Last updated on March 22nd, 2023 at 05:47 pm
Recurring incidents of inappropriate pooping can be very stressful for the owners. This is not normal behavior for cats, so you can be sure that your cat is not happy either.
Reasons that cats poop outside of their litter box can be physical (e.g. they can’t get into the litter box), psychological (e.g. behavior caused by stress), or medical (e.g. uncontrollable diarrhea). It will take investigation and experimentation to figure out the cause and how to correct it.
This article explores some of the reasons that your cat is pooping somewhere other than their litterbox, and advice on how to can try to correct this behavior.
Cat Poop Can Happen To Anyone
I recently had the unpleasant experience of finding cat poop in a bed and it was very clear why it happened – my cat was NOT happy!
My Sphynx cat, Joey, is a rescue. We don’t know much about her past, but she was clearly very traumatized by the time she came to live with us. Her first few months with us were spent in hiding, only coming out at night to eat, drink, and use the litter box.
Eventually, she stopped hiding all the time and even started seeking our company, although she still wouldn’t let us touch her.
Cue the Christmas holidays, and guests staying over! Needless to say, she was not a fan of a houseful of rambunctious kids. We thought she had regressed completely since she went back into hiding the whole time they were here.
Much to our surprise, Joey came out of hiding within minutes after everyone finally left. All was good, we thought, no damage done.
Then, later that evening, I went downstairs to change the bedding on the guest bed and there it was – CAT POOP! A neat little pile sitting right in the middle of the bed where the guests had been sleeping.
She only did it once. There were no repeats. She had made her statement. This was HER house and she was NOT happy about sharing it with strangers! At least that was my assessment of the situation.
Thankfully, this was a one-off situation and it hasn’t been repeated. This was obviously a stressful situation for her. She expressed her stress and anxiety, and then things went back to normal. I would have had to investigate and take action if it hadn’t ended here.
So what are the potential reasons I would have been exploring? The first (and most difficult step) is to figure out the “why”. The second step is to find a solution.
Physical Reasons for Pooping Outside Of The Litterbox
The list of physical reasons for cats pooping outside of their litter box is short. In a nutshell, the cat simply cannot physically get into the box for one or more reasons.
This is more common in old cats with limited abilities, or cats with injuries that interfere with their movements. Fat cats might also have problems. Litter boxes that are accessed from the top or ones with high sides are not recommended for these cats.
The other possibility is that the cat box has been placed in an area where it is difficult for the cat to reach. Again, cats with limited mobility cannot go everywhere that normal cats do.
If your cat has limited mobility and pooped on your bed, chances are that it was just easier to poop on your bed than to get down off it and make it to the litter box in time.
Psychologic Reasons for Cat Poop On Your Bed
Psychologic reasons that cats do their business outside of the litter box are more complicated. Most cats do this out of stress or anxiety, so if your cat pooped on your bed, the answer could be that they are feeling scared or even angry.
Stress and anxiety are the main reasons inappropriate elimination happens, but figuring out the source of the stress can be complicated. Let’s start with some of the simpler ones first.
Litter Box Problems
Litter box problems include all those things about a litter box that your cat just doesn’t like and which will cause them to avoid it. These are things that you can easily change, although it will take some experimentation to figure out exactly what is turning them off.
Some of the things you should be looking at, and change if necessary, include:
- Dirty litter box: Cats are fastidious creatures. They prefer a clean litter box. What may appear clean to you may not appear clean to them. Scoop the litter daily, making sure to do a very thorough job. Change the litter every week or two.
- Size of the litter box: An adult cat should have a box that is at least one and a half times as long as they are. If they don’t fit, they might decide that going somewhere else is easier.
- Type of litter: If you’ve recently changed the type of litter you are using, your cat might object. Different cats prefer different types of litter, so experiment to find out which type your cat likes best.
- Litter is too deep: Cats prefer about 2 inches of litter in their box. Deeper litter may cause some cats to avoid the litter box.
- Location of the litter box: The litter box should be in a quiet, accessible spot. If it’s too close to loud appliances, busy or noisy areas, or if it is difficult to access, cats may decide that going elsewhere is preferable.
- Not enough litter boxes: Cats don’t always like to share. Multi-cat households should have one more litter box than you have cats. If you have two cats you need three litter boxes, and if you have three cats you need four litter boxes.
- Covered litter box: If you already have a litter box that is covered or hidden within an enclosure, then maybe your cat feels trapped in the enclosed space. Try using a litter box that is not covered to see if that helps.
Surface Or Substrate Preferences
My daughter had a cat that always chose to go to the bathroom on plastic bags. Leave a plastic bag on the floor for any amount of time and there was certain to be cat pee or poop on it!
If there were no bags to be found, the cat was quite happy to use the litter box. The only solution in this scenario was people management: train the whole family to never leave plastic bags lying around.
Cats that are or were outdoor cats might have a preference for dirt. Some cats have a preference for carpet, bedding, or other fabric. Materials that can be dug up or moved to cover their mess are often appealing.
If your cat appears to have substrate preference, the solution is to make that substrate unappealing. If that happens to be your bed, this might mean using something like a plastic shower curtain or even tin foil to cover it.
Negative Litter Box Association
Sometimes cats associate the litter box with a negative experience. This could be because of something as subtle as a loud noise during one of their trips to the box, or it could be something more severe such as being attacked by another cat while using it.
A common reason for negative litter box association is painful elimination. If your cat has experienced pain when going to the bathroom they may associate the litter box with that pain and avoid it.
