Cat Urinating Outside Litter Tray

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  • Inappropriate urination is one of the most common issues that cat owners face and causes a huge amount of frustration and is one of the most common reasons why cat owners surrender a cat to a shelter. Most cats are fastidiously clean animals and prefer to go to the toilet in a clean place where they can bury their urine and feces. There are many reasons which can loosely be broken into two causes; medical or behavioural.

    Medical causes

    • Cystitis – Inflammation of the urinary bladder, seen more frequently in females, although males can be affected too.
    • Bladder stones – Also known as uroliths or calculi, bladder stones are rock-like deposits in the urinary bladder. The cause of bladder stones is concentrations of certain minerals in the urine.
    • Bladder tumour – An abnormal growth in the bladder, the most common type of tumour is a transitional cell carcinoma.
    • Pain in the paws from declawing – Sometimes the claws can grow back deformed, leading to pain. Post-surgical problems can also occur, such as infection and abscess making digging around uncomfortable.
    • Arthritis – Arthritis is a condition characterised by the breakdown of the joints and surrounding tissues. Cartilage is the smooth, slippery tissue over the ends of the bones in the joints which acts as a cushion and shock absorber, allowing the bones to glide over each other. When arthritis develops, this slippery layer breaks down and wears away exposing the bones causing pain, inflammation, and stiffness. As the disease progresses, loss of movement can occur in the affected joint which can make it difficult for the cat to enter the litter tray.
    • Bladder infection – Bacterial infection of the urinary bladder which develops when bacteria around the anus ascend into the urethra and the bladder.
    • Dementia – A common condition of older cats leading to confusion and/or forgetting where the litter tray is.
    • Diabetes – There are two types of diabetes, type 1 — in which the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin — or type 2 — in which the body’s cells don’t respond appropriately to insulin. The body can’t function properly if the cells don’t have enough glucose due to decreased insulin or increased resistance to it because it lacks the energy from the glucose.
    • Hyperthyroidism – An endocrine (hormonal) disorder that is caused by the overactivity of the thyroid gland due to a benign tumour that speeds up your cat’s metabolism.


    Common signs of medical causes include frequent trips to the litter tray, crying when urinating, licking the genitals, abdominal discomfort, blood in the urine (hematuria).


    Treatment depends on the underlying cause but may include the following:

    • Antibiotics to treat an infection.
    • Stone dissolving diets to treat bladder stones.
    • Surgery to remove stones (which are not possible to dissolve with diet) and tumours.
    • Medications to treat arthritis and lifestyle adjustments.
    • Anti-anxiety medications to help a cat who has dementia.
    • Diabetes is treated with a change in diet, and if necessary administration of insulin injections.
    • Hyperthyroidism can be treated with radioactive iodine to kill the tumour, surgery to remove the tumour or medication.

    Non-medical causes

    If your cat has been given a clean bill of health, you will need to determine what is causing him to avoid the litter tray. Some questions you should ask include:

    Has the cat always urinated outside of the litter tray or is this new behaviour? Sudden changes in litter box behaviour can quite often have a medical cause. Other possible reasons include a change in your house, moving litter trays, a new cat, one cat bullying another, changing brands/types of cat litter.

    Does the cat always urinate outside the tray or is it just from time to time? Dirty litter trays are a common cause of litter tray refusal. If it’s not clean enough, a cat will find an alternate spot to urinate. Ideally, solids should be removed from the tray morning and night, and the tray should be thoroughly emptied, disinfected and have fresh litter once or twice a week.

    How many litter trays do you have? Have a minimum of one litter tray per cat. If too many cats are sharing a litter tray, you may find they start finding other places to go to the toilet.

    How many cats live in the home? The number of cats should correlate to the number of litter trays. But even with an appropriate number of trays, problems can still arise. One cat ambushing another when he or she is using the toilet can cause problems. Cat dynamics can also be a factor, particularly if one cat is dominant/bullying a more timid cat.

