Why Your Cat May Be Suddenly Pooping Outside of Their Litter Box

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A grey cat sits in its owner's lap, ears and eyes pointed directly forwards

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One of the many great things about cats as pets is their fastidious, clean nature. Even if they don’t go outside to go to the toilet, they are really good at keeping it clean indoors. So, it can be very frustrating, not to mention messy, when this habit goes awry and they start pooing outside of their litter tray. Sometimes this may be just outside and they get caught on some newspaper, but sometimes they start doing it all over the house and often in the places you’d least like them to. In this article we’ll look at the most common reasons it might start happening and what you can do about it if it does happen.

You’ve changed nothing about the tray, litter or location

If your litter tray has always been in the same place, you’ve always used the same litter, and your cat has consistently used it, then a change in behaviour may be more likely due to an illness. Examples of this would be:

  • Diarrhoea or another gastrointestinal disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It may simply be that your cat is not making it to the tray in time when the urge to poo happens. Usually you’ll notice the poo is soft or runny. There may be mucus or blood, too. In this case, you should see your vet to find out the cause.
  • Arthritis. As cats age, they tend to get stiff joints, especially in the hips and shoulders, due to a lifetime of jumping and climbing. As this progresses, your cat may have difficulty or pain getting into the litter tray. This is particularly true of high-sided trays. Try to notice if your cat is also struggling or reluctant to jump on or off furniture. This is also time to see your vet. Chronic pain is no fun and cats can be subtle creatures when it comes to showing signs of illness or pain.

Something has changed with the tray or the home environment

These are by far the most common causes of cats not using a litter tray when they are normally well-disciplined and clean.

  • Location. It’s convenient for us as owners to put litter trays out of the way, where the smell won’t bother us. This often means they are in the laundry area or a similar place, and all too often near the cat’s food and water. Imagine if it was us. Do you want to go to the toilet in your dining room? Do you want noise and light and people walking by when you are trying to go to the toilet? Litter trays should be in quiet, secluded places, well away from their food and water.
  • Number of trays. Ideally you should have one more litter tray than you have cats, and the trays should be in different rooms. Cats are easily bullied by other cats in the house, and it may be that one of your cats can’t get access to the tray. They will feel forced to go elsewhere.
  • Cleanliness. You may simply need to change the litter more frequently. When we go to a public toilet and every stall is filthy, we don’t want to sit down. Cats have got to walk in there and put their clean paws in it. It’s understandable if they go under your nice clean bed instead!
  • Stress. Cats are very sensitive creatures and easily stressed. You may have visitors or a new baby, or you might have started packing to go on holiday and your cat knows a cattery visit is coming. You may have got a new cat or a dog. Any of these seemingly small things are enough to unsettle a cat and get them running for solitude, including to go to the toilet.
  • Type of litter. Certain cats simply don’t find some types of litter comfortable to dig around in. Try some different types.

If you see that something has obviously changed and the poo looks normal, you may well be able to reverse the change and get a quick result yourself. Order will be restored! If in any doubt, but particularly if you suspect illness, pain or stress, then a prompt visit to your vet is essential. With any physical or mental issue, the sooner you get to the bottom of it (pardon the pun!) the better.

Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA