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 two divisions.
1- Location aversion or preference 2- Substrate preference
or aversion 3- marking territory.
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 & 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 dont
want to have to encounter other cats 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
NOTE: Some cats may
urinate in the box where other cats have gone in order
to cover the previous felines odor.
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
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 of urine. This
is not an abnormal behavior. In the wild many cats leave
their excrement out in the open in order to mark their
How to Deal with Aversions:
As before stated, be sure to first rule out any underlying
medical condition. Even a subtle medical disorder could
be affecting your cats urination habits.
Most important provide a clean box! Even though
your cat may not be acting like the neat, cleanly kitty
you generally perceive because she is urinating outside
of her box, she most definitely still is. If the litterbox
is dirty, she probably will not want to use it. Different
cats tolerate varying levels of cleanliness. For some
even the minutest amount of urine or feces will send her
delicate little paws elsewhere to relieve herself. Ick!
You want me to go in there? For these fastidious types
you will need to scoop daily, if not more.
Number of Boxes: The general
rule of thumb for the number of litter boxes is one box
per cat, plus an extra box. Translated, this means one
cat should have two boxes, two cats should have three
boxes, and so forth. If it is possible to have two boxes
per cat, even better.
Many aversions/preferences develop when the litter box
is extremely dirty and kitty seeks elsewhere to eliminate
such as bedding, rugs, carpet, newspapers, etc. In the
process kitty may learn to prefer the softer material
and chose it over even a clean box.
If this has occurred, you may have to place some old rags,
torn up paper towels or newspapers in the box. These will
have to be changed several times a day since they provide
minimal absorbency and odor control. Gradually start adding
soft litter to the box until all the other materials are
replaced by litter.
While treating any inappropriate elimination problem,
it may be necessary to isolate the cat in a small room
where no previous housesoiling has occurred. Provide kitty
with plenty of toys, love and attention in this room.
Let her out only when 100% supervision is provided. You
may place a bell on her collar to monitor where she is
at all times. Gradually you will start her on new habits
and hopefully preferences. The amount of time she is isolated
is proportional to the length of the inappropriate behavior,
anywhere from 1-4 weeks is usually sufficient.
If you are using a clumping litter, use anywhere from
an inch to three inches of litter, depending on your cats
preference for depth. Use a scoop with slots to retrieve
the clump. Scoop frequently because the clumps will break
down with agitation and will be harder to remove. If the
waste products are removed regularly, the box will probably
only need to be washed every week.
Cleaning the Box:
Do not use ammonia based cleansers as these have the same
type of odor to a cat as old urine. It is also best to
avoid heavily scented cleaners, as these may be aversive
to kitty. I use Ivory soap to clean, followed by
a dilute solution of bleach ( 1part bleach to 9 parts
water) and then thoroughly rinse and dry. Bleach is one
of the best disinfectants around and is cheap. Bleach
kills bacteria, viruses and fungus. Just be sure to rinse
well because remember that whatever kitty gets on her
paws is going to go in her mouth because of her grooming
If you are using clay or other types of litter, use a
specifically designated spoon or scoop to remove the soiled
litter. The important item to remove is the urine because
this is what causes most of the odor. Ideally use only
a small amount of this type of litter so you can get to
the bottom of the box and remove all of it. If it is allowed
to remain in the bottom it will cause an odor. Cats olfactory
senses (sense of smell) are much keener than ours. If
you can smell it, it is likely blowing her away. Replace
small amounts of litter as needed. If you are able to
remove all soiled areas, them the box will probably only
require washing every 3-4 days. If kitty prefers a deeper
amount of liter to dig in, try using the clumpable types
of litters. If kitty prefers deeper non clumping litters
the box should be washed at minimum every other day as
you probably will have urine accumulation in the bottom
of the box.
It is important to deal with inappropriate urination problems
immediately. The longer the behavior persists, the more
difficult it is to change. Even better is if you can spot
a potential elimination problem before it becomes a real
problem(as discussed above).
It is often difficult to distinguish between location
and substrate aversions. If Kittys environment does
not include any of the items mentioned under location
aversions, try offering a variety of different types of
litters at different depths. If kitty resumes using the
box in the same location with a different material then
you will know she exhibits specific preferences. Again,
most cats prefer the softer, finer grained materials such
as sand and the newer clumping litters. Remember though,
if kitty had a bad experience with one of these types
of litters, i.e. soiled her paws with diarrhea, she may
associate the experience with the litter and avoid it
in the future. Change to a different textured litter in
this case. For example clay litter. There are also litters
made out of different substances examples Yesterdays
News is made from recycled newspapers.
