Question: My adult cat recently started urinating outside of the litter box! What can I do?
Urine house soiling or inappropriate elimination (urination outside of the litter box) should be promptly discussed with your veterinarian at an office visit. Your cat will get a thorough physical exam and a history will be recorded of where, when and how often the problem is occurring. A urine sample will be tested to help the vet determine if the problem is medical or behavioral.
Urine house soiling can be the result of medical problems involving the bladder. Bacterial infections, inflammation, crystals or bladder stones can all cause a cat to feel discomfort and the urge to urinate frequently and on anything. Other diseases like diabetes, kidney disease and hyperthyroidism can cause a profound increase in urine production. This will often result in the cat urinating outside of the box because they can’t get to the box soon enough or because the box gets soiled so quickly, they opt not to use it because it is wet and unappealing. Blood work may be needed along with a urine sample to help diagnose some of these problems, but many of these illness are treatable with medications or diet changes.
Urine house soiling that is caused by behavioral problems can be more challenging to treat. Many times the cause is multi-factorial and complex. The longer the duration of the problem, the more difficult it can be to modify your cat’s behavior and convince them to use the box again. Sadly, house soiling is one of the most common reasons for cats to be relinquished to shelters and pounds, so a prompt visit to the veterinarian for treatment options and advice is in order. Some cats do best with a combination of behavior modification (retraining) and medication (especially for anxiety or territorial problems).
Most behavioral problems can be separated in to three basic categories:
- Aversion– to the litter box or location,
- Substrate or location preference and
- Urine marking (spraying). Social factors like antagonistic relationships with other pets or family members and physical factors like the size, shape and location of the box both play a role in aversion.
For a cat with substrate preferences, accessible, soft and absorbent things like throw rugs, laundry and duffle bags can be tempting and preferable to whatever is being used in the litter box. Urine marking almost always happens on vertical surfaces (walls, curtains, furniture) and is related to territory and social dominance.
Your veterinarian can give you specific advice on behavior modification techniques that can help convince kitty to use the box again. As one behaviorist summarized it, “Create the ultimate litter box in an environment of plenty.” Below are some suggestions on how to do this.
- Location, location, location.
Most cats prefer a quiet, private place to eliminate. The box should be away from loud noises (furnaces, laundry appliances) and easy to get to. Remember that some senior cats may have difficulty getting to a box that is up or down a flight of stairs. Cats who have antagonistic relations with other pets should have a box available to them on every level of the house so that they don’t have to cross the “territory” of another pet to eliminate. Also, boxes enclosed in small spaces with only one doorway in or out can make a timid cat feel trapped. Try putting the box in a hallway if possible.
- Odor control is important.
Most cats do not like perfumed or overly dusty litter. The odors and dust can be irritating. Because their sense of smell is much more acute than ours, scented litters can be so overwhelming to their sensitive noses that they avoid the box altogether. Older plastic boxes can retain urine smells due to small cracks in the plastic. It may be best to replace the box with a new one rather than scrubbing with disinfectants that may also offend a cat’s nose.
- Covered litter box = Port-a-Jon!
Covered boxes certainly make it easier to live with cats, especially in smaller living areas. However, many times owners forget to scoop often if the box is not in plain view. Within 24 hours of no scooping, the odors trapped by the hood of the box can make kitty’s eyes water and their noses tingle. For cats living in a house with an antagonistic housemate, using a covered box is like using a Port-a-Jon in a war zone. They never know who is going to pounce on them when they exit! Removing the cover from kitty’s litter box is often the first step in modifying house soiling behavior.
- Litter type.
In nature, cats like to dig in something soft (gardens, mulch, grass) and then eliminate in the hole. Some litters are made of huge granules which may be uncomfortable for a cat to walk on or dig in. Most cats prefer a fine granular litter to large crystals or pellets. (Think barefoot on the beach vs barefoot on a gravel road). Also, use a high quality clumping litter. If the clumps crumble to bits every time you scoop, over time, the urine odor in the leftover litter can be overwhelming.
- Treat all soiled areas and reduce their availability.
Many cats who have shown an interest in soft, absorbent things will use them whenever they are available. Put laundry in the hamper, close the closet doors and hang the bath mats on the side of the tub. If carpeting has been soiled, use a high quality bio-enzymatic cleaner to reduce residual odors. It may help to cover these areas to make them inaccessible. Tin foil, tarps or a carpet runner cut to fit and turned upside down work well to deter return visits.
- Simple math.
In a household with a history of house soiling, you should have at least one box per cat plus one. (i.e. two cats in one household need 3 boxes). Do not place them side by side in one room especially in households with social tensions. (see number 1 above).
- Size matters!
Some big cats find it difficult to use a box that is the size of a dish pan. The length of the box should be 1½ times the length of the cat. If space allows, one of the best boxes to purchase is an under-the-bed storage container. These containers offer plenty of space for digging and are easy for most cats to enter and exit.
- Scoop often!
Most cats urinate three or four times a day and defecate daily or every other day. So, failing scooping daily is the equivalent of having to use an unflushed public toilet. Yuk! If you have a meticulous cat or multiple cats that all prefer a certain box, you may even have to scoop twice daily.
- Reduce social tension.
Providing multiple feeding and water stations in different places throughout the house can reduce social stress in households with multiple cats. Feline facial pheromones are associated with feelings of well-being and are commercially available from pet stores as sprays and room diffusers. Cats love the multilevel roosting that a cat tree, window seat or cat gym can provide. Even a well placed cardboard box improve relations. Try to spend time with each cat whether they enjoy petting or playing.
Your veterinarian is an excellent source of information regarding behavior modification and the possibility of medical intervention. Be sure to address any urine house soiling issues early. Patience, dedication and teamwork between cat owners and their veterinarians are key to resolving house soiling.
—Laurie J. Racey, DVM
Associate veterinarian, Country Cat