August 2019

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

If your cat is urinating outside the litter box, we certainly understand your frustration. Luckily, this is a treatable condition in most cases. A medical exam, as well as a few simple changes can help to re-establish proper litter box use.

The first step includes taking your cat to your veterinarian. Whenever a cat suddenly eliminates outside of the litter box, it's strongly advised to get a physical exam including urine analysis and in some cases blood work in order to rule out any illness or injury that may be causing the behavior. Once a medical reason for the lapse in litter box use has been ruled out, you want to consider behavioral reasons.

There are two main behavioral reasons for failure to eliminate in an established litter box. One is marking, which is a form of communication. The second one is inappropriate elimination, which is a toileting behavior. Both behaviors may occur for a variety of reasons.

Answer the following 4 questions:

  • Is your cat depositing urine on vertical or horizontal surfaces?
  • Are you finding large or small amounts of urine?
  • Is your cat still using the litter box or has litter box use decreased?
  • Does your cat stand or squat when she is urinating outside the litter box?

Your cat might be marking if you answered:

  • Small amounts on vertical surfaces, while standing, however still using the litter box sometimes.
  • If your cat backs into the wall with her tail up and squirts small amounts of urine onto vertical surfaces such as the wall, front door, or windows, your cat most likely is displaying marking behavior, most often triggered by territoriality or stress. While the triggers may seem benign to us, they can likely be a source of turmoil for your cat. Popular triggers include: a new home, new furniture, or the smell or view of a strange cat strolling through the yard or passing by your front door.

This is a normal feline behavior; some cats use urine as a form of communication. In order to get the marking behavior under control, you need to do a number of things all at once.

1. Because the odor of urine draws cats back to previously marked areas, you will have to clean all soiled areas with an enzymatic cleanser. You should use a black light to help you locate all the spots in your house; urine will glow yellow-green in the dark. As the amounts are often small you might be missing areas where your cat sprays. Additionally, it is key to implement excellent litter box hygiene, which has been proven to significantly decrease the incidence of spraying.

  • Make previously marked areas unavailable (close doors to certain rooms).
  • Place one litter box per cat in the household, plus one extra. Litter boxes should be in different rooms to count as separate litter boxes because two litter boxes right next to each other count as one.
  • If you have a multi-story house, have litter boxes on each level.
  • Keep litter boxes away from food and water bowls, as well as the washer and dryer.
  • Always keep the litter box clean. Scoop the litter box at least once daily and completely empty and clean it with mild dishwashing liquid weekly.

2. Try to identify any new stressors in your cat's life. Once you have been able to do so, work to change or remove them. This can be done simply by blocking your cat's view of strange cats with curtains on the front window. However, keep in mind that the outside cats might be marking the outside of your door. In this case, you need to deter stray cats from coming near your front door or window, and you will have to clean those areas as well. Deterring cats from coming to your yard or front door can be done with motion activated deterrents. It can also help to initially confine your cat to a separate part of the house where she is more comfortable.

3. Enrich your cat's environment by providing more resting and hiding places, multiple feeding locations, scratching boxes and posts, and interactive toys. Meal times can be made more interesting by hiding small quantities of food around the house or using food dispensing toys to keep an indoor cat busy and less worried about things going on outside the home.

4. A feline facial pheromone, Feliway®, is another option that may help decrease the urine marking.


  • Always begin by consulting your veterinarian to rule out medical causes.
  • Check all the above guidelines as every cat and situation is different.
  • VERY IMPORTANT: Do not punish your cat for marking as this will not solve the problem; this can make your cat even more anxious.

This document created by the San Francisco SPCA with a grant from Maddie's Fund®