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Cat Pooping Outside the Litter Box: 8 Tips to Stop It

Cat looking sad at home
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If you live with a cat pooping outside the litter box, you’re not alone. An estimated 10 percent of felines have displayed this behavior at some point in their lives (1). It’s a primary reason people surrender cats to humane societies and a top consideration in euthanasia decisions made at shelters. It doesn’t have to be like this: it’s often possible to correct the issue.

Here we offer actionable, veterinarian-approved tips (many are surprisingly simple!) for how to stop your cat from pooping outside the litter box. We also uncover the top reasons cats miss the mark, and offer tips for easy cleanup. Though these tips can be quite effective, we do recommend contacting your veterinarian if your cat is not pooping in the litter box.

Why Is My Cat Pooping Outside the Litter Box?

Cat looking to side of camera looking sad

If you have other pets, it’s quite possible your cat isn’t even the problem. “Other pets (usually dogs) can move the fecal material from the box to the favorite snacking location,” says Dr. Virginia Sinnott-Stutzman, senior staff veterinarian, emergency and critical care, at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.

Once you’ve ruled out other pets as the culprits, or if you only have a cat, the next step is to determine what’s causing the behavior. Here are a few possibilities to consider.

An Underlying Medical Condition

Constipation is one of the most common medical causes for a cat pooping outside the litter box, says Sinnott-Stutzman. “They started in the box, but the poop dropped outside the box as they wandered around trying to push it out.”

An old cat pooping outside the litter box may have arthritis, which Sinnott-Stutzman says can limit a cat’s ability to climb over the side of the box. 

Diarrhea can result in accidents and can be a symptom of a range of diseases, including hyperthyroidismkidney disease, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Behavioral Issues

Cat sitting in the sun at home on a rug

Most often, haphazard pooping can be attributed to a behavioral issue, says Dr. Katie Pagan, a partner veterinarian with Heart + Paw in Fells Point, Maryland. “Cats are creatures of habit and any deviation from their normal routine can lead to stress. When cats get stressed they can poop (or pee) outside of the box.”

Common causes of stress, Pagan says, include relocating to a new home, introducing a new pet to the family, and loud noises. Other potential sources of anxiety include new smells, new people, conflicts with other cats, and even boredom.

Issues with the Litter Box

Cats can be quite particular about where they poop and what they poop in. Here are a few factors that can contribute to an unattractive litter box in their view.

  • A dirty litter box: This is commonly why cats poop next to the litter box, says Sinnott-Stutzman, who is board-certified in veterinary emergency and critical care. “They want to go in the ‘appropriate’ place, but it is undesirable to them, so they go right next door.” 
  • Poor location: This is a factor in some cases but not all, says Sinnott-Stutzman. “Placement generally becomes an issue when cats cannot see out from the box while using it (which can make them feel vulnerable), whether other cats or the family dog can access the box, and thus disturb them while using it.”
  • An inaccessible litter box: This is especially an issue for senior cats “if the box is placed somewhere where elderly or mobility challenged cats cannot reach it, such as the bottom (or top) of stairs,” says Sinnott-Stutzman. Also, she says, a cat pooping right outside the litter box usually means the cat made an attempt but failed. 
  • Not enough litter boxes: Cats are territorial creatures, so they’re not inclined to share their litter box with other cats. A scarcity of litter boxes in multi-cat households could pose a problem.  
  • The litter box is too small: A larger litter box allows cats to move freely and feel more secure. In one study, cats showed a strong preference for litter boxes that were larger than those they usually used at home (2).
  • Unappealing litter: Cats tend to prefer litter with a soft, fine consistency, like clumping clay. With their sensitive noses, perfumed litter can also be a turnoff.

Cat Pooping Outside the Litter Box: 8 Tips to Stop It

Cat sitting beside litter box at home

Living with a cat pooping outside the litter box is not a good situation for anyone in your household. By applying these relatively simple tips however, it’s possible to restore order to your home. 

