We Asked Jackson Galaxy: Why Is My Cat Pooping Outside the Litter Box?

cats pooping outside little box cat

A common frustration among cat owners is the litter box. Specifically, why do cats poop outside the litter box? Even more specifically, what can be done about the messiest, smelliest part of cat ownership life? Jackson Galaxy, a world-renowned cat behavior and wellness expert, gave us the scoop on how to figure out why your cat is pooping (or peeing!) outside the litter box. Honestly, Jackson Galaxy completely changed the way we view litter boxes and our relationship with them. Get ready to have your mind blown.

Take a moment to appreciate litter boxes

In his newest book, Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat, Galaxy says, “The fact that our cats go in a box at all, and they go in it every single day, is a gift from the cat gods.” Litter wasn’t invented until 1947. Until then, and for thousands of years before, felines were able to poop and pee outdoors wherever they wanted. It’s not instinct for wild cats to stick to one highly concentrated spot. When humans decided kitties must use a plastic bin full of kitty litter inside our houses, cats glared at us but said, “Fine.” We should thank them for this by making the experience as positive as possible.

Why is my cat pooping outside the litter box?

There’s always a reason your cat has decided to surprise you with an unexpected mess. To determine why, you need to play detective. Galaxy acknowledges it’s hard to remove emotion from the equation when there’s pee in your bed, but you have to stand back and observe. “Pretend that you're a detective or a journalist and you're just coming in there to get the story. What are the facts here? What are the patterns? I think folks tend to use the word ‘random’ absolutely too much. In a cat’s world, very little is random,” he says.

Your cat’s routine may have changed

Consider any recent changes to your cat’s routine or environment. Things like new babies, the addition or absence of a family member (including other pets), a change in litter, a fresh box, moving and so much more can disrupt your cat’s litter box routine. Go through every possibility. What changed around the time your cat started avoiding the litter box?

Your cat might have undiagnosed health issues

Galaxy says “people should be running to the vet” if their cat is pooping outside the litter box. It’s time for what he calls a “tip to tail” check-up to rule out any health issues. “I've seen cats act out in that way with an abscessed tooth. I've seen them act out that way from an ear infection,” he adds. “Of course, with a UTI, or any kind of disease, there’s something physically that's putting them off.” In fact, if your cat has started doing anything strange (refusing to eat, exhibiting suddenly shy behavior), and nothing has changed in your household, head to the vet.

Your cat might have arthritis

Senior cats with bad joints may find it difficult to climb into a litter box or grip the litter (especially if you’re piling it too high). If you adopted a cat that had been declawed, their claws may become extra sensitive as they age. They’ll start preferring soft, accessible spots to tricky litter boxes.

You’re cleaning the litter box too often

Yes, folks, it’s possible! You can keep the litter box too clean. Definitely scoop daily to prevent the box from becoming too dirty (which could also deter your cat from using it). But there is no need to dump out the litter and wash the box daily, or even weekly. Confident, secure cats need to know they own their territory. A huge part of this is scent. Sanitizing a litter box every week threatens your cat’s sense of security in their environment.

The litter smells bad (to your cat)

Scented litter can overwhelm a cat's sensitive nose. The feline nose has more than 200 million odor sensors (humans have about 5 million). A fruity or floral scent in their litter can easily turn them off to using the box. Plus, disguising their own scent with chemicals reduces a litter box's impact as a territorial scent marker. Again, cats need to smell themselves to feel safe. Unscented litter is best and there are tons of options with odor elimination that don't toss in extra smells. Go back to playing detective and try a few types of litter to see which your cat prefers.

The cover on your litter box is scary

Galaxy says covering a litter box could unintentionally cause what’s called an “ambush zone.” It’s a space a cat may feel trapped, especially if there are other cats or pets in the home. These plastic covers can also cause static shocks for long-haired cats. Felines don’t need privacy like humans do. If your cat kicks litter around after going, opt for a box with tall sides and an open top instead.

You don’t have enough strategically placed boxes

The general rule is one litter box per cat, plus one more. Galaxy also advocates for placing these in several areas around your house, not in one hidden spot your cat has to really work to find. “I'm not trying to be harsh about this at all, but you made your bed. You have a cat… and part of having cats is having litter boxes, and part of having litter boxes is having enough of them in accessible places,” he says. If you have one cat, try placing at least two boxes in two different locations.   

Your electronic litter box is the culprit

“I am not a fan of anything that electrifies the litter box experience,” Galaxy says. As someone who owns a robotic litter box, I wasn’t psyched about this take. First, things can go wrong. A malfunction is rare, but if it does happen, you’ve inadvertently created a negative association between the litter box and your cat, which is very hard to fix. Second, they’re noisy. Cats who are sensitive to sound may despise using a robotic litter box because it scares them, even if it doesn’t run until they are out of the room. Galaxy also adds that the act of scooping your cat’s poop helps you keep tabs on their health. “You wanna know what's coming out of your cat,” he says.” Anybody who has a dog is walking around with a baggie on their hand, picking up turds off the street! You see if your dog has diarrhea. You don't know that when [your cat] goes into a little electrified hole.” Touché. While Galaxy makes a strong case against robotic boxes, my cats actually seem to really like theirs. But this is definitely something I will keep in mind if I start finding special deliveries around my house.

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Freelance Writer

Sarah Ashley is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She has covered pets for PureWow for six years and tackles everything from dog training tips to the best litter boxes. Her...