Why is our cat eliminating outside of the litter box and how can we get him to use it? May 10, 2018

Why is our cat eliminating outside of the litter box and how can we get him to use it?

Original Question: Rory has a history of pooping outside the litter box. We have another cat but I believe it's only Rory doing this as we've caught him several times. He'll be good for a little while but once he starts going outside the box it's hard to get him to stop. He always goes in the bathroom where we keep the litter boxes, sometimes on the floor and sometimes in the bathtub. We recently got a third litter box but that hasn't seemed to help. I also tried using an enzyme cleaner on the spots he was using outside and I think that worked for about a day. Honestly, I think he's just super picky; like I don't think he likes to poop in the same box he pees in. But I'm really struggling on what to do to curb this habit. - Christine

Hi Christine,

Thanks for your question. This issue is as common as it is frustrating.

Whenever our pets are eliminating inappropriately, whether it be urination or defecation, it can be caused by two things: medical reasons or behavioural reasons. So the first thing we have to do is rule out medical problems.

I recommend you see your veterinarian and perform bloodwork and urine testing to make sure there is no medical issue causing this. Inappropriate urination can be caused by a urinary tract infection, diabetes, renal disease, hyperthyroidism, neurological disease or other ailments that can be found by running diagnostics. If a medical condition is found, then the appropriate treatment can be implemented and the condition may resolve. For inappropriate defecation, I would recommend performing fecal testing for parasites and a bacterial culture to determine if there is any infection in the colon which is creating an urgency to defecate in an inappropriate location.

If no medical condition is found, then we have to consider behavioural reasons as a source. Cats are very in tune with their environment so there are many stimuli that can cause them to become anxious or change their behaviour. For example, I remember a patient that stopped going to the litter box because an owner started storing luggage near the litter box. Cats can also perceive things that we can’t, so a high-pitched sound that doesn’t bother us, may bother them and cause them fear around the litter box. Now you may go hunting for these things, but in the end, it’s rare to find. It doesn’t take much for a cat to start eliminating inappropriately and once they do, the reason they started doing it may be gone but they are now just continuing. The longer you let this go on, the more it’s going to be ingrained and difficult to resolve. I’ve also seen cats stop using a litter box because they had arthritis and it was difficult to step into the box. In your case, the fact that your cat is eliminating in the tub would suggest that joint pain may not be an issue but I would still recommend that you have your veterinarian palpate the joints to determine if there is any evidence of arthritis.

There are some strategies you can employ to focus their attention on the litter box. A simple one is that you should keep the litter fresh and clean by removing any deposits on a daily basis. You theorize in your question that he wants different litter boxes for urine and bowel movements. This would be pretty uncommon but it’s worth continuing to see if it is successful.

You can also start putting treats near the litter box but I always tell people not to let the cat know you’re putting them there. This way they just happen to find them there. They may start visiting in the litter box just to see if they’ve shown up again and since they’re there, they might as well use the litter box.

You can also place litter box in various areas of the house. Keep in mind that cats can develop issues like arthritis which can make it difficult for them to go up and down the stairs and this may be why he’s not visiting the litter box.

When a cat is really overweight and large, they may no longer fit in the litter box and it may not be comfortable to use it. I often have owners buy a large bin, cut the sides really low, put it in a garbage bag and sprinkle litter on top of it creating their own litter box with a much larger surface area and low sides to it so it’s very easy to step in and out. There is a great article “When Indulge Leads to Bulge” that I recommend you to check out for more information on this topic.

There are also products that you can sprinkle in the litter that are supposed to attract them to it. These can work in some cases but not in others.

If anxiety is the cause, you may be able to improve this with environmental enrichment. Get your cat playing more and engaging it with toys. This will reduce stress. We have some useful strategies for cat owners to interpret in the article entitled “Bored Kitty? How to Enrich Your Cat’s Home Life”.

If they are eliminating in a particular spot, like on a bed or in a bedroom, you can restrict access to this area. Always clean the area where they have been eliminating very thoroughly. Even a small amount of debris or odour will make them return to that place and think it’s an appropriate place to eliminate.

Lastly, a lot of cases do take medication to solve these issues. I would have to say that anxiety, in general, is usually the cause of the problem. Whenever I say this to clients, I always get the same response. They say: you clearly don’t understand my cat, he or she is not stressed. But what clients don’t understand is that although you’re providing a very nice home for your pet, we have to remember that these were animals that lived in the outside environment and engaged their world by hunting and hiding. Many cats can develop stress just by being an indoor cat. You can speak to your veterinarian about anti-anxiety supplements and anti-anxiety medication to use as a trial if the aforementioned strategies do not work.

Good luck!

Dr. Greenway

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