I will always clearly remember one of my first patients after graduating from vet school. It was a sweet calico cat who had been run over by a car, resulting in a broken pelvis.
She experienced a lot of pain when pooping until she healed. She learned to associate the litter box with her pain and would never use it again.
It can be difficult to overcome this type of litter box aversion. Once medical reasons for painful elimination have been corrected or ruled out, try experimenting with different litter substrates, litter boxes, and different locations.
For example, you might try using shredded paper instead of litter, or placing a thin layer of litter on a flat tray. Putting it in a different location may also help reduce the negative association.
Unexpected events, which may often go unnoticed by owners, can cause a significant amount of stress in cats – leading to potential litter-box problems.
Any changes that could potentially affect your cat, such as moving or introducing new pets or family members to the home – even something as small as altering its regular routine- can easily produce anxiety in your cat.
My Sphynx cat was certainly stressed by the change in our routine when guests stayed over at Christmas. She expressed her anxiety by pooping on the guest bed. Once the guests were gone, her stress was gone and things went back to normal.
If your home houses multiple cats, it is important to remember that cats can become territorial. A single litter box in a two-cat household will not be sufficient, as each cat might want to “claim” the box, leading to conflicts and inevitable accidents.
Besides litter box conflicts, cats may have interpersonal conflicts that cause one or more of them stress and anxiety. That is, they just don’t get along.
Creating separate safe areas for cats that are not getting along can help avoid conflict between them. This includes eating and sleeping areas, as well as multiple litter boxes. Spend time playing with each cat individually, providing each with one-on-one attention.
I suggest you also try something like Feliway®, a cat-calming pheromone product that comes as a spray or diffuser. Many cat owners report very good results in reducing inter-cat conflict and other stress-related behavior problems.
Medical Reasons for Pooping Outside Of The Litterbox
Many years ago I took in a cat for a friend who was unable to find a pet-friendly apartment. It turned out that this cat had inflammatory bowel disease (although it wasn’t diagnosed until it lived with me).
This cat would have sporadic episodes of diarrhea and bloody stools, and sometimes she just could not make it to the litter box in time. Happily, once we figured out what was wrong we were able to control her symptoms with a special diet.
Diarrhea and constipation are common reasons for pooping outside of the litter box.
With diarrhea, often the cat just can’t get to a litter box in time. With constipation, the cat may spend time in the litter box trying to poop, and then just give up and try again later – outside of the litter box.
Age-related health issues can also be a problem. Mental cognition declines in elderly cats much as it does in people. This can result in decreased ability to control their bowels and bladder, or they may even just forget where the litter box is.
Other medically-related issues can result in your cat pooping outside of its litter box as well. If the health problem results in pain, it can result in negative litter box association as discussed above.
Cats that have ongoing issues with pooping outside of their litter box should always be assessed by a veterinarian to make sure they do not have any underlying medical problems.
Fixing Litter Box Problems
If your cat is pooping outside of its litter box, it’s important to figure out why. Once you understand the underlying cause, then you can implement changes to resolve the problem.
Here are some tips for fixing common litter box problems:
• Make sure you are cleaning the litter box frequently (at least once a day) and that you are using a type of litter that your cat likes. Some cats prefer clumping litter while others like non-clumping litter. Change the litter out completely every 1-2 weeks and wash the box before refilling it with fresh litter.
• Cats have sensitive noses. Avoid using scented litter as this can be a deterrent.
• Make sure the litter box is located in a quiet area that’s away from loud noises and foot traffic. Cats tend to prefer peace and quiet when they go to the bathroom.
• If your cat has developed a negative association with the litter box (from things like pain or fear), try to make the litter box area more inviting. Changing things up so that it is “different” can help, such as a different litter pan, different substrate, or different location.
• If your cat is having trouble getting to the litter box in time due to medical reasons, make sure the litter box is easily accessible. This includes location (put it close to where the cat spends most of its time) and litter box size (not too tall, litter is not too deep, cat can easily step in and out of it).
• If you have multiple cats in the household, be sure that you are providing enough litter boxes (at least one per cat plus one extra). If your home has limited space, litter box enclosures that double as furniture can help hide one or more of these litter boxes.
• Try using Feliway, a calming pheromone product that can help reduce stress-related behavior problems in cats. If your cat is urinating or defecating outside of the box due to fear or anxiety, this could help.
• Make the spot or spots where they have been pooping inappropriately less appealing. Depending on the location and situation, you can try covering the spot with plastic or aluminum foil, putting up a bright light in dark areas, or placing the double-sided tape on the spot.
• Clean up messes with an enzymatic cleaner specifically designed for pet messes. This will help remove the scent, which cats are very sensitive to, and can encourage them to go back to the same spot in the future.
It can be very frustrating to deal with a cat that’s pooping outside of its litter box. But by understanding why the problem is happening, you can make changes to help resolve it and get your kitty back on track.
Making sure the litter box is clean, has the right type of litter, and is in a quiet area can help encourage your cat to use it properly. If there is an underlying medical issue or fear-based behavior problem, you should talk to your veterinarian for advice on how to proceed.
Identifiying sources of stress and utilizing calming products like Feliway® can also be helpful in certain cases. And if you catch your cat going in the wrong spot, make sure to clean up thoroughly and cover or block off the area with things like plastic or aluminum foil.
With a little patience and lots of love, you should be able to find a solution that works for both you and your cat.
Disclaimer: This article is intended for information purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice. Always consult your veterinarian if you have specific concerns about your pet’s health.