Content continues after advertisement

House Soiling in Cats

Debra Horwitz, DVM


|April 2003|Peer Reviewed

Sign in to Print/View PDF

So many of my clients come in with cats not using their litter boxes. Is there a quick way to solve the problem?

First, remember that elimination outside the litter box is merely a clinical sign. Naturally, any medical conditions that may contribute to the problem need to be vigorously ruled out, even in long-standing cases. Arriving at a diagnosis entails answering some questions.

Toileting or Marking

To begin with, determine if the inappropriate elimination is a toileting problem (i.e., the cat is emptying the bladder and/or bowel in the wrong location) or if it is a marking problem. If the problem is urination outside the litter box, where exactly has urine been found, on horizontal or vertical surfaces? This determination might help differentiate a toileting problem from a spraying problem. Also, get an accurate description of the circumstances: Are urine, stool, or both deposited inappropriately? Once the type of elimination and its location have been determined, the focus turns to ascertaining the specific problem. 

In this discussion, we will target toileting problems. The table can help organize the information gathered in investgating each specific case.

The 5 Ws

For cats that are toileting in the wrong location, ask who, what, where, when, and why. Be sure that the client is accurately identifying the appropriate cat. This may require confinement trials or the use of markers in the suspected cat.1 Next, are urine or feces being found outside the litter box? If it is stool, what are the consistency and frequency? The number of times daily or weekly that the cat exhibits the behavior should also be determined. Furthermore, if the client can pinpoint when the problem elimination occurs, it could aid in designing a treatment plan.

Closely noting where and on what material the cat eliminates may help indicate outside influences, problems with access to the litter box, problems with the box itself, substrate or location preferences, or aversions and other issues. A map of the household can be particularly helpful for obtaining this information. Be sure to investigate the social relationship between cats -this might lead to one of the reasons a cat is avoiding the litter box.

Location, location, location

Next, focus on the box itself. Is it easily accessible and free of disruptions, noise, dogs, or other cats? Does the cat have medical problems, such as arthritis, that make getting to the litter box difficult in its current location? The size of the litter box can also be an issue. Very large cats may be unable to get into covered boxes comfortably or even use standard-size uncovered boxes. Explore the type and depth of litter to be sure it is adequate as well. A recent change in type of litter as well as number and placement of litter boxes can contribute to lack of use, so this information can be vital to successful diagnosis and treatment. Finally, examine the routine for cleaning the litter box in detail. Most cats prefer a meticulously clean litter box, which owners often do not provide.

Once having answered these questions, try to put the case into one of the following diagnostic categories.2 Is a preference for a particular material, substrate, or location apparent? Is there a clear aversion to the litter or location of the litter box? Do other factors seem to play a role, such as social conflicts between household cats, an inadequate number of litter boxes, or improper placement or maintenance? More than one diagnostic category may apply concurrently. 

Cleaning Up the Cat's Act-and the House

Upon reaching a diagnosis, begin to plan the treatment using the information gleaned from the history. Treatment generally focuses on making the litter box more attractive, preventing return to previously soiled areas, adequate cleaning of soiled areas, and addressing any other ancillary concerns that might have been revealed in the history (see the What to Do box). With attention to the history and household factors, many cases of house soiling in cats can be successfully treated.  


Making the litter box more attractive

-Scoop out daily; change litter completely every 4 to 7 days

-Remove cover from litter box

-Provide large litter box, perhaps plastic storage tote

-Increase number of litter boxes; place in additional locations

-Change litter type: unscented clay or clumping litter

Preventing return to soiled areas

-Block access (closed doors, baby gates, etc.)

-Apply scent deterrents

-Change function of soiled area (use it for play or feeding)

-Confine cat when unsupervised

Cleaning soiled areas

-Use enzyme products in adequate amounts


For global readers, a calculator to convert laboratory values, dosages, and other measurements to SI units can be found here.

All Clinician's Brief content is reviewed for accuracy at the time of publication. Previously published content may not reflect recent developments in research and practice.

Material from Clinician's Brief may not be reproduced, distributed, or used in whole or in part without prior permission of Educational Concepts, LLC. For questions or inquiries please contact us.


Clinician's Brief:
The Podcast
Listen as host Alyssa Watson, DVM, talks with the authors of your favorite Clinician’s Brief articles. Dig deeper and explore the conversations behind the content here.
Clinician's Brief provides relevant diagnostic and treatment information for small animal practitioners. It has been ranked the #1 most essential publication by small animal veterinarians for 9 years.*

*2007-2017 PERQ and Essential Media Studies

© 2023 Educational Concepts, L.L.C. dba Brief Media ™ All Rights Reserved. Terms & Conditions | DMCA Copyright | Privacy Policy | Acceptable Use Policy