Cats with long fine hair (i.e. Persians) seem to be more
particular to substrate preferences.
If kitty is still not using the box, provide a variety
of different litters at a variety of locations. Use different
types of boxes with different depths and types of litters.
Provide different types of boxes shallow, deep,
wide open , covered or partially covered. Also provide
different depths of litter.
If you have several cats with one being the definite
dominant cat and one the meeker weaker cat, the latter
may develop a location preference for the back of your
closet. This kitty will probably require some privacy.
Maybe a screen or a covered box. Provide this cat with
a safe place to eliminate. You may need to place a box
in the closet. The problem is the aggressor may stalk
kitty and corner her in the closet. Sometimes placing
a bell on the aggressors collar will alert kitty
the bully is near. Always remember to use breakaway collars
on cats. There are also electronic eye devices which can
be used allowing only the cat wearing the proper collar
to be recognized and allowed into an area.
The softer finer grained litters are usually much preferred
by cats, as often evidenced by their increased desire
to scratch around in the box, but may be a nuisance to
the owner because of the tracking problems around the
house. Many owners place a rug around the box, but I recommend
a rougher surface. Kitty may learn to prefer the softer
surrounding rug even to the fine grained litter. The plastic
doormats or ones that are crisscrossed provide excellent
cleaning with little desire for scratching. If kitty does
not like to cross these to get to the box, try a straw
mat. There are some sisal rope mats available to place
around the box. These may actually help attract kitty
to the box since they love to scratch sisal materials.
Location Preference:(NOTE: Cats will usually
only have 1 or a few location preferences.)
If Kitty is exhibiting a definite location preference
and continually urinates in a particular location, there
are several ways to solve this problem. First you must
thoroughly clean the soiled area. (See following article
on this subject.) You may then need to place something
over the preferred area, such as furniture or maybe her
food and water bowels since many cats do not want to eliminate
where they eat. If kitty comes back and urinates next
to the obstacles, try placing a litter box in the area
where she is eliminating. If she uses the box, dont
make the mistake of moving it immediately. Leave the box
in the exact position for 1-2 weeks (depending on the
length of time the inappropriate behavior has been occurring).
Then begin to gradually move the box 1 inch per day or
every other day to a more appropriate spot. You may even
need to move it slower than this. It may seem like a small
distance to you but kitty perceives it as much more.
If kitty urinates next to the box, try a different type
of litter. If the box is now used, follow the above protocol.
If you need to not have the box in the middle of the
room for an occasion, then lock kitty in a room in which
no inappropriate elimination has previously occurred.
Supply her with her favorite box and litter, plenty of
toys, food, water and love. When possible to return to
the previous decor, kitty may be released.
Punishment is not an effective solution. If kitty is
caught on the act and physically punished and then placed
in the litter box a more powerful aversion is likely to
ensue. The only acceptable type of correction would be
to startle kitty when she is about to perform the act.
Either a whistle or water spray bottle set on stream may
be employed at the beginning of the behavior, i.e. when
she is sniffing or scratching, but not during the behavior
(squatting and urinating) it is then too late to have
the desired effect.
Whereas punishment is not effective in cats, rewards
are sometimes helpful. When kitty exhibits the appropriate
behaviors, reward her with treats and praise.
If there are several locations, place litter boxes or
move furniture or place food and water bowels. If the
location is in a specific room, restrict access to that
room unless supervised. Placing a bell on the cats
collar is an excellent way to know where she is at all
times. Be sure to use the breakaway collars.
Remember one basic rule of feline behavior. Cats cant
be trained to use the litter box. They can only choose
to prefer a litterbox.
If kitty is choosing a potted plant for urination there
are several steps to stop this behavior. First, make the
plant unappealing. Place wire mesh or aluminum foil over
the soil. Sometimes large stones are effective as well.
In addition you may need to use potting soil in the litterbox
to get kitty to use the box. Gradually start replacing
the soil with the preferred litter. If kitty urinates
next to the plant or still attempts to use the plant,
then place the box nest to the plant with potting soil.
Gradually replace the soil with litter and then follow
the above protocol of slowly moving the box to a more
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 kittys social environment.
For example a new pet in the household. Also a new baby
or another person who detracts from kittys attention.
Cats often urine mark when they are insecure about their
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 cats 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 cats
view to the intruder(s). A border along the bottom of
the window is often effective. Thoroughly clean all soiled
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 cats 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
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 dont 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.