When dealing with a case of a cat that is eliminating in unacceptable places the first step is to get an accurate diagnosis so you and your veterinarian can start to consider any possible treatment options. A good history is essential to helping your veterinarian to understand why the cat prefers particular places for toileting.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video of your cat exhibiting the problem behavior or even just going about her normal routine is priceless to your veterinarian! Because owners often misinterpret their cat’s behavior, showing your veterinarian a video can be a great way to provide a more accurate example.

If your expensive rug or favorite shoes suddenly become Fluffy’s favorite toilet spot, consider these questions and share your answers with your veterinarian:

  • WHO does the cat live with (including other animals and people)? Who visits (again, both animals and people)? Who does the cat like and who causes a stressful reaction?
  • WHERE does the problem behaviour occur? Is the cat marking territory (usually occurs on vertical surfaces such as along walls)? Are there certain places it never occurs? Where are the litter trays positioned?
  • HOW often are the litter trays cleaned and with what? How often are trays replaced? Have you recently changed litter types/brands?
  • WHEN did the problem start? Have there been any other environmental changes that coincide with the onset of the problem?
  • WHY?
    Common medical conditions associated with elimination problems include:
  • Feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD, interstitial or sterile cystitis)
  • Bladder infection, stones or cancer
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • Problems with the urethra (the outflow tract from the bladder)
  • Gastrointestinal inflammation or parasites
  • Various spinal cord and brain diseases

If the problem is medical, then the primary problem must be treated in order for the behavior to stop or change.  If there doesn’t appear to be any medical reason for the problem, I turn my attention to environmental factors, which can include:

  • The type and location of the litter tray
  • Type of litter (and whether the type/brand of litter has recently changed)
  • The cat’s relationship with other pets and human family members
  • Recent changes or stressful events within the household (new baby, new pet, moving, etc.)
  • How often the litter tray is scooped and/or thoroughly cleaned
  • What products are used to clean the litter tray (using scented/perfumed cleaners can cause a cat to avoid using the tray).

Urine Marking / Territorial Anxiety

Cats use urination and defecation as a means of communication with other cats. By leaving their mark, they are telling other cats “I was here on this date at this time.” Other cats may then know this land has been claimed (or has not been recently claimed) and may act accordingly. Cats also mark by rubbing their faces on objects and by scratching vertically on surfaces.

Psychological stress, such as the presence of other cats, moving to a new home, prolonged or sudden absence of the owner (who is usually viewed as a parent by the pet cat), noisy construction outside, visiting humans or other animals, or even new furniture may create a need for a cat to reassert a territorial claim. Signs that this kind of stress is causing the problem might include some or all of the following:

  • Spraying on an upright surface.
  • Urinating in the litter box sometimes and sometimes urinating elsewhere (as opposed to never using the box at all).
  • Defecating in the cat box but urinating outside the box.
  • The cat (either male or female) is not neutered.
  • There has been a change at home leading the cat to feel a need to reassert territorial boundaries. Examples: a new pet has been added, a new roommate has been added, a recent move to a new home has occurred, remodeling has been done, the owner recently returned from a vacation, other neighborhood cats are visible or can be smelled in the yard.
  • The area marked is near a door or window.
  • The problem did not start until new furniture was added or the furniture was rearranged.
  • The cat appears to be responding to a punishment for another behavior.
  • The area marked involves the owner’s bed or laundry.
  • The area marked is the same each time.

Odor eliminators should be used in marked areas to discourage the cat’s tendency to return to these areas.

If any of these scenarios seem to fit, anti-anxiety medications may be tremendously helpful if the source of stress cannot be identified or cannot be altered.

Medications commonly used as anti-anxiety treatments for inappropriate urination include: Clomipramine, Fluoxetine, Buspar, Amitriptyline to name a few.  Some of these medications need at least 8 weeks of treatment to achieve results.  Sometimes this medications have to be given for the reminder of the cats life to control the behavior but sometimes they can be discontinued.   

There are several other products that help with anxiety are noteworthy, especially in situations where a cat is not amenable to taking medication or there is a medical condition that precludes medication.

  • Pheromone Sprays and Diffusers
    Feliway® products - These pheromones provide a message in the cat's own language

 proclaiming that the territory is secure and there is nothing to worry about. This confers a general calming effect and reduces the cat's interest in marking. Feliway is available as a spray to apply to marking surfaces or as a plug-in diffuser that spreads pheromones through the room. Diffusers last approximately one month.

