Why Some Cats Avoid the Litter Box

Caitlin Dempsey


A longhaired orange and white tabby cat looking at a litter box inside a room with gray brick walls and gray wooden floors.

One of the most common and frustrating issues faced by cat owners is when their pets decide to pee outside the litter box. The scientific term for a cat peeing outside their litter box is periuria.

While a lot of owners think it’s because their cat is trying to punish them, that isn’t the reason.

Unfortunately, there can be a range of reasons why your cat has decided to reject their litter box ranging from behavioral issues to a health problem. Here are reasons why your cat may be peeing outside their litter box.

Your cat has a health issue

It’s important to first determine if the peeing is a medical problem and your cat needs the immediate attention of a vet.

Feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), feline idiopathic cystitis, urinary tract infections, bladder stones, or kidney problems can lead to discomfort and pain while urinating. In such instances, your cat may associate the litter box with the pain they experience and avoid using it.

If you notice your cat peeing outside the litter box, it’s essential to take them to a veterinarian for a thorough check-up to rule out any medical issues.

Your cat’s litter box is filthy

Cats are particular about hygiene and this extends to their litter box.

Cats have a highly developed sense of smell, and any strong odors emanating from the litter box can be particularly repulsive to them. Make sure you scoop the litter box at least once a day.

Side view of tabby british shorthair cat leaving hooded gray cat litter box with flap entrance on wooden floor in front of white wall.
Different cats prefer different types of litter boxes. Photo: © FurryFritz/stock.abobe.com

It’s also important change the litter out entirely every week and to wash the litter box. Even with daily scooping, bits of urine and feces are left behind and these odors build up. I like to use a fragrance free dish soap to wash the litter boxes with and then I set them out in the sun to dry and disinfect so that any lingering odors from bacterial growth are removed.

Make sure the litter you are using isn’t overly fragranced or dusty. Both of these can be irritants to your cat’s sensitive sense of smell and cause them to avoid using the box.

You don’t have enough litter boxes

The ideal number of litter boxes is one for each cat in your household plus one extra. For example, if you have two cats, then you should have three litter boxes.

Five small kittens crowded into a green litter box.
Make sure you have enough litter boxes for the number of cats in your household. Photo: © tiplyashina/stock.adobe.com.

In households with multiple cats, territorial issues and social dynamics can play a significant role in litter box problems. Dominant cats may prevent submissive cats from accessing the litter box, leading them to find alternative spots to eliminate.

Some cats might feel uncomfortable sharing a litter box with others, especially if they prefer their own designated space. Providing multiple litter boxes in different areas of the house can alleviate this problem.

The setup of the litter box isn’t considered safe by your cat

If you have space in your house, opt for different styles and place them in different spots. Cats have their own preference for litter boxes. Some cats prefer a covered litter box, others want the box open so they can see who is coming.

Make sure the litter box is large enough

A large cat may feel cramped and uncomfortable trying to use a tiny litter box. One small study found that, in general, cats tended to prefer using a large litter box over a regular sized one. Make sure you provide litter boxes that are large enough to accommodate the size of your cat and allows them enough space to turn around in.

Make sure the litter box isn’t in a busy area

Litter box for cat on floor in living room.
Avoid putting your cat’s litter box in a high traffic area of your house. Photo: © Pixel-Shot/stock.adobe.com.

Avoid placing the litter boxes in noisy areas of your house. Answering the call of nature is a vulnerable position for cats and they like to feel safe and secluded when using their litter boxes. If you have a small apartment and don’t have the space to put the box out of the way, try and use furniture to create a secluded area for your cat’s litter box.

If you think you have have the correct litter box set up and your cat is still peeing outside their box, here are some other reasons.

Your cat is overly stressed

Cats tend to alter their behavior if they are feeling anxious or stressed. A move to a new home, the introduction of a new pet or family member, loud noises, or even changes in their human companion’s behavior can lead to stress and anxiety.

A black and white cat hissing at a black cat by a bookshelf.
Tensions in the cat’s household can stress them out and cause them to pee outside the litter box. Photo: © Evgeny Vershinin/stock.adobe.com

When cats are anxious, they may resort to urinating outside the litter box as a way of expressing their distress or marking territory. Providing a safe and comfortable space for your cat, along with consistent routines and plenty of mental and physical stimulation, can help reduce their anxiety levels.

Your cat isn’t neutered

Cats are territorial creatures, and they may mark their territory through urine spraying or inappropriate elimination. This behavior is more common in unspayed or unneutered cats, but even neutered cats can display marking behavior.

Neutering or spaying your cat can significantly reduce this behavior, as can providing environmental enrichment and plenty of play to reduce territorial stress.

Your elderly cat can’t access their litter box

As cats age, they may experience a decline in mobility or develop arthritis, making it difficult for them to access their regular litter box, especially if it has high sides. An aging cat might seek out easier-to-reach spots in the house to relieve themselves.

An old gray longhaired cat sits by a rope cat scratcher.
Senior cats have a harder time climbing into high sided litter boxes. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

To accommodate older cats, consider using a litter box with lower sides that’s easier for them to enter and exit. Additionally, placing ramps or steps near the litter box can help older cats access it more comfortably.

Your cat is trying to get your attention

In some cases, cats may resort to inappropriate elimination as a way to gain their owner’s attention, especially if they feel neglected or lonely. When your cat eliminates outside their litter box in this situation, you probably pay them more attention than you normally would.

If you suspect attention-seeking behavior, try spending more quality time with your cat, engaging in interactive play sessions, and providing mental stimulation through toys or puzzle feeders. A content and fulfilled cat is less likely to seek attention through negative behavior.

Solving litter box problems with your cat

It takes a little bit of detective work to figure out what is triggering your cat’s peeing outside their litter box.

Reversing this behavior will take some time and lots of positive reinforcement. Gradual changes are often more successful than sudden transitions, especially when it comes to altering litter type, box location, or dealing with stressors.

When your cat does use the box, offer them lots of praise and spend some time playing with them or offer a few treats to reinforce the behavior.

Never scold or yell at your cat for peeing outside the box. It may feel personal, but your cat is not purposely eliminating outside their toilet area in order to “get back” at you.


Ellis, J. J., McGowan, R. T. S., & Martin, F. (2017). Does previous use affect litter box appeal in multi-cat households?. Behavioural processes141, 284-290. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2017.02.008

Grigg, E. K., Pick, L., & Nibblett, B. (2013). Litter box preference in domestic cats: covered versus uncovered. Journal of feline medicine and surgery15(4), 280-284. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098612X1246560

Guy, N. C., Hopson, M., & Vanderstichel, R. (2014). Litterbox size preference in domestic cats (Felis catus). Journal of Veterinary Behavior9(2), 78-82. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2013.11.001


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey holds both a master's in Geography from UCLA and a Master of Library and Information Science. She is the editor of Geographyrealm.com and an avid researcher of geography and feline topics. A lifelong cat owner, Caitlin currently has three rescued cats: an orange tabby, a gray tabby, and a black cat.