Keep in mind that when it comes to litter boxes, preferences can vary by individual cat, so you may have to work by trial and error. Also, because there may be different dynamics at play, experts recommend contacting your veterinarian when you start noticing that your cat is not using the litter box.

Rule Out Underlying Health Issues

An essential first step is for your veterinarian to rule out any potential health issues, says Sinnott-Stutzman. “Most cats will resume their use of the litter box once the health issue has been resolved.”

Keeping those annual wellness checks is a good way to prevent future occurrences of pooping outside the litter box. “I always recommend yearly blood work for my feline patients and twice-yearly blood work once they are a bit older. Frequent checkups can catch these diseases early,” says Pagan.

Keep a Clean Litter Box

Cats can become stressed when the litter box isn’t clean enough, says Pagan. “While awaiting your cat’s vet appointment for a checkup, I would first make sure you are cleaning the box enough.” 

Pagan and other veterinarians recommend scooping the litter once daily and replacing it once per week. Some litter boxes are designed to automatically scoop the poop or minimize your cleaning time.

Consider Buying a New Litter Box

Cute kitten sitting in a litter box at home

A litter box that works for one cat may fail with another. Fortunately, litter boxes come in a variety of styles—including covered and uncovered—and sizes to suit even the most finicky of kitties. 

Any litter box you choose should be large enough to enable free movement. The general rule is that the box be at least as long as the length of the cat’s entire body.

Provide an Adequate Number of Litter Boxes 

Follow the N+1 rule for litter boxes, recommends Sinnott-Stutzman. “This is the rule that you should have one more litter box in your house than you have cats (where N= the number of cats in your home), and every floor of your home should have a box. A multi-story home could mean you have more than N+1 litter boxes.”

Consider Litter Box Location

Cats are sensitive creatures who react to what they perceive as potential danger in their environment. The resulting stress can result in pooping outside the litter box. To reduce potential stressors, Pagan recommends consistently keeping the litter boxes in a quiet, stress-free area. Remember, cats may become stressed over things that don’t necessarily affect us. So while you may know that the humming and hissing from your faulty refrigerator is innocuous, your cat doesn’t.

Consider Switching Cat Litter

Close up on an ecological cat litter type

It may not be the litter box your cat objects to. It’s a good idea to switch to an unscented clumping litter, as cats generally prefer it, says Sinnott-Stutzman. “However if you know your cat’s preferred litter and are not using it currently you should switch back to what you know your cat likes.” 

Once you do find a litter your cat likes, try sticking with it. Pagan recommends not frequently changing out the type of litter you use.

Look For Recent Changes Within Your Home 

To pinpoint the reason for your cat’s stress—and thus litter box issues—Sinnott-Stutzman recommends asking the following: 

  • Have you recently changed your own habits? For example, working from home or returning to the office after long stretches of working from home?  
  • Has the litter box been moved?  
  • Have you changed the type of litter that you use? 
  • Has your once small kitten grown too large for the box?  
  • Have you added another cat (or dog) to the home?

“Tackling these questions is key to getting your cat back on track,” she says.

Make Sure Your Senior Cat Can Access the Litter Box

Arthritis causes pain and mobility issues that make it difficult for an older cat to climb in and out of a litter box. In this case, “Litter boxes with ramps, or lower sides may be helpful here,” recommends Sinnott-Stutzman. 

How to Clean Cat Poop from Carpet, Beds, or Couches

Enzyme spray and paper towels

Veterinarians recommend enzyme-based cleaners to remove poop stains and their accompanying odor. Enzymes are effective because they break down the molecules in poop, making it easier to clean. And instead of just masking the odor, they break it down and eliminate it. Enzymatic cleaners can be applied to a variety of surfaces, so they’re also convenient to use. 

“An example would be Nature’s Miracle, which is widely available and does an excellent job removing stains and smells from surfaces that include floors and rugs, but also beds,” says Sinnott-Stutzman. If your cat had an accident on the bed, Sinnott-Stutzman also recommends washing and drying the bedding.