  • Neutering is the first step in addressing this problem. Hormonal motivations to mark territory are potent and must be removed from the picture.
  • Dietary Supplements
    Alpha-casozepine is a natural protein contained in milk and is responsible for the calming features of drinking warm milk. It is available in pill form and it has also been formulated into calming diets. It is not particularly sedating but has anti-anxiety properties helpful in creating a more "zen" brain-chemistry. L-theonine is derived from green tea leaves and is available in tablet form for dogs and cats, also for anxiety management. Supplements such as these are compatible with the other therapies listed above so they may be used in combination with pheromones or with medications.

Litter Box Aversion/Environmental Factors

The following are clues that an inappropriate urination problem reflects litter box aversion.

  • Urination does not involve spraying vertical surfaces.
  • Both urination and defecation occur outside the litter box.
  • Two or more cats share a litter box (the current litter box recommendation is one box per cat plus one extra).
  • A new brand of litter is suddenly being used.
  • The box is covered. A covered bathroom area is highly unnatural for cats as they prefer better lighting for elimination and odors are concentrated in an enclosed area such as a covered box.
  • The box is not changed frequently.
  • The cat has had a negative experience in the box (the cat was captured from the box to receive medication or be disciplined).
  • The litter box is in a heavy household traffic area.
  • A puppy, dog or even a small child is bothering the cat in the box.
  • The litter box is located near a noisy appliance, such as a clothes dryer.
  • Another cat in the household is a bully and/ or controls access to resources such as food, rest areas, or the litter box in a multi-cat household.

Cats with litter box aversion frequently require re-training to the box. As a first step, the litter box situation must be made optimal as best as possible. If it is possible, an additional box should be provided. If there are multiple floors to the home, there should be a box on each level. The box should be 1.5 times the length of the cat (not including the tail) or the cat will feel cramped. If possible, the boxes should not be in the same location in the house so that the cat feels a sense of privacy and is not confronted by other cats who need to use it.

The box should not be in a high traffic area. In a single cat home, the cat may have experienced something unpleasant in association with the current litter box (molestation by a child or dog, loud noise etc.) and needs a new area. It is important not to keep the cat’s food in a location near the box as the cat will not want to use the feeding area as a toilet.

Obviously, any litter boxes should be scooped daily or even twice daily and kept as clean as possible. Clumping litter should be changed at least monthly and non-clumping litter should be changed twice weekly. The box should be washed with soapy water or water alone with no strong-smelling disinfectants that might be objectionable to the cat.

We have had good experience with a litter additive called Cat Attract, which is an herbal product designed to return the cat to the box. We recommend including this product in the regimen. If the problem is difficulty in keeping the box clean, a self-cleaning box may be helpful. On the other hand, some cats object to the moving parts so use your judgement.

A litter box length should be at least one and a half times the length of the cat (not including the tail) so that the cat will have adequate space to maneuver and cover excrement.

As the next step, another type of litter can be provided to see if the cat prefers a different brand or type. Signs that the cat does not like the litter include: sitting on the plastic lip of the litter box to eliminate, failure to dig a hole in the litter, and/or shaking the litter off the paws after exiting the box.

First, the carrier is in the housing area, then a small room such as a bathroom or playpen is allowed, next a large room is added etc. until the cat again has his usual access. Alternatively, the cat may be boarded in an animal hospital as housing in a small cage commonly brings the cat back to the litter box plus the cat can be observed for other problems that might be contributing to the elimination problem.

Many people waste time and effort on the wrong approach until they are at their wit's end and are considering euthanasia.   If your cat occasionally eliminates inappropriately, please inform your vet promptly.

Soiled Hair in Long-haired Breeds

Long-haired cats, such as Persians or Himalayans, are more prone to urine or stool soiling the hairs around the anus, tail, thighs, and even the paws. Segments of stool may adhere to their long hair and later fall off or be removed by the cat during grooming. Cats remove adhered feces by pulling out the soiled hair or by rubbing against the floor.

Punishment for fecal soiling is not effective and only confuses your pet and makes it more anxious. Instead, a professional groomer or veterinary technician can carefully trim the long hair beneath the tail, around the anus and genitals, and at the back of the thighs. This makes maintenance grooming much easier.

Elimination in Houseplant Pots

Cats have a natural instinct to void and dig in soil or sand. The litter box is a human invention and an artificial substitute. It is surprising that more cats do not eliminate in potted plants! To discourage your cat from eliminating inappropriately in your houseplant pots, devise ways to prevent access.

  • Suspend plants or place them on an elevated surface or in a room that is off limits to your cat.
  • If it is inconvenient to isolate the plant, cover the soil with wire mesh or aluminum foil. Leave this cover in place as long as your cat shows any interest in returning there.
  • Above all, keep the litter box especially clean so your cat has no reason to avoid it.
Kersti Seksel, BVSc (Hons), MRCVS MA (Hons), FACVSc, DACVB, DECAWBM
Wendy Brooks, DVM, DABVP
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