Why is My Cat Suddenly Pooping Outside the Litter Box?

Common Reasons for Litter Box Avoidance

There are several common reasons why a cat may start avoiding the litter box even when it’s clean. Some of the most frequent causes include:

Medical Causes

Certain medical conditions can cause a cat to avoid the litter box due to pain or difficulty with elimination. These include urinary tract infections, bladder stones, feline lower urinary tract disease, kidney disease, digestive issues, arthritis, and other conditions that make it uncomfortable for the cat to use the litter box [1]. Taking the cat to a veterinarian for a full exam can help diagnose and treat any underlying medical problems.

Litter Preferences

Some cats, especially older cats, can develop preferences for certain types of litter or litter box setups. They may dislike scented litter, a certain texture of litter, litter that is too deep or shallow, or uncovered boxes [2]. Trying different unscented litters with varying depth and texture can help determine a cat’s preferences.

Anxiety and Stress

Stress from changes in the home environment, new people or pets, or other factors can cause a cat to avoid the litter box [2]. Creating a calming environment, using pheromone diffusers, and giving the cat space can help reduce anxiety. Slowly reintroducing the cat back to the litter box area while rewarding with treats can also help.

Box Location

Cats may begin avoiding a litter box if its location has become undesirable, like next to a noisy appliance or in a high traffic area. Moving the box to a quiet, low traffic area that is still easily accessible to the cat may resolve the issue.

Box Type and Size

Some cats, especially larger breeds, may find certain litter boxes too small or cramped. Using a larger box or one with lower sides can provide more comfort and accessibility. Covered boxes can also deter some cats who prefer open access.

Multi-Cat Households

In homes with multiple cats, competition or intimidation around a shared litter box is common. Providing one box per cat plus an extra, in separate locations, can give each cat their own space.

Medical Causes

There are several medical conditions that can cause a cat to avoid the litter box. These include:

Urinary Tract Infections

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) can make urinating painful for cats. The discomfort associated with a UTI may cause a cat to associate the litter box with pain, leading them to start avoiding the box 1.


Cats with uncontrolled diabetes will urinate more frequently. If the litter box is not cleaned more often to accommodate this increased need, the cat may start eliminating outside of the box 2.


Cats with arthritis may have difficulty climbing in and out of the litter box, especially if the box has tall sides. The discomfort of arthritis can cause them to avoid the box.

Diarrhea and Constipation

Any conditions leading to diarrhea or constipation can cause litter box avoidance. A cat with diarrhea may not make it to the box in time. Constipation is painful and the cat may associate the pain with the litter box.

Kidney Disease

Kidney disease leads to increased thirst and urination. If the litter box is not cleaned frequently enough, the cat may start eliminating elsewhere.

Litter Preferences

Cats often have specific preferences when it comes to the type of litter they like to use. According to the ASPCA, most cats prefer clumping litter with a fine to medium texture (ASPCA). They tend to not like pellets or crystal litters as much since they have a rougher texture. Cats also usually prefer unscented litter, as the perfumes and deodorizers added to some litters can be off-putting to a cat’s sensitive nose.

Research by Litterbox Guru shows that around 90% of cats prefer a soft, unscented clumping litter (Litterbox Guru). The depth of the litter also matters – most cats prefer at least 2-3 inches of litter in the box. If the litter is too shallow, the cat may not want to dig in it to cover their waste. Pay attention to your cat’s preferences and provide the type of litter they seem to like best in terms of texture, scent, and depth.

Anxiety and Stress

Anxiety and stress are common causes for a cat to stop using their litter box. Even minor changes in a cat’s routine or environment can be stressful and cause inappropriate elimination. Some common stressors include:

  • Changes in home or family members – New people, pets, or schedules in the home can stress cats and cause litter box problems. Introducing changes gradually and giving cats safe places to retreat can help them adjust (source).
  • Construction in home – Remodeling projects with loud noises, renovations, or people coming in and out disrupt a cat’s routine. Providing alternate quiet spaces during construction helps reduce stress (source).
  • Conflict with other pets – Competition with other cats in multi-cat households can cause one cat to avoid the litter box out of anxiety. Providing multiple boxes spread out can help (source).

Identifying and reducing sources of stress, like introducing changes gradually and providing places to hide, can help cats feel more secure and use the litter box properly.

Box Location

Cats prefer their litter boxes to be placed in low traffic areas that offer privacy and easy access. They do not like to eliminate in busy areas where they may feel vulnerable. Ideal locations are in quiet corners, closets, basements or spare bathrooms. The box should not be near their feeding area and have at least 3-4 feet of clearance on each side.

Make sure there are no physical barriers like baby gates or closed doors blocking access. Stairs can also deter older cats from reaching the box regularly. Place the box on the same floor your cat spends most of their time.

Some good spots are in laundry rooms, spare showers, closets or corners of rooms. Avoid high traffic areas like hallways or the kitchen. Also do not place boxes near noisy appliances that may startle cats.

