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Inappropriate Urination in Cats

Posted Aug 02 2012 6:28am
Inappropriate urination is the most common behavioral problem reported by cat owners. Both male and female cats seem to exhibit this problem leading us away from the myth that only male intact cats will inappropriately urinate.

The majority of cats that are euthanized for behavioral problems are due to inappropriate urination.

The best way to solve the problem is to understand the underlying cause for this behavior. This article will explain the different types of urination problems, what is the trigger for inappropriate urination and how to stop the problem.


The first step in any elimination problem is to rule out an underlying medical condition. Some examples would be bladder or kidney problems, diabetes, arthritis and more. Consult with your veterinarian immediately before assuming it is a true behavioral problem. At minimum a physical exam and urinalysis should be performed.

It is important to differentiate between the different types of elimination problems, spraying and inappropriate elimination. Spraying is generally performed by the cat standing and spraying a stream of urine on a vertical surface such as a wall, windows, furniture, drapes, etc. This is a normal behavior performed by cats which serves to mark their territory. This is the reason the incidence of spraying in single cat households is only about 25% whereas in households with 10 or more cats the incidence increases to 100%.

Inappropriate urination generally is when the cat urinates in the normal squatting position, but not in the litterbox. The cat may urinate just outside the box, on the carpet in the living room, on your clothes, in the bathtub, on a specific rug, the list can be endless. My cat personally chose freshly cleaned laundry which I would leave lying around for days until she broke me of that bad habit. She also would immediately run over to a jacket I had worn for the day and thrown on the bed, squat and urinate on it in front of me. She obviously construed nothing wrong with this situation.

Cats may exhibit inappropriate urination for several reasons which for now we will loosely categorize in three divisions:

Location aversion or preference Substrate preference or aversion Marking territory

Location Aversion:
These may develop rapidly, or over an extended period of time. If the cat is startled while using the litterbox, an aversion to the location may ensue. Examples are placing the box next to noisy machinery such as the washer/dryer. Next to items with alarms or timers that may go off when kitty is in the box. Next to the television or stereo speakers. Cats also do not like to go to the bathroom next to where they eat or drink. Natural instincts dictate this is not healthy.

Cats generally prefer privacy. Placing the litterbox in a busy location may cause kitty to avoid using it there. If the cat has been startled or abused while using the box in a certain location, she may wish not to return. For example a dog or child harassing kitty while she is in the box. (Children are notorious for stalking cats and often can only catch them while in the act of going to the bathroom.) Or possibly another more dominant cat that ambushes the meeker cat while in the vulnerable position of trying to use the box. Another bad experience for kitty may have been the owner capturing her in the box in order to administer some unpleasant medication. It is also important not to catch your cat in the act of urinating outside the box, punish her and them shove her into the box. This will most likely reinforce the aversion to the box.

Cats readily associate bad experiences with the environment and will avoid that environment in the future. Covered boxes are preferred by some cats because they allow for extra privacy. Other cats may not like them because it may prevent them from getting into a comfortable position to eliminate. Sometimes it prevents them from being able to scratch around in the liter. Also, these boxes are great for humans because less odor escapes into the environment, but that means that it is more concentrated in the box which may repulse kitty. Frequent cleaning is necessary if this type of box is used.

Substrate Aversions and Preferences:
Most important—cats do not want to use a dirty box. It is repulsive to them to have to enter a non-clean space. If they step in a box and get urine or feces on their paws, they may not want to go back. Remember cats are fanatic about being clean. They especially don’t want to have to encounter other cat’s excrement. Just pretend you are Felix Unger and you have to enter an old, dirty, extensively used outhouse. You would probably think twice about going there and search out another spot. This is a mild form of what your cat feels.

Cats are also very sensitive to the smell of other cats and will especially avoid the excrement of an ill feline. If one cat is sick or on medications which may change the odor of their excrement, the other cats may avoid the box.

As stated before, cats exhibit strong association patterns (i.e. an displeasing situation will often be associated with something in the environment). An aversion to hard clay litter may develop after a declawing surgery. The cat finds it painful to scratch in the litter and associates this type of litter with pain. A soft finely textured litter would be the appropriate option. Some cats will develop an aversion to litter after suffering from a painful bout of cystitis (bladder inflammation/infection) or lower urinary tract disease such as a blocked urethra. Even gastrointestinal diseases can lead to an aversion sequela. Constipation or pain. Anal sac impaction. Also if kitty has diarrhea and soils her paws in the process of covering, she may associate it with the litter. Basically if kitty is uncomfortable in the box, or has an unpleasant experience, an aversion can develop.

