When Nicole Donnelly moved into a new home in Apex, North Carolina, last year and welcomed a dog into the family, her 14-year-old cat, Crawl the Warrior King (“Crawl,” for short), started spraying. After a few weeks, it cleared up, so she and her husband had assumed the rogue urination was simply Crawl’s response to the stress of the move and new four-legged brother. But in the fall, the behavior returned—and this time, the senior cat was not using the litter box, either.
They began to see puddles of urine around the house. What most concerned the Donnellys, however, is that the puddles didn’t smell like cat urine.
“I thought maybe it was the dog, but then I caught [Crawl] peeing by the couch and it barely smelled,” Nicole says.
Crawl’s veterinarian ran some tests and found an electrolyte imbalance and what they thought was early kidney failure, which can be a reason for an old cat peeing outside the litter box.
The Donnellys experience is common among owners of senior cats and it can be an incredibly stressful one. But if you know what to look for and how to manage the situation, you can make life more enjoyable for both you and your pet.
Common Reasons Why Your Senior Cat Is Not Using the Litter Box
Jackson Galaxy, a cat behavior and wellness expert, host of Animal Planet's “My Cat From Hell,” and a New York Times best-selling author, says that a sudden change in behavior—like an elderly cat pooping on the floor—can be a small hint of a larger issue.
“If your cat starts doing things [they] never did before, such as avoiding the litter box, go to the vet. Don’t bother Googling or asking friends—just go to the vet,” Galaxy says.
Litter box aversion is often linked to medical issues that may have gone unnoticed by the cat’s parent, according to Amy Martin, an animal behaviorist as well as owner and chief operator of Conscious Companion in Falls Church, Virginia.
“House soiling behavior is often misattributed to the cat trying to get back at the owner, but this is actually your senior cat’s calling card for help,” Martin says. “Cats may appear well despite underlying disease, compensating for it until they are no longer able to do so.”
A senior cat not using the litter box could be caused by a variety of medical issues, but common ones include:
- Degenerative joint disease (various forms of arthritis)
- Kidney disease
- Muscle atrophy or joint thickening
- Spondylosis deformans, a spinal condition that more commonly occurs in senior pets
- Decreased vision/blindness
- Urinary tract infections
- Lower urinary tract disease
- Thyroid issues
If your vet determines the litter box behavior may be the results of an underlying medical issue, they will work with you on the best course of treatment.
An Aging Body
When your old cat is peeing outside the litter box, it could simply mean that using a litter box is no longer an easy task for your cat.
“When a cat reaches his senior years … the litter box can become the Box of Doom to a senior cat with a stiff, achy body. What was once an easy hop in and out to do their business is now a painful and laborious experience for them,” Martin says.
Learn more about senior cat age and the signs your cat is becoming a senior.
Galaxy adds, “They think, Every time I go to that place, it hurts me, so I’m going to stop going there.”
Galaxy suggests looking for signs that moving about is difficult for your senior cat, like struggling to jump on and off of the couch or to use stairs. Keep detailed notes so you can share your observations with your cat’s vet.
In addition to medical issues that occur in senior cats, reduced tolerance for stress is also a common reason for a senior cat not using the litter box, Martin says.
“Older cats may be more sensitive to changes in the household, since their ability to adapt to unfamiliar situations begins to diminish with age,” she says.
Even with environmental stress, an elderly cat pooping on the floor—or urinating on the floor—is never done out of revenge or spite, Galaxy says. Rather, he adds, it’s more likely that the environmental stress is being manifested as physical distress.
How to Stop Your Old Cat from Peeing and Pooping Outside the Litter Box
It’s important to visit your vet to determine why your senior cat has stopped using their litter box. But in the meantime, you can make some adjustments around your home to help encourage more consistent litter box use.
Provide Easier Access to the Litter Box
The Donnellys realized Crawl had to go up and down a few stairs in order to get to his litter box in the garage, so they moved it inside to make it easier for him. They also started carrying Crawl to the litter box twice a day.
“Easier access to the litter box can be helpful for senior cats who are starting to have trouble getting up and down the couch or stairs,” Galaxy says. Elderly cats may have difficulty getting in and out of top-entry or high-sided litter boxes, so consider switching to a litter box with low sides, such as the Puppy Pan litter pan.
Galaxy says the amount of litter also can cause problems.
“Senior cats who are having a hard time pooping in the box could be having trouble because there is too much litter,” he says. “If they don’t have anything to grab onto while they’re squatting, it just makes life a little harder, especially if their arthritis is in their wrists or paws.”
Add More Litter Boxes
If you switch to a low-sided litter box and your old cat is still doing their business elsewhere, try placing more litter boxes around your home. Galaxy suggests putting them in places where your cat has recently peed or pooped. You also can try placing one on each floor of your home. For many senior cats, he says, it’s a matter of convenience, and simply adding more litter boxes can help alleviate the problem.
Experiment with Different Types of Litter
Another easy experiment is to try different types of litter. Galaxy’s go-to is unscented, fine litter—“as close to sand as you can get,” he says.
The key is to put the new litter in a new box, while keeping your cat’s current litter brand in his usual box.
“If you see your cat is gravitating to the new litter box, then you can start changing out the rest of the boxes,” Galaxy says.
Pay Attention to Your Cat’s Diet
As your cat ages, your vet may advocate for a different diet, as senior cats have different dietary needs than their younger selves did. Galaxy says adjusting the diet to fit your old cat’s new needs will help them function as they should.
“As cats get older, one of the most important things we can do for them is keep water running through their bodies,” Galaxy says. He suggests adding a few pet fountains, such as the Drinkwell 360 Pet Fountain, around the house to encourage them to drink more, as well as adding a little warm water to your cat’s food.
Read our guide to feeding your older cat.
Keep a Pleasant Environment
“Because senior cats are easily stressed, changes in their environment should be kept to a minimum and incorporated gradually,” Martin says. “Managing your senior cat’s environment effectively will help you maintain your lifelong bond with him.”
Giving your cat a quiet, darker place to retreat to—a “base camp”—is important, Galaxy says. He also suggests considering soothing supplements. A probiotic like VetriScience Probiotic Everyday Gastrointestinal Health Cat Chews can help balance cats’ digestive and immune systems, while an herbal solution like Jackson Galaxy Solutions Stress Stopper can have a calming effect on your cat.
Discover 5 signs of stress in cats and how you can help.
Keep Calm and Love Your Fur Baby
Ultimately, you know your senior cat better than anyone, so the best thing to do is listen to your gut. The Donnellys were happy they took Crawl to the vet as soon as they sensed something was wrong.
“If nothing else, it gave us a benchmark for where he was [health-wise],” Nicole says.
“Anytime you feel that gnawing sensation in you that all is not right, you should be validating or striking down your theory by going to the vet,” Galaxy says.