issues: Pain or discomfort from a medical condition can cause a cat to associate the litter box with discomfort, leading to avoidance.

To address negative associations, it’s important to create a positive and comfortable environment around the litter box. This may involve selecting a litter that your cat finds agreeable, placing the box in a quiet and accessible location, and ensuring it’s kept clean and odor-free. Gradual desensitization, patience, and positive reinforcement can also help rebuild positive associations with the litter box. If the issue persists, consulting with a veterinarian or professional animal behaviorist can provide tailored guidance.

Inadequate Cleaning

Maintaining a clean litter box is crucial for ensuring your cat’s comfort and promoting consistent litter box use. Cats are meticulous creatures, and a dirty or improperly maintained box can lead to avoidance behaviors. Here are some key points to consider regarding inadequate cleaning of the litter box:

  • Odor and Discomfort: Cats have a keen sense of smell, and a dirty litter box can be highly unpleasant for them. The accumulation of waste and odors can cause discomfort and lead to avoidance.
  • Bacterial Growth: A dirty litter box can become a breeding ground for harmful bacteria. This can potentially lead to health issues for both your cat and household members.
  • Litter Clumps and Buildup: Clumps of waste can form in the litter, making it uncomfortable for your cat to use. Additionally, excessive buildup of waste can limit the available space for digging and burying.
  • Stress and Anxiety: A dirty environment can cause stress and anxiety in your cat. They may associate the litter box with discomfort and choose to relieve themselves elsewhere.
  • Unwanted Odors in the Home: Inadequate cleaning of the litter box can lead to unpleasant odors permeating your home, which can be bothersome for you and your family.

To ensure your cat’s litter box is clean and inviting, follow these guidelines:

  • Regular Scooping: Scoop the litter box at least once a day to remove clumps and waste. This helps maintain a clean and odor-free environment.
  • Complete Litter Changes: Empty and clean the entire litter box regularly. Depending on the type of litter used, this may be necessary every 1-2 weeks.
  • Use Mild Cleaning Products: When cleaning the litter box, use mild, unscented soap or designated pet-friendly cleaners to avoid introducing harsh chemicals.
  • Provide Enough Litter: Ensure there is an adequate amount of litter in the box to allow your cat to dig and bury waste comfortably.
  • Monitor Litter Box Behavior: Pay attention to your cat’s behavior around the litter box. If you notice any signs of discomfort or avoidance, it may be an indication that the box requires cleaning.

By prioritizing cleanliness and hygiene, you create a comfortable and inviting environment for your cat, encouraging them to use the litter box consistently. This, in turn, promotes a positive and healthy relationship between you and your feline companion.

Why is my cat peeing or pooping outside of the litter box?

Cats may engage in this behavior due to various reasons, including medical issues, stress, territorial instincts, or dissatisfaction with the litter box setup.

How can I rule out medical issues as the cause?

Consult a veterinarian for a thorough examination. They can perform tests to identify any underlying health problems that might be contributing to the behavior.

Could stress be causing my cat to avoid the litter box?

Yes, stress or changes in the environment can lead to litter box avoidance. Cats are sensitive to disruptions like moving, new pets, or changes in routine.

How can I address territorial instincts if that’s the issue?

Provide separate spaces and resources for multiple cats. Ensure each cat has their own litter box and areas where they feel secure.

What changes can I make to the litter box setup to prevent this behavior?

Experiment with different litter types, box sizes, and locations. Keep the box clean, avoid strong-smelling cleaning products, and consider open-top boxes.

Should I punish my cat for this behavior?

No, punishment can worsen the problem and create more stress. Instead, focus on identifying and addressing the underlying cause.

How can I clean and eliminate odors from soiled areas?

Clean the affected area thoroughly with an enzyme-based cleaner to remove scent marks. This helps prevent your cat from returning to the same spot.

When should I seek professional help for this issue?

If the behavior persists or worsens, or if you’re unable to identify the cause, consult with a veterinarian or a professional animal behaviorist for tailored guidance and solutions.


The reasons behind a cat’s inappropriate elimination behavior is crucial for finding effective solutions. Whether it’s due to medical issues, stress, territorial instincts, or other factors, addressing the underlying cause is essential for both the cat’s well-being and the harmony of the household.

Taking proactive steps to provide a comfortable, clean, and appropriately placed litter box can go a long way in encouraging proper toileting habits. Additionally, being patient and compassionate with your cat during this process is key to building a trusting and positive relationship.

Michael R

Michael R

I'm a publisher and editor at Cat Guide 101. I imagine that since you’re here, you likely own a cat — or two! — so helping you better understand them is my aim. I'd like to invite you to check out our about page to learn more about the Cat Guide 101 story.

Please Write Your Comments