There are many reasons why your cat may toilet in a place other than the litter tray. If it’s just a one off, consider if your cat could’ve been trapped in a room, unable to access the litter tray. If it’s a recurring situation then something has happened in your cat’s world to upset them. Cats are fastidious so this is no ‘dirty protest’ and it’s important not to scold him or her.
Position of the tray
Litter trays in a low-traffic area of the house allow cats to feel safe and not overlooked. You may have to think creatively about how to provide privacy. A well-positioned plant may create some private space, for example. Consider what is in the vicinity of the tray. Cats don’t like to have their food source near their toilet. A big, scary washing machine is bound to put your cat off.
If you don’t provide the peace and security your cat is looking for then they may find a nice, secluded corner for themselves, such as behind the TV set, in the bath, or behind the sofa. When bringing your cat or kitten home for the first time, try not to give them the full run of the house initially. This will help them get used to where their tray is, returning to it when allowed free roam, rather than trying out different spots around the house.
Most cats don’t like to share trays. Behaviourists recommend one litter tray per cat, in separate locations, plus one. Practically speaking, if you have two cats, that’s 3 trays.
Dirty litter tray
Cats are clean creatures and require the solids removing from their tray as soon as possible, and the whole tray changing at least every couple of days, if non-clumping, or the smell can put them off. It’s also important to use a non-scented cleaner. When getting your cat used to a tray, don’t be tempted to clean it too often. Having some scent will remind the cat where the appropriate toileting place is.
Type of litter and tray
Cats can be fussy characters, some preferring certain types of litter over others. Most prefer the grainy, sand-like litter as adults, as it’s more comfortable underfoot. Try different types until your cat is satisfied, making sure it’s not scented as this may put the cat off.
Some cats prefer covered trays as it makes them feel secure. Others feel trapped in a covered tray with only one exit. Again, it’s important to experiment. Most cats like a big tray. If it’s too small you may find your cat sits in the tray, and then does its business over the edge.
Age or illness
Older cats may struggle to get in and out of a tray. Look for a tray with low sides and position it so it’s easy to get in and out of. Your elderly cat may also be caught short, and just not make it in time. Try adding more trays around the house so there is always one nearby. Many older cats will be used to toileting outside, but as they get older prefer the comfort and safety of indoors. You may find yourself training your elderly cat to use a tray.
Cats are excellent at hiding pain or stress, so subtle behaviour signs such as changes in urinary habits should not be ignored, especially if they have any underlying health problems.
As well as addressing the source of stress, pheromone therapy may help. Pheromones are airborne hormones that can affect our pet’s behaviour. A synthetically manufactured pheromone such as Feliway can have a calming and soothing effect on cats.
Dealing with ‘accidents’
It’s important to clean any ‘accidents’ using biological washing powder (or a commercial pet cleaner) rather than regular cleaner, as this will eliminate the scent. If scent remains this will encourage the cat to go back to the same spot. You can use a temporary well-placed obstruction such as a table to physically obstruct your cat from going into that area until your cat has got the idea of where to ‘go’.
How is spraying different?
Urine spraying is like a calling card, signalling that this is their territory. They do this standing and often paddle their back legs, passing a small amount of urine backwards onto a vertical surface like curtains, shopping, or doors. It’s not totally certain why cats do this, although there may be a sexual reason. 90% of intact males and 95% of intact females show a significant decrease in spraying after castration/spaying. Neutered cats may spray if they are suffering with medical problems, behaviour problems or stress. As a result, it’s important to get your cat checked out by a vet in this case.