Nothing is quite as distressing for an owner as having a cat that urinates or defecates around the house instead of in its litterbox. As long suffering as some owners are, there’s a limit to the amount of time some of them can, or will, put up with living in a house that smells like a feline latrine. Sad but true, “inappropriate” urination, as it is euphemistically called, is responsible for the annual relinquishment of many cats to shelters and pounds, which is often the equivalent of a death sentence. The tragedy is that the vast majority of problems of this nature are easily fixed if the cause is determined and appropriate measures are taken.
Inappropriate elimination is not one condition but rather a cluster of conditions, some medical, some related to normal biological functions, some with elimination preferences, and others related to anxiety and stress.
- Medical Causes of Inappropriate Elimination
- Medical conditions that cause increased thirst and urine production (e.g. kidney problems, diabetes).
- Intestinal problems (defecation concerns only)
Such medical problems should be ruled out first before embarking on other measures to rein in house soiling issues. Having your vet examine your cat and perform requisite laboratory tests (usually a urine test and blood test +/- fecal exam) will establish the presence, or not, of any contributing medical problem. Obviously, such conditions should be treated first and very often that’s the end of the problem.
- Hormonal Causes
Hormones are only a factor in unneutered cats. Intact males will often mark their up territory because they are driven to do so and females often mark when they are in heat. This annoying but totally normal behavior begins around puberty (5-8 months of age), is fueled by hormones. The way deal with the problem is simply to remove the source of the hormones by having the cat neutered or spayed. Not all cats stop urine marking following neutering, but most do – 90% of males and 95% of females will cease to mark following the surgery. Cats who continue to urine mark once hormones are out of the picture may have other issues (see below). Although hormone levels plummet rapidly after neutering, the behavioral “fix” is not always immediate and may take months. No one knows for sure why this is but it could be because old habits die hard.
- House Soiling Problems (aka. Litterbox problems).
Although technically all elimination problems are “house soiling problems,” this term tends to be reserved for litterbox problems (i.e. conditions in which the cat simply chooses not to use the litter box for any one of a variety of reasons and selects an alternative location to eliminate urine, feces, or both). Typically, the cat refuses to use its litter box for one or both functions and instead selects a quiet, carpet-clad spot behind a chair or “goes” on a throw rug. This behavior is not a problem for the cat, only the owner.
Reasons why cats dislike their litterbox facilities are as follows:
- Too few boxes
- Inappropriately positioned boxes (in a damp cellar, in a high traffic area of the home, next to a washing machine or dryer)
- Hooded box (many cats dislike hoods)
- Presence of box liners (some cats are intimidated by plastic liners)
- Plastic underlay (convenient for the owner but not by the cat)
- Box too dirty (not scooped often enough)
- Box too clean (cleaned with harsh smelling chemicals or perfumed soaps)
- Unappreciated (wrong) type of litter
- Litter pan not filled deep enough
- Animosity between cats in the house (competition/guarding of litter boxes)
- Difficulty getting into/out of the box. Especially likely in elderly, arthritic cats.
- Ensure enough litter boxes for the cat(s). The correct formula is N+1 where N = the number of cats in the house.
- Position boxes appropriately. Space them out. Three boxes next to each other is only like one large box. There should be one litter box on each level of the house.
- Removing litter box hoods, litter box liners, and plastic underlay
- Change the type of litter. Most cats prefer unscented scoopable sand-like litters. This may be because they don’t smell bad to the cat and are more comfortable to walk upon. Cats’ desert ancestors used sand for elimination and it’s always good to go with the flow of nature (so to speak)
- Make sure litter boxes are scooped daily. Non-scoopable granular clay litter should be replaced weekly. Scoopable litter should be changed every 2-3 weeks while there is an ongoing problem.
- Clean boxes under warm running water. Do not clean with harsh chemicals or perfumed dish soap. Faint residual odor of urine is not the end of the world and may help the cat orientate to the box.
- Litter boxes should be filled to a depth of 4 inches and maintained at that depth (to make digging in the litter easier and prevent “pancaking” of urine clumps on the bottom of the box).
