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Common Litter Box Problems Explained

Common Litter Box Problems Explained
Written by Elizabeth Italia, UW-AAB
—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸

When it comes to common behavioral challenges, litter box issues are probably the top source of frustration for cat owners.

They can also be an extremely complicated issue to solve because there are so many variables. I want to review the top reasons cats go outside the litter box and what you can do to help your kitty find their toilet again.

#1 Spay and Neuter

Since the most common reason for going outside the litter box (especially spraying) is to alert other cats that they’re ready for a date, please spay or neuter your cat. In addition to a long list of health benefits (including a decrease in cancer), spaying and neutering is the best way to control cat overpopulation. Also, unaltered male cats have a high concentration of testosterone in their urine, which has a scent that practically knocks you over. Once the testosterone is out of their system, their pee won’t be as stinky.

#2 Properly Clean Any Stain

Use an enzyme cleaner and follow the directions on the bottle to clean up accidents. You don’t want to leave any remnants, or your cat could be drawn back to the same spot. Avoid using products with strong scents (like bleach) because some cats like to cover them up with … you guessed it … peeing.

Need to wash a soft domestic? Consider using the Sanitary setting, which is on most newer washing machines. For older machines, use hot water and allow for soaking to make sure all the scent is kicked out.

Baking soda is also a really great solution for combatting odors.

#3 Rule Out Health Issues

Why do we want to rule out health issues? Because if your cat has a medical reason for their behavior, no amount of adjustments will send them back to the litter box.

Vertical marking is usually behavioral. A cat will go to a vertical surface, lift its tail, and spray a little urine onto the spot.

Horizontal peeing on clothes and cat beds is usually behavioral, but it can be medical.

Emptying of the bladder on a horizontal surface like a floor or carpet, typically means there is something medical going on. Once pain is associated with the litter box, the cat will not want to use it.

These are the most common medical reasons a cat stops using the litter box:

  1. Urinary tract problems:
  • Kidney disease
  • Urinary tract infection (UTI)
  • Feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC) or bacterial cystitis
  • Urinary crystals
  • Kidney stones
  • Urethral plug
  • Liver disease
  • Diabetes
  • Arthritis

Most of these can be diagnosed or ruled out through blood work or a urinalysis. Knowing the level of severity may involve other tests, but blood work and a urinalysis will provide a minimum of indicators that something is wrong. Your vet should provide you with a treatment plan based on the condition.

#4 Be Kind to Declawed, Arthritic, Overweight, & Aging Cats 

One reason a cat may not want to use their litter box is because they associate pain with it. This is actually a common issue for declawed and arthritic cats. Here’s why.

Studies have shown that declawed cats are 7-10x more likely to have issues using the litter box. Declawing involves removing the bone at the end of each toe, causing the cat to have to walk on a joint. This makes a grainy litter box painful on the paws. Declawed cats are also nearly 3x as likely to have back pain (from walking on their joints instead of their toes), so getting in and out of the litter box could be painful.

Arthritic cats also have issues with mobility, and sometimes, getting in and out of the litter box is painful for them. While arthritis is a medical condition, treatments are very limited, and sometimes adjustments to your litter box setup can help your kitty get back to using it.

Overweight cats have challenges with mobility too. Excess weight puts pressure on their joints, making stepping in and out of the litter box uncomfortable, and moving around inside the box extremely difficult.

With aging cats, senility could be an issue, so they may forget where their box is or get easily distracted.

Some things to try to help all these kitties:

  • Different litter boxes
    • Low-profile
    • Get a plastic tote and cut an opening so your cat can easily walk in
    • Senior litter box - It’s low-profile and big
    • Large box so your cat can easily turn completely around
  • Different litters
    • Litter with an attract aspect
    • Special litter for soft paws
    • Paper litter
  • Different litter levels
    • Typically, cats with these issues prefer shallow litter levels; start with what the litter recommends, and if that doesn’t work, try adjusting to a lower level
  • Different locations
    • Put a box in places where accidents happen
    • Make sure there is a box in the room where your cat spends the most time
    • At least one litter box on each floor of your home
  • Different amounts of litter boxes
    • The rule is one per cat + 1, but consider the size and age of your cats and layout of your home when selecting an amount
    • Too many is better than too few
  • Always keep litter boxes clean!