Cats often dislike strong odors, especially citrus. Do not use strong smelling disinfectants which leave residual odors. Also many cats dislike the deodorant litters or strong smelling cedar chips.Some owners notice an aversion after baking soda has been added to the litter to reduce the odor. When the cat urinates on the baking soda, it fizzes and may be displeasing.

Generally large gravel size is less appealing to cats. The newer fine grained clumping litters and fine grained sands are usually the most appealing. Some lumbar yards carry playbox sand at a very inexpensive rate.

Some cats develop preferences for rugs after the owner has placed a rug in front of the cat box to catch the litter. The cat scratches the rug like the litter in the act of covering and soon develops a preference for the softer feel of the rug. Next kitty seeks out other rugs on which to eliminate. Some cats do not like the plastic tray liners. They get their nails caught or dislike the texture.

How do you know if kitty is starting to develop an aversion? Possible cues are eliminating just outside the box and not wanting to be in the box. Scratching outside the box but not inside. If your cat is perched precariously on the edge of the box, not wanting to touch a thing and leaps out as soon as finished, you can probably interpret those cues as not wanting to touch what is in there.

Note: Many cats do not cover their feces or urine. This is not an abnormal behavior. In the wild many cats leave their excrement out in the open in order to mark their territory.

Cat Marking Behavior:
Spraying is the most common form of this type of problem, but many cats will also urinate or defecate on a surface to mark their territory. Suspect a marking behavior if there has been any change in kitty’s social environment. For example a new pet in the household. Also a new baby or another person who detracts from kitty’s attention. Cats often urine mark when they are insecure about their environment.

Cats use olfactory cues (sense of smell ) as a major form of communication. There sense of smell is far more developed than humans (about a thousand times more sensitive).

Intact males and females in heat will often urine mark as part of their natural reproductive behavior. This is why it is extremely important to neuter all cats not specifically meant for breeding purposes.

Mostly spraying and urine marking is a social issue. It is the cat’s way of communicating its presence. A dominant bold cat may spray to mark his territory or threaten another cat, whereas a timid defensive feline may spray or urine mark in response to an aggressive cat or to try and mark a small territory for himself. The important point to remember is that it is not just the big confident Tom who is spraying to mark his territory. The passive threatened neutered cat also has a high propensity to spray or urine mark if he/she feels threatened.

Often cats may spray or urine mark in front of a window where they can see other cats in the neighborhood. They fell threatened because they can see another cat neighboring their turf. They may spray on the window or by a door. To deal with this problem try to block the cat’s view to the intruder(s). A border along the bottom of the window is often effective. Thoroughly clean all soiled areas. Also remove any bird feeders or other attractants which may bring outdoor cats to your home.

Remember, the more cats present in a household, the more likely there will be social problems and concomitant urine marking. If possible reduce the number of cats in the household. Obviously the more dominant cat will probably be the one who causes the most problems (i.e. The dominant cat sprays to announce his/her presence an to establish dominance and the more timid cat may mark in response to the dominant cat’s aggression).

Separating indoor cats is extremely helpful in controlling marking. Provide each cat a separate room with plenty of toys, food and of course an appropriate litter box. The cats may be allowed out together only when supervised 100%. Again using different toned bells on the cats will help you to know where they are at all times. Sometimes cats will get used to each other if they are not allowed to exhibit their aggressive behaviors and perpetuate social dominance behaviors. You may wish to provide treats to them when they coexist peacefully. An excellent bonding behavior between cats is grooming each other. Occasionally if cats are grooming themselves in close proximity, they will begin to groom each other. To facilitate the desire to groom, you can try wiping them down with a damp cloth. This will cause them to groom themselves excessively and they may even begin to groom each other.

Feliway is a product which you spray in the environment. It is a feline facial pheromone analogue and helps to impart a good feeling to the cat. It needs to be sprayed twice daily around prominent areas of the house and nose level to your cat. It can be very effective at reducing spraying.

Often times though these social hierarchies are difficult to overcome and the longer the inappropriate behaviors continue, the more difficult they are to break and keep under control. But don’t despair. Your veterinarian is equipped with several pharmacological therapies which may greatly help the situation with very few side effects. There have been many advances in behavioral pharmacology which make it a safe and easy addition to treatment.

Disclaimer: This website is not intended to replace professional consultation, diagnosis, or treatment by a licensed veterinarian. If you require any veterinary related advice, contact your veterinarian promptly. Information is exclusively of a general reference nature. Do not disregard veterinary advice or delay treatment as a result of accessing information at this site.

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