    How old was he when he was taken away from his or her mother? Ideally, kittens should live with their mum for the first 10-12 weeks of life. Not only does mum feed her babies, but she also teaches them so many things including toilet habits. The earlier the kitten leaves his mum, the greater the chance of adopting a kitten with possible behavioural problems, including inappropriate urination.

    Is the cat declawed? This procedure is becoming less commonplace than it was even a decade ago. For those of you outside of the United States, declawing is the removal of the claw and bone up to the first joint of the toe. It can be exceedingly painful for your cat to bear weight on the paws immediately after surgery and in some cases for the indefinite future. If pain occurs, your cat may become reluctant to dig in his litter tray and find other spots to go to the toilet.

    Where is your litter tray located? Cats like their privacy when they go to the toilet. If your litter tray is in a high traffic area or noisy area, your cat may prefer to find somewhere quieter to urinate. Also, cats don’t like to go to the toilet close to where they eat, so make sure it is a distance away from food and water bowls.

    Have you made any changes to your litter tray recently? Location, size, changed brands or type of cat litter can all play a factor. Cats are creatures of habit and just like us they have their preferences. So if possible, find what works for your cat and stick with it. Some cats like open litter trays, others prefer covered ones for extra privacy. You may have to experiment initially until you can get the right set up for your particular household.

    Are you sure your cat is urinating outside the litter tray vs spraying? A cat who is urinating outside the litter tray will do so on horizontal surfaces. Usually the floor, but sometimes on furniture such as your bed, or a chair. A cat spraying will do so on vertical surfaces, such as walls, doors or windows. Spraying is territorial behaviour and is seen much more frequently in entire male cats.

    How old is the cat? Usually, by the time your kitten leaves mum to come and live with you, he has been toilet trained. However, sometimes the occasional accident will happen. Try to be patient. If necessary, confine him to one or two rooms for the first few days so he can slowly adjust to his new home. Make sure you have an appropriately sized litter tray. Most adult-sized trays are too high for a kitten to climb into. At the other end is the elderly cat who for a few reasons may become less reliable with the litter tray for several medical and behavioural reasons covered in greater detail below.

    Tips to stop inappropriate urination in cats

    • Add additional litter trays, so there is at least one per cat.
    • Ensure litter trays are the appropriate size. Start with a small one for kittens in addition to the full-sized ones for the adults. The general rule is the tray should be 1.5 times longer than the cat.
    • Think about the placement of litter trays.; they shouldn’t be in a high traffic area such as the kitchen. A laundry or bathroom is the ideal spot as these areas tend to be quieter, and have tiled floors that are easier to clean. If your cat is urinating in the same spot, you may want to consider placing a litter tray over the area.
    • If you are not sure which type of litter your cat likes, try several different kinds in different litter trays.
    • Avoid heavily scented cat litters; cats don’t like strong odours.
    • Make sure that food bowls aren’t next to the litter tray. I do like to keep both within proximity, as I have found my cats tend to eat their breakfast and then line up to go to the loo.
    • Scoop out solids morning and night, empty, disinfect and replace all litter once or twice a week.
    • Try not to make unnecessary changes in your cat’s life. They like routine. Once you find a brand of litter your cat likes, stick to it, don’t move litter trays around unnecessarily.

    How to clean cat urine

    Once a cat has urinated in a spot, even if you have cleaned it up, he may still be able to smell traces of the urine which will keep him coming back. There are commercial products available from your pet shop which can neutralise odours. If your cat is still returning to the area, seal it off is possible, temporarily cover it with a large patch of plastic hallway carpet runner, place the litter tray on top of the area (if possible), or put their food bowls there.

    Sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where your cat has been urinating. Use a black light to locate it. To use a black light, darken the room or wait until it is night, turn on the blacklight and move it around the floor. Urine will glow under the light. Black lights can be purchased from your hardware, pet shop or eBay for a few dollars.


    • Julia Wilson, 'Cat World' Founder

      Julia Wilson is the founder of Cat-World, and has researched and written over 1,000 articles about cats. She is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care. Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs. Full author bio