Why Is My Cat Peeing Outside The Litter Box?

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Why A Cat Pees (where they shouldn’t)

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God knows why cats pee.

-with apologies to Joyce Kilmer

Wildcats and wild cats

Cats are wild. I mean that both in the “cool” sense, like “this party’s wild, man!” and in the literal sense. While new research suggests that dogs became a domesticated and separate species from wild wolves between 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, cats are a more recent and rather unchanged animal.

“Cats, unlike dogs, are really only semidomesticated,” said Wes Warren, PhD, associate professor of genetics at The Genome Institute at Washington University in a news release. “They only recently split off from wild cats, and some even still breed with their wild relatives.”

Even though both dogs and cats probably started living closer to humans for similar reasons – wolves in the periphery of hunter-gatherer groups to feed, and cats to hunt rodents who gathered fed off the refuse of humans – dogs were domesticated gradually and trained to perform specific tasks that were beneficial to humans whereas cats weren’t asked to change at all. See? Even from the beginning cats were purrrfect!

But it’s for this reason that we can’t really begin to make sense of what a cat is thinking. It may seem like a long time, but the 9,000 years they’ve been living alongside us hasn’t done much to differentiate them from their wild brethren simply because for much of that time, humans didn’t influence their behaviour or breeding which is what can cause changes in their genome.

A recent study found the domestication process of cats to be a very long and complex process that happened in different places and even as the cats themselves migrated with humans. But it was a passive process that “has not profoundly altered the morphological, physiological, behavioural and ecological features of cats, in contrast to what has been observed, for example, for dogs.”

I pee, therefore I am … angry/resentful/spiteful

This is all to say that cats are much more wild than we think they are. If we try to make sense of what they are doing, we’re really only projecting our interpretations onto them which is informed through human relationships. For example, if someone consistently does something that affects us negatively, we naturally assume they’re doing it out of spite. Mikel Delgado, Certified Cat Behaviour Consultant, wants this to change.

“Since we can never know for sure what our cats are thinking, I think it can be dangerous to say cats are peeing to communicate something specific,” Delgado says, “because the very human brain immediately wants to translate that into a very anthropomorphic (and usually negative) interpretation of what the communication is.”

What we tend to do in our human disagreements – and often to our detriment – is make the situation about ourselves. “He said THIS to me!” “Can you believe she did that to ME?!” “They hurt me so much, they’re a hateful person!” But, whether it’s with cats or humans, we often have to look deeper than the action.

“[M]ost people think “she’s angry,” “she’s jealous,” “f**k you human” etc,” Delgado says. “Those interpretations don’t generally help us solve the problem, or help the relationship between human and cat.”
cat peeing outside litter box

So, WHY is my cat peeing outside the litter box?

So if your cat peeing outside the litter box isn’t a middle finger like the one your neighbour gave you last week (try turning your music down), just what are they saying?

Delgado puts it simply: “99% of litter box issues [fall] into three main categories:

    1. Medical
    2. Litter box issues
    3. Anxiety”

The important one that you have to rule out immediately is that first one: medical. If your cat’s behaviour is completely out of the ordinary, you should take them to the vet right away. I remember my first cat, Chaz, had peed outside the litter box (just once in his life, thank goodness) and was hiding in the corner and wouldn’t look at me. This was very unusual for him. A trip to the emergency vet revealed that he had to have his anal glands expressed, a simple procedure (for the vet, not for Chaz!) after which he was fine.

And while it may be a urinary tract concern – which we know is very common in cats – they might even just have an ear infection or something completely unrelated to urinary issues which is getting revealed through their change in behaviour.

It’s not you, it’s the litter box

And then there are the issues with the litter box. Cats can be very particular, big surprise, and I’ve outlined 10 Do’s and Don’ts of Cat Litter here. But if you’ve ruled out a medical issue, know that it’s very common for cats to need the litter box to be just right before doing their business. Some of the problems are:

  • Too few boxes. Are there multiple cats in the house? Jackson Galaxy says, “[the rule of thumb is one litter box per cat, plus one extra.”
  • Is the box easily accessible? Make sure it’s in a room they can get to easily, that the opening isn’t too high, and there are multiple escape routes for them.
  • Location, location, location. If they’re peeing in a certain spot outside the litter box at a certain time – like Kodi did – putting a box in that spot might solve the issue. Try a few boxes in different locations in the house that are easily accessible and not near their food.
  • It’s dirty and smelly! Some cats will go in a very dirty box while others won’t use it even if there’s just one little mess. Clean it at least once a day and make sure you’re using unscented litter. To make litter clean-up easier, consider getting a Litter Champ.
  • Did you just change your type of litter? If you are changing it, make it a gradual transition and mix the new with the previous litter so they get used to it.
  • They don’t like the hood. Boxes with a hood or lid on it can trap the bad smells or make the cat feel like they’re trapped (maybe – remember the part about not interpreting what a cat could be feeling).
  • The box is too small. Make sure you upgrade your starter box to a larger box as your kitty grows.
  • The litter is too deep or too shallow. Around 2 inches deep is a general guideline.
  • They’ve been declawed. A declawed cat “may associate the pain they feel in their paws when trying to cover their waste with the litter box itself.”
  • Something bad happened while in the litter box. Maybe another cat cornered them in the litter box or something scared them or any number of reasons could have made them frightened of the box.