Check out our recommendations for enzymatic cleaning products that are effective at cleaning stains and smells caused by cat poop. Whichever product you use should be non-toxic and safe for pets and people.

Products to Support Good Litter Box Habits

Litter box ‘oops’ moments are bound to happen, but products are available that can help. Consider emotional and in-home changes once you’ve worked with your veterinarian to address any medical reasons or underlying reasons. Left unchecked, your cat’s behavior is unlikely to improve. 

If your cat gets a clean bill of health, there are some digestive products that can help to keep your cat regular. These three products help pet parents get their cats back on track and back to using the litter box for its intended purpose. 

All featured products were chosen at the discretion of the Great Pet Care editorial team and not directly recommended or endorsed by the author of this article. Great Pet Care may make a small affiliate commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Great Pet Great Poop Digestive Support Cat Supplement 

Great Poop Cat Digestive Supplement

A combination of ginger root powder and pumpkin seed powder plus prebiotics and probiotics makes Great Poop for Cats a must-have for a variety of feline gut issues. It can help relieve diarrhea, constipation, and soft stools. Great Pet infuses one billion colony-forming units (CFUs) into each serving. Skip the stress of trying to give your cat a pill and opt for this all-in-own chewable product. 

Highlights

  • Stimulates the production of healthy bacteria for optimal gut balance
  • Can be used daily 
  • Made in the USA
  • Inactive ingredients include catnip, chicken, and chicken liver that cats love
  • Generous 60-count size
  • Several strains of beneficial bacteria totaling one billion CFU’s

Things to Consider

  • Give to cats one year of age and older
  • Safe use in pregnant animals and cats intended for breeding has not been proven

Instinct Limited Ingredient Cat Food

Instinct Limited Ingredient Cat Food

Food allergies can sometimes cause inflammation in the intestine and gastrointestinal issues for your cat. By changing the source of protein in her diet, the inflammation may be reduced. One option is to switch to a limited-ingredient diet, like this one from Instinct. Available in rabbit, salmon, and turkey, this cat food is made with one protein and one vegetable. Take the guesswork out of your cat’s diet with simple and essential nutrition. 

Highlights

  • Made without grain, dairy, eggs, chicken, beef, sweet potato, fish, potato, chickpeas, corn, soy, wheat, or artificial colors or preservatives 
  • Made with one animal protein and one vegetable 
  • Made in the USA with ingredients from around the world
  • Guaranteed levels of natural omegas and antioxidants to help your cat’s immune health, skin, and coat 
  • Freeze-dried raw coating on each piece of kibble 
  • Made with farm-raised rabbit, cage-free turkey, or wild-caught salmon

Things to Consider

  • A change in diet takes 8 to 12 weeks to take effect, so have patience
  • Before changing your cat’s food, talk to her veterinarian for questions or additional advice 
  • Start by mixing your cat’s old diet with the new protein as directed on the packaging 

Herbsmith Organic Slippery Elm Digestive Aid for Dogs and Cats

Hersmith Slippery Elm for Cats

Don’t let the dog on the box fool you! If your cat’s constipation is impacting her litter box habits, you can try adding Herbsmith organic slippery elm with water to your cat’s diet. This product is developed by a holistic veterinarian and herbalist and is safe for all ages, sizes, and breeds of cats. 

Highlights

  • Once slippery elm lubricates your cat’s bowels, she’ll get relief from constipation 
  • Contains no GMOs, pesticides, additives, irradiation, or preservatives 
  • The only ingredient is 100 percent slippery elm bark 
  • Cuts down on healing time from constipation so cats feel better soon
  • USDA organic 
  • Audited National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) member since 2010
  • Made in Wisconsin in the United States

Things to Consider

  • Available in three strengths (dispense according to package instructions)
  • Do not use in pregnant cats

 

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