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Cats peeing outside the litter isn’t ‘inappropriate’, but what can we do to help?

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Dr Chantelle McGowan, BVSc MANZCVS (Behaviour)

Elite Fear Free Certified Coach

“Inappropriate urination” is a phrase that drives me mad.

Our words matter.

When we say something, there’s connotations attached.

There’s nothing “inappropriate” or indicating “social misconduct” when a cat pees outside their litter tray, we’re the ones with the problem.

Cats prefer to bury their urine and faeces, therefore are usually attracted to litter trays. So there’s always a trigger of some sort for a cat that has been litter-trained to stop using their litter.

Medical causes (like pain, UTIs, urinary crystals or stones, kidney disease or diabetes) aside, the number one reason your cat is peeing outside their litter is stress. And humans anthropomorphising incorrectly suggesting it’s due to spite, pay-back, anger or jealousy is not only missing the point, but also stopping the stressed cat from getting the support they need. “Periuria” or “urinating/eliminating outside the litter” is the accurate and helpful way of describing a cat peeing outside their litter, without myth-based attachments.

Why do cats pee outside the litter?

Cats are quite physically different to us. As efficient predators, but also prey themselves, cats are hardwired with quick reflexes, reactive and have a strong drive for self-preservation. This makes cats (in general) tightly wound, tending always to react first, think second. Having the brain and body constantly on high alert has consequences, and this makes cats prone to stress-related illness, such as Idiopathic Cystitis (inflammation of the bladder with ‘unknown origin’ – we know stress can be a factor to flare it up though).

This is due to the part of the nervous system called the Sympathetic Nervous System, the ‘flight/fight/freeze/fiddle’ nervous system. When the Sympathetic Nervous System is triggered, it affects us to get ready for explosive activity; our heart rate and blood pressure increase, blood flow is increased towards muscles and away from the gut, and sometimes, triggers elimination of urine, faeces or both. In cats, there is a significant amount of sympathetic nerves connected to their bladder, and are therefore the bladder is triggered easily in times of stress.

When the bladder is inflamed, it hurts, especially during urination. Cats can associate that pain with the litter tray, and start eliminating elsewhere (“periuria”). They might stop using their litter tray only when they’re in pain, and when the pain resolves they might go back to the litter tray. But sometimes they think the litter caused them pain and they never want to go back to it. Other times they’re triggered to stop using the litter tray, but then become attracted to or prefer the new location/item/texture of where they’re eliminating. We refer to this as location/substrate aversion or preference, and through a bit of sleuthing, your veterinarian will help you figure out the important difference to help manage the problem.

How to get your cat using their litter again

Getting to the root cause of why your cat stopped using their litter & addressing it is really important to the chances of getting your cat using their litter again.

If it’s a medical reason, work with your veterinarian to diagnose and treat the problem, and possibly the periuria will resolve on its own.

For example, if your cat is quite old and painful arthritis is stopping them from being able step over the high edges of the litter tray, follow your veterinarian’s

pain plan and perhaps find a new litter tray with lower edges, or do away with a section of the litter tray wall altogether. Yes, it might get messy with litter, but it’s better than cleaning urine and faeces out of the carpet or rug!

If stress is the main cause of your cat’s periuria (like a new cat in the neighbourhood, change in family, or moving house) consider referral to a behaviour veterinarian who can help you support your cat’s emotional wellbeing. There are often many minor stressors in a cat’s life that can be managed if the main stressor cannot. Again, oftentimes, dealing with the stress can result in resolution of the periuria.

Quick tips

Cats generally prefer:

  • Litter away from food and water; preferably in another room

  • A lot of litter with plenty of depth to scratch

  • Big litter trays; 1.5x the length of their body with enough room to turn around; very few commercial litter trays fit this preference, so sometimes adapting a storage container (and taking the wheels off!) is the way to go

  • Covered vs uncovered? Sometimes; some cats feel trapped with covered litter trays, others prefer the privacy so offer them both initially and see which one they go for

  • Litter in a quiet space i.e. not next to the washing machine or in a thoroughfare

  • Non-scented litter; offer multiple litter types to your cat and see which one they pick

  • No rustling tray-cover bags

  • Multiple trays per cat – if they’re side-by-side, that only counts as one giant litter tray

  • Clean litter - scoop multiple times a day folks!

  • Plain dish-soap & hot water is fine for cleaning trays – do not use bleach!

Usually, figuring out why your cat stopped using their litter and addressing that, as well as appealing to their preferences, can get your cat happily using their litter tray again!

While intended to help any pet parent with an anxious little one, this article is no substitute for a consultation with firstly, a veterinarian to ensure no physical ailments, and secondly, a qualified veterinary behaviour professional to assess your pet, their unique triggers, thresholds and capabilities, to offer a treatment plan tailored for success.

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