- Try to resolve feuding between cats and meantime make the environment more “user friendly” for the pariah. E.g put a litter box in a top corner bedroom so that the pariah doesn’t have to “run the gauntlet” every time nature calls.
- If it seems tricky for an older cat to climb in and out of the litter box, a shallower litter box can be used or the side of the box can be cut out to provide easier access
As important as it is to optimize litter box arrangements, a successful outcome is unlikely if the soiled areas are not properly cleaned. Urine and feces contain pheromones [natural substances that act as chemical signals] which act as attractants for further soiling activities. It is as if the cat has set up an olfactory sign saying “rest room here.” If these faint odors are not completely eliminated, the cat will be attracted back to the site as surely as a heat-seeking missile to a source of heat. It is not effective to simply mask the odors. You can’t fool the cat’s superior sense of smell. Instead, the odors should be eliminated completely using a specific “odor neutralizers.” Some of the available products are bacterial, some enzymatic, and some chemical. If biological products are to be used it is as well to make sure that they is fresh because some are light and heat sensitive and lose their potency over time. They should be used in accord with the manufacturer’s directions and usually take several hours to work. During this time the wettened material should not be allowed to dry out. Sometimes it helps to put a damp tea towel over the treated area to keep it from drying out too quickly. Because of the necessity for this all this fuss, I prefer the chemical approach with a product like Zero Odor. Either way, it is important to neutralize the odor of all contaminated areas. A “black light” can be used in a darkened room to identify areas soiled with urine as they will fluoresce under this light.
The other form of inappropriate elimination is urine (and sometimes fecal) marking. The give away here is the location of the deposits. Typically, cats that mark with urine do so from the standing position, that is, they spray, hitting targets that are vertically oriented, such as drapes or walls, but this is certainly not always the case. Many a urine mark has been made from the squatting posture with the deposition of urine onto a horizontal surface. If hormonally-driven causes of urine marking have been eliminated (see above), the most likely reason for this behavior is environmental stress or anxiety of some kind. It is as if some prevailing social (or anti-social) pressure makes the cat insecure and this feeling makes it feel the need to label selected areas with a personal “mark of Zorro”.
Areas frequently “hit” include:
Furniture (esp. desk tops)
Electrical equipment (computers, stereos)
People’s belongings (sometimes people themselves!)
New things in the environment (esp. paper shopping bags)
If a few targets such as the ones above have been marked you can be fairly sure that the function of elimination is marking.
Treatment of urine marking
1. Eliminate stresses and stressors, if possible. Frequently, the source of stress cannot be identified with any certainty. Even if it can, it is not always easy to address. Basically, stressors can be subdivided into either:
- a) Intramural causes (within the four walls of the house)
- – Infighting between cats
- – Anxiety related to the comings and goings of people
- – New construction
- b) Extramural (from outside).
- Unwelcome activity of or visits from outside cats Incursions by wildlife
If anything can be done to lessen the impact of these anxiety-promoting circumstances then it should be done. For example, squabbling cats can be separated and then reintroduced under more pleasant circumstances, cats can be desensitized to people who frighten them, and outdoor animals (including cats) can be discouraged from visiting by making the yard aversive. Various citrus-based products or even blood meal can be used to advantage here.
2. Again, thorough cleaning of urine-marked areas with an odor neutralizer is necessary for reasons outlined above.
3. Anti-anxiety medication. NOT to be used without proper veterinary prescription and oversight. Medications that might help, in order of effectiveness, are:
While all these medications are effective in some cases, side effects, technical considerations, and expense can be limiting factors. Fluoxetine and clomipramine may cause social withdrawal and/or sedation. Buspirone is not a problem in this respect but can cause post-pill excitement in some cats. Alprazolam increases cats’ appetite and can make them wobbly on their legs. There is no perfect medication for treating feline urine marking but between the various choices of medicines, your vet can probably find a medication that works for your cat without too many associated problems.
While inappropriate urination literally used to be a killer of a problem that vets found extremely difficult to treat, clinical knowledge has increased to the point where no cat need loose its life as a result of this state of affairs. Medical problems can largely be addressed or contained. Litter box problems are easily fixed. Even the anxiety-based problems can now be treated thanks to modern medicine and a better understanding of their cause.