Skip to main content

Why you shouldn’t punish your cat for pooping outside the litter box

Dealing with a cat for pooping outside their box (Hint: Don't punish them)

a gray striped cat
Chunli Ju / Unsplash

Cats have their share of quirks — from staring at you to inviting themselves to Zoom calls. Generally, cats poop in the litter box, though. Sure, you have a box of poop in your living space (hence the tongue-in-cheek viral meme about only getting a cat if you want a box of crap in your home). You also have to clean the box. However, your regular cat regularly goes in the box, and little housebreaking is needed.

When a cat starts pooping outside the litter box, you may find yourself concerned, frustrated, and wondering how to punish a cat for pooping outside the litter box. However, you’ll want to avoid punishing your cat and instead take a compassionate and curious approach. Here’s why and what to do instead.

How to punish a cat for pooping outside the litter box

Cong H / Unsplash

Plot twist: Don’t punish a cat for pooping outside of the litter box. When a kitty starts having accidents, they are trying to tell you that something is up and they need your help solving the problem. These common reasons why cats poop outside of the litter box may help you shift your mindset from anger to concern and compassion:

  • Illness, ranging from GI upset after ingesting a nontoxic food that is still causing discomfort to cancer
  • Arthritis
  • Stress
  • Being asked to share a box with another cat
  • Unclean or smelly litter box
  • The litter box is too small
  • Habitual

How to stop a cat from pooping outside the litter box

a gray cat with orange eyes lying on a gray pillow in a dark space
Matheus Queiroz / Unsplash

Let’s start with what not to do when you notice your cat is pooping outside of the litter box. Avoid rubbing their nose in the waste and screaming “no” or scolding them. While your frustrations are valid, you risk stressing the cat out (which will only exacerbate the issue if stress is the trigger). Also, put yourself in your pet’s paws: Your cat may be unwell, and you likely wouldn’t want your nose rubbed in poop and to get yelled at when sick. Here’s what to do instead:

  • Ensure the box is clean. Life happens, and you may have forgotten to clean the box. Make the space tidy.
  • Call the vet. If the cat poops outside of the litter box repeatedly over the next few days, give the vet a ring to rule out underlying conditions.
  • Clean the area. Use a black light flashlight to ensure you get small, easy-to-miss traces of your cat’s pee and poop. Since cats have a keen sense of smell and use scent to mark territory, a thorough cleaning of the accident space is to prevent this behavior from becoming a habit.
  • Size matters. Your cat should be able to turn around in their box comfortably.
  • Be sure your cat has their own box. Have at least one box per cat.
  • Move the box. If your cat has mobility issues, you may need to make the box more accessible. Keep the box in a quiet spot away from the cat’s food and water.
  • Put obstacles in the way. Ensure the cat’s litter box is accessible, but block off the accident area with a gate or furniture to discourage repeat offenses.
  • Wave the white flag. Your cat may have decided they want to use the facilities in a specific spot. If possible, put the box there — at least for now.

Final thoughts

a large gray and white cat in a woven basket
Cats Coming / Pexels

Cats don’t poop outside of the litter box to spite us. Instead, they do so to raise a red flag that something is up, such as an underlying physical health condition or stress from a recent move. Avoid punishing your cat, such as by screaming at or crating them. This approach may only exacerbate the issue. Troubleshoot instead, such as calling the vet or moving the box to a quieter area.

Editors' Recommendations

BethAnn Mayer
Beth Ann's work has appeared on healthline.com and parents.com. In her spare time, you can find her running (either marathons…
Why do cats’ eyes dilate? What your pet’s extra big peepers mean
Your cat might have big eyes because of darkness, excitement, or surprise
A cat snuggling on a person's chest

Sometimes you come home to a dark house, and through the pitch black of your living room, you spy two big round orbs. While it might look Halloweeny at first glance, this is actually just how your cat sees things. Cat's eyes seem to glow at night because they reflect light, a lot more than ours do in any case. Just as with other animals, you will see a kitty's eyes dilate, but what is your cat's pupils meaning? We'll walk through what your pet's eyes tell you about their feelings and physical state and when you need to step in and get your cat to a vet.
What does it mean when cats' pupils get big?

Big eyes on your cat could mean a few different things, some physical and some emotional. Rarely, you may find that your cat has a larger issue since occasionally dilated pupils can be medical in nature (we'll go into this more later). Fortunately, it generally doesn't have to do with any underlying condition and instead has everything to do with the current situation. Here are some reasons your cat might have extra large peepers.
They're hunting
Cats love to hunt and frequently do so at dawn and dusk — both inside your home and out of it. Your pet might not literally be hunting for prey, but they could still enjoy stalking their toys or food. When they're in hunting mode, you may see extra big eyeballs staring at the object of their interest.
It's dark outside
When you spend time in a dark room or outside at night, you'll almost certainly notice your own pupils get bigger. That's because our eyes open up to let in more light and allow us to see better. It's the same with your cat but theirs tend to stand out a bit more in part because of the prior mentioned reflectivity.
Something surprised them
If you've ever heard of eyes widening with surprise, this is what we're talking about. From a physical perspective, your globes are attempting to take in everything as quickly as possible, because this surprise could mean a bad thing. A wild cat could get startled by a predator for example and need that info to find a way to safety.
They feel anxious
You may discover that your cat has eyes that seem to dilate under certain conditions or more frequently than usual. It might mean they're experiencing some anxiety and want to destress. Ensure there is somewhere in your house where they feel secure and that the day-to-day routine suits their needs.
They're aggressive
Sometimes you might see your cat's eyes turn to slits before they get into a fight with another cat because narrowing the opening can help them protect their sensitive ocular region. On the other hand, having wide-open eyes gives your feline more information about their opponent. Pay attention to other signs of aggression, which will help you determine if this is causing the widening.
When do dilated pupils indicate a medical issue?

Read more
These useful tips can help you support your senior cat’s health
You'll have to pay special attention as your kitty gets older
Senior cat sleeping on a cat tree perch

If you're fortunate, you'll get to watch your cat age and progress through her senior years. But senior cats have different health needs than younger ones do, so the way you care for your aging cat will need to change in different ways, as well.
With certain health conditions becoming more likely in older kitties, staying on top of your cat's wellness becomes extra important. This may mean some additional time and vigilance, as well as more frequent trips to the vet. When you provide your pet with top-quality care, you can support her health and comfort as she moves through her golden years.

At what age is a cat a senior?

Read more
Cats chirping at birds is totally normal (and here’s why you should encourage it)
This adorable hunting behavior is nothing to be concerned about
A tabby cat with yellow eyes stalks low to the ground

Have you ever spied on your cat looking out the window, crouched and zoned in as if they're getting ready to hunt? This behavior is common among cats -- they're predators, after all -- but some felines even chirp at birds, squirrels, and other small animals. What exactly does this mean? You may hear these chirps and chatters while your furry friend is playing, lounging around, or even in hunting mode, and it's only natural to have questions.
This one is for cat owners who wonder, "Why do cats chirp at birds?" We'll review the reasons why kitties make this sound at birds and other small animals, as well as what -- if anything -- you should do about it. Odds are, these answers will make you smile.

Why do cats chirp at birds?

Read more