By Sophia Yin, DVM
What do you do when your kitty is leaving little landmines around the house—a.k.a. pooping outside the box? Unlike urine, which cats often use to spray-paint invisible but pungent messages such as “I was here” or “This is MINE!” on your walls, misplaced poop as well as large puddles of pee usually has a whole different meaning. Basically, when cats poop (or pee large puddles) out of place, it’s for one of two reasons. They don’t like their litter box or they like their new taboo toilet better.
You’re probably asking yourself, “Why wouldn’t a cat love a little plastic box piled deep with cat litter and filled with the scent of past visits? My dogs love it. They visit it every day and sometimes help with the cleanup.” (Note to reader: do not let such dogs lick you.)
Well, it could be a lot of things. Maybe the litter’s not deep enough or the lining is a pain to negotiate, or the box is too small – it should be 1.5x the length of the cat. Or it’s so dirty and stinky that your feline has to hold his breath while watching his step.
Your cat’s behavior could lend a clue. If he stands on the litter box edge and drops his duty along the sides or is in and out faster than your kids on the way to soccer practice and leaves his mess uncovered, he may have an issue with the litter. Cats tend to like the feel of finer litters and most of them regularly cover their feces or urine. In fact, cats generally spend over 20 seconds pawing around in the litter. Also, some cats prefer unscented litters.
While “spring” might smell nice to us, to the cat’s keener schnozzle, the blend of deodorizer with fumes of excrement may be an olfactory no-no. Even a whiff of pure “perfumey fresh” without the poop might hit a cat like a punch in the nose, sending him in search of a better bathroom site.
To see whether litter type or cleanliness have a hand in your cat’s pooping (or peeing) problems, clean the litter boxes twice a day and set up a litter-box lineup for a week or two. In this choice test for litter lavatories, place three or more temporary boxes side by side with only one thing varying between boxes. For instance, you may be comparing scented vs unscented, Brand A vs Brand B, large box vs small box, and so on.
Even try covered versus uncovered boxes, and if he’s going on rugs, try one with bits of carpet to see if it’s the surface type that he likes. Generally, if the cat has a preference you’ll know in just several days.
If you’re already compulsive about cleaning your cat’s litter box and the box is unscented, unlined, and filled with litter that the litter box choice test shows that he loves, then you should look more closely at the litter box location.
Is his box right next to his breakfast room? If so, try moving his food bowl farther away. Is the box in the right location? Just like some people (usually men) who decide that using the bushes is more convenient than using the designated bathroom, cats may choose more convenient sites too. So provide plenty of boxes (one for each cat in the household plus one extra) in different, easily accessible places in the house. For those of you who live in multi-level houses, be sure to place a box on each floor.
And make sure that boxes can’t be blocked by bully cats or other bothersome animals in the household. Also, for older cats with arthritis, try a box with lower sides so they can easily enter. For ideas on how to make the multitude of litter boxes looking nice in your home as well as having multiple entry points, go to www.ikeahackers.net.
For some cats, there’s nothing wrong with the box or location. These cats may have just had a painful incident, such as diarrhea or constipation, or fearful experience, such as a sudden loud noise piercing their peaceful pooping episode, which they now associate with the box. That’s one reason why it’s best to keep the litter boxes away from loud areas or appliances, such as a laundry room or furnace. A sudden loud, Bang! or the thud of a detergent box landing on your head is enough to keep even easy going cats away from that dangerous litter box location. Still, other cats just happened to discover a new location or special surface that they like much better.
In any case, in addition to making the litter boxes extremely appealing, make the off-limit toilet sites inconvenient or unattractive.
First, use an enzymatic cleaner such as Petastic or Anti-icky poo (MisterMax.com) on these sites so that the faint whiff of past deeds no longer entices your cat to perform the undesirable act.
Then deny access by closing the room off, placing tin foil, upside-down carpet runner, or other blockades over the area, or by spraying with an over-the-counter cat repellent.
Alternatively, place the cat’s food, bed, or even his litter box over the location.
If he’s been using sites for a while, you may have to break the habit, retraining him to his box for weeks to a month or two. Confine him to one room with several lovely cat lavatories. Even train him to go in and then reward him when you catch him pottying in the box. Once he has a habit of pottying only in the box for 30 days, let him roam additional rooms but only when supervised at first.
Follow these tips to a T and your cat will once again poop in his litter box regularly.
For information on urine spraying in cats, go to Urine- Spraying Cats: How To Deal With Kitty ‘Graffiti’.
For medical causes for pooping outside the litter box see Litter Box Problems Could Be Due to Physical Ailment
To see a video of how to target train your cat, watch Target Training Kittens. Once he’s target trained, you can use the target to get him into his litter box.
Adapted from an article originally appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003.
Blog post updated: Sept. 2020