Ask a Behaviorist
Share this image

Cats’ Relationships in the Home Can Affect Litter Box Use

Interactions with other cats, dogs, adults, and children can lead to eliminating outside the box; here are tips on preventing and stopping it.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Mar 11th 2016


The relationships cats have with household members — feline, canine, and human — can affect litter box usage. Peaceful coexistence or tumultuous fighting can influence cats to have either perfect litter box habits or to eliminate on sofas, beds, or in other troubling spots.

The relationships cats have with other household members can impact litter box

The relationships cats have with other household members can impact litter box usage. Two cats by Shutterstock

When people go to the bathroom it’s for one obvious reason. It’s a bit more complex for cats. In addition to biological needs, urinating and defecating sometimes has social nuances that can determine where and when they eliminate.

Here are three of them:

1. To avoid entrapment

Cats will do whatever is necessary to avoid being trapped by animals they don’t feel safe around. Stress from minor bickering to major altercations is all it takes for them to seek out safe places to eliminate where they won’t be cornered or ambushed. Anxious kitties look for locations that have good views and allow easy escape. Spots such as sofas, beds, and floors in the middle of living rooms often meet the criteria. These places are safer than covered litter boxes and those tucked away in closets and cabinets, all of which are setups for ambush.

Quarrelsome felines aren’t the only triggers. Barking dogs and dogs who chase cats can be life threatening. Understandably, cats will search for dog-free spots to eliminate. In addition to four-legged companions, some people can also be daunting. Young children who don’t understand how to gently interact with kitties as well as some clueless adults can trigger sensitive felines to become anxious and seek out places to eliminate where they feel safe.

Stressed cats sometimes eliminate outside litter boxes

Stressed cats sometimes eliminate outside litter boxes. White cat by Shutterstock

Here’s what you can do:

Work on improving relationships. Gradually introduce newly adopted cats to the resident kitties. It may take weeks or months to integrate them with a minimum of stress. Dogs need to be trained to not chase and bark at felines. Play it safe and supervise their time together. Although kitties are irresistible, children have to be taught to not chase and corner them.

Also add more tall cat trees and shelves throughout your home — they will improve intercat relationships. One way cats show their rankings in their flexible hierarchy is by where they position themselves in relationship to each other. Additionally, kitties feel safer up high; they are out of reach of dogs and scary people.

Cats feel safer up high

Cats feel safer up high. Cat on a perch by Shutterstock

Add large, uncovered litter boxes in different rooms. Multilevel homes need at least two on each level. Kitties need choices — if one litter box doesn’t feel safe or is dirty, then there are others to choose from. Locate them in places where the cat has a great view and can easily escape any possible threats. There should be at least one litter box per cat, plus one more.

2. To broadcast information and mark territories

Cats are effective communicators. In addition to scratching objects, head bunting, body language and vocalizing, cats might use their urine and feces for communicating information about themselves and to delineate territories. Urine marking has other functions as well; it helps attract mates and identifies family and friends.

Although intact cats are the guiltiest, depending on the circumstances, spayed and neutered cats can mark too, staking out claims and spraying or urinating when they feel threatened. Issues between resident felines and visits from neighborhood cats can also trigger the smelly behavior.

Urine marking is the most common, but some cats will midden — mark their territory through feces. This behavior is mostly displayed by kitties who live outdoors.

Outdoor cat middening

Outdoor cat middening by Shutterstock

Here’s what you can do:

The first item on the agenda is spaying and neutering intact cats. Fixed kitties are less likely to mark than intact ones. Because smell is an integral part of marking, use an effective enzyme cleaner and thoroughly clean up the targeted areas. Give your cat alternative and more acceptable ways of marking by placing horizontal scratchers and scratching posts throughout your home. These can help improve relationships and help to reduce the unpleasant behavior.

Conflicts between cats need to be addressed. Reduce the competition between them by increasing the resources. Add more vertical territory, scratchers, and toys. Each cat needs her own eating area. If possible, feed them in separate rooms or increase the distance between food bowls. Also add uncovered litter boxes, putting them in areas where the cats can’t easily ambush each other.

Sometimes separating and then reintroducing quarreling cats to each other can ease the tensions and stop the urine marking.

Add horizontal scratchers and scratching posts throughout your home.

Add horizontal scratchers and scratching posts throughout your home. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

3. To mingle scents

Some anxious cats use urine to combine their scents with favorite people. These little ones may urinate where their people sleep or sit — such as beds, pillows, and favored chairs. Mingling their scent with their owners may help them feel safe.

The behavior might begin when new animals are introduced to the home or when there are major changes to the household such as remodeling and schedule changes. Tensions between people can also cause cats to feel stressed and anxious. Some kitties have separation anxiety issues and become anxious when their owners are away from them.

Some cats experience separation anxiety

Some cats experience separation anxiety. Cat on a carrier by Shutterstock

Here’s what you can do:

Help your kitty feel secure by keeping a consistent schedule. Do activities she enjoys every day at the same times — play, clicker training, treasure hunts, and grooming. If she loves to cuddle, put aside time every day for quality cuddle time. Encouraging her to bond with other household members can also help reduce her fears and ease her anxieties while you are away. Recruit your housemates to feed, play, and interact with her. For those of you who live alone, ask neighbors or pet sitters to visit and interact with your kitty at least twice a day. If you frequently travel, leave your suitcase out between trips and incorporate it into play. It shouldn’t be something that looms into view only when you’re preparing to go away.

Make it more fun for your cat by enriching the environment. Add toys such as ball-and-track toys, scratchers, and vertical territory. If your kitty enjoys the company of other felines, adopting a friend may ease her separation anxiety. Be aware that another cat can also escalate the issue — not all kitties welcome newcomers.

Put aside time every day to cuddle with your cat

Put aside time every day to cuddle with your cat. A man and his cat by Shutterstock

Don’t punish cats for avoiding their litter boxes. Although, the behavior isn’t pleasant, felines aren’t being bad. They’re responding instinctually to events or circumstances in their environments. Punishing cats can stress them, thus escalating litter box issues and causing others. Punishment also ruins relationships. Kitties associate the punishment with the punisher — it breaks the bonds between them and their people. Instead of punishing, identify the triggers and address them.

Please follow Marilyn on Facebook!

Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site and Skype consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More!

focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods. Marilyn is big on education — she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors.

She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.