If you have a multi-level home, place boxes on every floor for easy access. Refer to this guide for tips on ideal litter box placement: Where to Put Your Cat’s Litter Box

Box Type and Size

The size and type of litter box can influence a cat’s willingness to use it. Boxes that are too small can cause a cat discomfort when eliminating, while covered boxes may make some cats feel trapped or anxious. Here are some key considerations around litter box type and size:

Covered vs. uncovered: Some cats prefer uncovered boxes that give them an unobstructed view of their surroundings. Covered boxes trap odors inside, and the lower ceiling height can make larger cats uncomfortable. However, uncovered boxes allow litter to scatter. Try both types to see which your cat prefers.

Size guidelines: Litter boxes should be at least 1.5 times the length of your cat from nose to base of tail. Large litter boxes around 24″ x 18″ give most cats enough room. For multiple cats, provide one box per cat plus one extra, in different locations.

Kittens and senior cats may need a lower-sided box for easy entry and exit. Overweight or arthritic cats can benefit from a box with ramps or cut-out sides as well.

Make sure the litter box is big enough for your cat to turn around and dig comfortably. Monitor if your cat ever pees or poops with part of their body hanging outside the box, which indicates it’s too small.

With the right type and size of litter box for your cat’s needs, you can avoid problems with them eliminating outside the box due to discomfort or anxiety.

Multi-Cat Households

When there are multiple cats in a home, territorial issues and bullying can often lead to litter box avoidance. Cats are very territorial creatures and each cat needs to have their own space. With multiple cats, there needs to be enough litter boxes so that none of the cats feel their space is being invaded. The general recommendation is to have one more litter box than the number of cats – for example, 3 cats would need 4 litter boxes. The boxes should also be spread out in different quiet locations around the home so that no one cat can ambush or guard a particular box.

Cats like routine and can get stressed when another cat bullies them or makes them feel unsafe around their litter box. If one cat ambushes or intimidates another while they are trying to use the box, the bullied cat may start avoiding the box altogether. It’s important to observe your cats’ interactions near the litter boxes and watch for any aggressive or abnormal behavior. If one cat seems stressed, scared, or is being chased away from the box, it’s likely this bullying is causing litter box issues.

To resolve this, try to place multiple litter boxes in areas the bullied cat can access without encountering the bully. Ensure each cat, especially more timid ones, have safe litter box spots they can routinely use without fear. This will encourage proper litter box habits again. Also be sure to clean all boxes frequently so that no cat feels forced to use a dirty, undesirable box.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Regularly cleaning and maintaining your cat’s litter box is crucial for preventing avoidance. According to veterinarians, you should scoop out solid waste from the litter box at least once per day, if not more frequently for multi-cat households (https://www.pethealthnetwork.com/cat-health/cat-behavior/how-often-do-i-really-need-clean-my-cats-litter-box). Scooping daily keeps the box smelling fresh and clean. You’ll also need to dump out all litter and scrub the box every 2-4 weeks, depending on how many cats are using it. Veterinarians recommend replacing all litter at least every two weeks to prevent odors (https://time.com/shopping/article/how-often-to-clean-a-litter-box/). When scrubbing the box, use a mild soap and hot water to fully disinfect. Rinse thoroughly afterwards.

Additionally, avoid using harsh chemicals or deodorizers in the litter box, as these can deter cats from using it. It’s best to maintain a schedule and stick to scooping, scrubbing, and replacing litter frequently for optimal cleanliness.

Retraining Methods

There are several methods you can try to retrain your cat to use the litter box properly. Using rewards and punishment strategically, synthetic pheromones, and medications can help get your cat back on track.

Positive reinforcement with treats and praise is the best way to reward your cat for using the litter box. Give your cat a treat immediately after they use the box. You can also try placing treats leading up to and inside the box to encourage their use. Feliway synthetic pheromones mimic cat facial pheromones and help reduce stress. Spray Feliway around the box and house to make your cat more comfortable (https://companionprotect.com/2021/04/13/how-to-litter-train-a-cat-kitten/).

Punishment like yelling or rubbing their nose in accidents is ineffective and can make the problem worse. Gentle correction like startling with a loud noise when catching them in the act can help. Medications from your vet like Prozac or Clomicalm can reduce anxiety and help retrain litter box use.

Be patient and consistent with retraining. It can take weeks or months for your cat to relearn proper litter box habits. Stick with the training and praise successes to get your cat using the litter box reliably again.

When to See the Vet

If your cat’s litter box problems persist or suddenly develop, it’s important to rule out any underlying medical issues. Take your cat to the vet if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • Increased frequency of urination
  • Difficulty or straining while urinating
  • Blood in the urine
  • Excessive licking of genital area
  • Crying or signs of pain while urinating or defecating
  • Urinating outside the litter box
  • Loss of bowel control
  • Bloody stool
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Increase in thirst

These symptoms may indicate medical issues like urinary tract infections, bladder stones, kidney disease, diabetes, bowel inflammation, parasites, or other conditions requiring veterinary attention. It’s important not to delay seeking care, as many conditions will only worsen over time if left untreated.

Cite: https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/common-cat-behavior-issues/litter-box-problems

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