And these are just some of the problems a cat might have with the litter box (and read about a common mistake people make when cleaning the box here). Consider all of these and make small changes to see if they adapt. If nothing works, consult a cat behaviourist like Delgado from felineminds.com.

Here’s Shorty and Kodi’s favourite litter box:

The communication of anxiety

“The cat’s trying to tell me something! Maybe I’m not paying enough attention to them!” I’ve been guilty of thinking this very thing, but Delgado reminded me that it’s not always about us.

“I don’t know I would say confidently that cats are using urine for attention per se. I would say what they are communicating is that they are anxious or stressed (usually by a change to their routine/environment).”

And this, of course, makes much more sense when you consider all the changes that can happen in a home and how much we ourselves are negatively affected by change. Is anything new in your home? A new companion animal? A new smell? Has an outside animal been peeing near your home? Have you recently moved? Does your cat need more places to climb to get away from another cat? Do they have a good scratching pole in the main living area of the house they can claim as their own? Think about any small change that could possibly be affecting your cat and their general needs as change happens. Delgado would like us to rethink the blame game we often play with companion animals who aren’t doing what we want them to.

“Although anxiety is less specific,” she says, “it is also I think both more accurate and encourages people to try to understand WHY their cat is anxious, as opposed to just imagining spite, revenge, cat is just a jerk, etc.”

The importance of playtime

Cats can feel stress just like humans but instead of it being the result of having too much to do, it’s from not having enough to do.

“Exercise and environmental enrichment are a great remedy for MANY a stressed out kitty!” Delgado says. And it can be just as simple as that. Cats are hunters, stalkers, and we all know how curious they are. If they don’t get to exercise these innate characteristics, they get bored, which can lead to stress. We’ve all seen how excited they get when they catch the wand toy that you’re flinging about or they climb to the top of their new cat tree or they get to the top of the fridge where they know they’re not allowed. With just 10-20 minutes of playtime a day, a stimulated cat can become a happy cat. Here are some of Shorty and Kodi’s favourite options below:

  1. Cat Dancer

It’s so simple, but this Cat Dancer wire and cardboard toy is one of their favourites. The unpredictability of movement puts them in full-on hunter mode and Kodi keeps meowing for it long after I’ve put it away. You can probably make your own but at $5 I’m happy to just get someone else to make it.

2.  Feather Wand Toy

Feather Wand Toy is a must. Watching AND hearing it whir through the air (or scurry along the floor, especially under a chair or under an area rug to mimic prey trying to escape) it irresistible to cats. They’ll get tired pretty quickly from this, so when they become disinterested, make sure you put it away until next time.

3.  Meal and Treat Dispenser

Did you know that when faced with a bowl of food or a hunting mechanism like a Meal and Treat Dispenser, cats will often choose the dispenser? It’s called contrafreeloading. Cats LOVE to work on that skill to get the reward instead of having things handed to them.

What do I do about the cat urine smell?

If your cat peed on the carpet, it’s important to get rid of the smell completely so they’re not inspired to go there again. A cat’s smell is much more sensitive than a human’s so even if you can’t smell it, chances are your cat can. I had great luck with OdorKlenz. Check it out here and get a discount.

Patience, not punishment

Remember that cats are not like humans and certainly not like dogs. They don’t respond to punishment. Yelling at them, rubbing their nose in their mess, spraying water at them, none of this is going to be received well by your cat and may even exacerbate their issues and anxiety. A cat peeing in your home can be very stressful, I know, and can lead many people to drop them off at the nearest shelter. But the solution could be very simple, so be patient and consider all the possibilities above, and consult your vet or a cat behaviour specialist.

Do you have an experience with this that you’d like to share that could help others? Please comment below.

2 thoughts on “Why Is My Cat Peeing Outside The Litter Box?

  1. With mu cat Knicki, it was always a bladder infection. Finally having her bladder cleaned of much sediment and being put on a prescription diet, and distilled water. Knicki passed away at age 18. A good pal for many years.

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