It is a question as old as humanity itself. It has more variations than you can possibly imagine. It has been posed in every language since the first domestic cat took up residence in the first crude shelter. You may have heard it phrased this way: “Why would a cat poop on the bed?” Perhaps you yourself have asked, “Why has my cat suddenly developed a habit of pooping in the tub?” The query may have really any object.
Why does my cat poop:
- In the shower?
- In the sink?
- On the carpet?
- On the floor?
- By the door?
- Next to the litter box?
You can probably invent a wide range of inappropriate locations for cat poop off the top of your head, or recall places your cats have made unwelcome deposits in the past. Are you literally hip-deep in a cat dung apocalypse? Is your home under constant siege, covered from moulding to wainscoting in cat feces? Even if your cat chooses one specific place to evacuate her bowels, you’re looking at the wrong issue. What’s the right issue?
The cat poops outside the litter box
Just as cat food is self-descriptive as to its intended purpose, what Aristotle might call the “final cause,” so too do cat owners assume that their cats understand implicitly that the litter box is the only true and appropriate place for cats to excrete their poop. Even the best house-trained cat, who has always left her business in the litter box, may stray from the path of righteousness on occasion.
I namechecked Aristotle. His concept of the “four causes” provides a great lens through which to examine the many reasons why your cat now envisions your entire home as the canvas for his fecal artistry. The four causes are:
- The material cause: the makeup of the thing. In this case, the actual material that makes up the cat’s litter can affect when, where, and if she deems it a good place for her to poop. This also includes the relative cleanliness of the litter, which also makes a difference.
- The formal cause: the size and shape of the cat’s litter box can affect the cat’s attitude toward it. The amount of litter is also a critical point.
- The efficient cause: scholars differ on their interpretation of this one, but for our purposes, we can link it to the location of the litter box; where we as cat owners place it physically. As far as the cat is concerned, the efficient cause can also be medical or behavioral changes that affect their willingness or ability to use the litter box.
- The final cause: as described above, this is what we’re working toward, how to get your cat to use the litter box and stop pooping errantly. Whether that’s the bed, the tub, the sink, the carpet, or everywhere. Adjusting any of the first three causes may directly effect the desired outcome, leaving you and your cat satisfied.
What can you as a concerned cat owner do when you prepare to turn in for the night, only to find a small pile of cat poop where you lay your head? Let’s look at each of the four causes in turn and see how each can lead cats to express dissatisfaction with their litter box situation. Of course, by “express dissatisfaction,” I mean poop all over the house, yea, even in your own bed.
The material cause: the composition of cat litter
What should her litter be composed of? That is also up to the whim and preference of the cat, and it may take time and experimentation to find the litter she likes best. Just as with cat food, cats become accustomed to the makeup of their litter. If you change brands, consistency, texture, or fragrance suddenly, you may unwittingly force your cat to poop in your bed as a place of greater security and reliable comfort.
It is also recommended that you clean the litter box once a day. This doesn’t mean replacing all the litter, but removing any poop that has accumulated during over the last 24 hours. Cats are just as sensitive to a clean bathroom as humans are, and if too much waste has fouled their box for too long, they may turn to alternate locations. It’s a good reason to maintain two boxes simultaneously.
The formal cause: the shape of the litter box and amount of litter
There are many cat litter box designs, from automated, self-cleaning ones to repurposed plastic bins, enclosed, uncovered, and everything in between. Your cat cares nothing for style, and everything for accessibility and ease of use. Most experts recommend you have one litter box per cat, and many suggest two because cats are finicky. The older a cat is, the easier it should be for her to enter and exit.
Many cat owners, myself included, are content to fill the litter box up, fill it halfway, or, instead of regular cleaning and disinfecting, to simply cover dirty litter with clean and hope for the best. The Humane Society suggests that cats prefer cat litter to be no more than two inches deep.
The efficient cause: litter box placement and cat issues
Above, we playfully suggested that cats just know to use their litter box. In certain respects, that’s correct; as long as a cat is comfortable with the size and shape of their litter box, as well as with the physical makeup and amount of litter contained within, typically, they know what it is for and use it accordingly. That’s a lot of factors to keep in harmony. The truism about real estate is also a factor: location, location, location.
Sometimes, cats poop outside the litter box because they do not like its physical location. It’s another reason to maintain two. Where a cat prefers to defecate may change with time and age. A cat who poops in the bed or elsewhere may be expressing a desire for different litter box placement.
While many of these factors depend on the cat owner who buys the boxes and the litter, and physically places the litter box within the home, there are efficient causes for pooping outside the litter box that rely on the cat. Behavioral and medical issues may also play a role. Do you live in a multi-cat household? Conflicts or stressful relations between cats, or a traumatic association with a specific litter box can lead a cat to seek relief by pooping elsewhere.
The final cause: what are the weirdest places your cat poops?
The ASPCA estimates that there are between 74 and 96 million cats living in American homes, and that some 10% of them will, at some point in their life, excrete waste in a non-litter-box location. Just doing simple averages, at any given time there are approximately 85 million house cats, which leads us to assume that there are some 8,500,000 cats pooping outside of the designated area. Even as an estimate, that number is astonishing.
It’s altogether likely that someone reading this right now has just spent the last half hour cleaning and scouring feline excrement and has now turned to the Internet in exasperation. We’ve mentioned some frequently-cited spots where cats leave their droppings. What’s the most unusual spot you’ve discovered cat droppings? How did you address the issue? Share your hard-earned fecal wisdom in the comments!
About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. His 17-year-old cat, Quacko, recently passed away. His online life is conveniently encapsulated here.