#5 Common Behavior-Related Litter Box Problems & Solutions

Problem 1: My cat is spraying near the front door, back door, and outside facing walls.

This behavior is often seen when there are stray cats or other animals outside, and your cat feels their territory is threatened. Unaltered males and females will mark an area to communicate with other cats. It’s possible the exterior of your home is being marked by these strays. Your cat will feel the need to mark inside to tell the strays that this is his/her territory.


  • Put deterrents outside to keep animals away.
  • If possible, TNR (trap, neuter, return) any stray cats. If you need help, reach out to local animal shelters or rescues to inquire about TNR programs.
  • Put pheromone diffusers in outlets near your cat’s target spots.
  • Get a calming collar for your cat.

Problem 2: My cat pees or poops right outside of the box.

Usually, this is because there is something about the litter box they don’t like, and that something could be anything: the actual size of the box; covered vs. uncovered; the type of litter; the cleanliness of the box, etc.

This could also be related to a declaw, arthritis, weight, or age (see suggestions in the earlier section).


  • Cats prefer uncovered boxes. If your litter box is covered, remove the lid.
  • Make sure the litter box is big enough for your cat. Big cats don’t like small boxes.
  • Try a different litter. Cats prefer unscented clumping clay, so start with that and slowly branch out until you find something your cat likes.
  • Keep the box clean.
  • Add additional boxes.
  • Make sure the box is positioned in quiet area, but not a spot that makes the cat feel trapped. They like privacy, but need escape routes. For example, the corner of a room is okay, but make sure the opening faces the open area and not the wall.

Problem 3: My cats don’t get along and have litter box issues.

Multi-cat aggression and tension are common stressors that lead to one or multiple cats having elimination issues. This is extremely problematic for a number of reasons, the top reason being that your cat doesn’t feel safe.


  • Increase one-on-one enrichment and playtime. This will help boost confidence.
  • Reintroduce your cats. Keep the aggressor in a small space like a bathroom to start and allow the more fearful cat free roam of the space. Then progress with intros very slowly.
  • Add vertical spaces to your home, like cat shelves, cat trees, and window perches. Giving fearful cats an option to go to higher ground sometimes creates harmony and balance.
  • Put a litter box near where the scared cat likes to spend their time. You want to make it easy for them to get to the box. You can move the box to new locations as your cat gains their confidence back.
  • Try to distract a cat pre-attack with a toy. Many times, fights can be from too much energy which in turn results in aggression. Drain that energy with play.
  • Reward cats with treats and pets if they are coexisting.

Problem 4: My cat keeps peeing on my roommate/spouse/significant other/friend’s clothes.

Peeing on a person’s belongings is a territorial action. This means the cat is insecure or stressed and trying to mark an area.

This could be because of stressors around another pet in the home, or it could be directed at the person. 


  • Remove temptation and temporarily put away all clothes and bags into closets and away from the cat. Tell guests not to leave bags on the floor.

  • Increase your one-on-one playtime with the cat. You need to make sure the cat is confident that you still care.

  • Ask the person being targeted to interact with the cat through feeding, playing, brushing, petting and any other bonding actions the cat will allow.

Problem 5: I’ve literally tried everything and don’t know what to do.


  • Consider moving your cat to a small bathroom and reintroducing them to the litter box like you would a kitten. If they still won’t use the box free of other animals, people, and common stressors, you know their problem, whether medical or behavioral, is serious.
  • Talk to your vet about exploring an anti-anxiety medication. Some cats may need it more long term and others may only need it temporarily.
  • Schedule an appointment with a cat behaviorist. Take lots of videos and pictures of your cat’s issues to present a clear picture to the behaviorist. Even the smallest details matter when it comes to cat behavior.

Remember, Your Cat Is Trying to Tell You Something

Litter box issues are incredibly frustrating, but it’s important to remember that no matter what, your cat is trying to tell you something, and they are likely just as frustrated as you are, but for a different reason. There is something “off” with their body or environment, and that’s what they’re trying to tell you. Be as observant as possible and patient. There is a solution, and you will find it!


ASPCA, Litter Box Problems
Paw Project, Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, Pain and Adverse Behavior in Declawed Cats
Fetch by WebMD, Solving Cat Litter Box Problems


Article by  🙋‍♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist