Inappropriate Urination in Cats

Inappropriate urination is the most common and least acceptable behavioural problem seen in cats. There are a variety of reasons that a cat may stop using its litter boxes, including both medical conditions and environmental changes. 

It is important to investigate a medical problem by having your cat examined by a veterinarian and possibly having some tests done. Medical causes of inappropriate urination can include diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, hyperthyroidism, urinary tract infections, urinary crystals or stones, constipation, senility, and orthopedic (affecting bones or joints) problems. These problems must be treated appropriately to improve the health of the cat and make it more likely that the cat will begin to use its litter box again.

If medical problems have been ruled out or cured, and the problem persists, then environmental modification or medication may be required. Sometimes the initiating cause of the problem can be identified. In a multiple cat home, there may be a territorial conflict between cats. There may be a stray cat outdoors that is influencing an indoor cat to mark its territory. Sometimes a dominant cat will even attack a subordinate cat in the litter box. Cats will often refuse to use a dirty litter box. Some cats prefer certain types of litter or other substrates to urinate on. They may not like the location of the litter box, may find it too small, or not like a covered box. Anything that causes stress, such as a move, different people, or new animals in the home can trigger the problem. If a cause can be detected and fixed that should be done. If the cat is still intact, it should be neutered as hormonal influences can motivate urine marking. Unfortunately, once a cat has started to spray it tends to become a learned behaviour and additional measures must be taken to resolve the problem. Anti-anxiety medication (buspirone, diazepam etc.) can often be beneficial but should be used in conjunction with a retraining program for the best success. A retraining program entails some basic tips, making the litter box more appealing, and discouraging the use of alternate sites.

Litter Box Retraining

Stop all punishment when the cat makes a mistake. Scolding, hitting, or rubbing the cat’s nose in it after the fact is counterproductive. This only serves to confuse and upset the cat making it more anxious and wary of you. If you do catch the cat in the act it is OK to spray it with a water bottle or shake a noise-maker to startle it, then take it to its litter box.

Keep the food and water dishes away from the litter box, ideally in a different room. Cats do not like to urinate or defecate near their food.

Confinement is often recommended until the cat is using its litter box consistently. Essentially, this means confining the cat to a restricted area with its litter box and only letting the cat out under supervision. It is important not to ignore the cat as being separated from family members can be stressful for the cat. A better approach is reverse confinement in which access is restricted to areas were inappropriate elimination is most harmful and areas that the cat has selected to eliminate. The longer the problem has been occurring, the longer it takes to solve so it is important to be patient and persistent. Another alternative to confinement at home is boarding the cat for a week or two. Often the cat will continue to use the litter box when it returns home. Set some time aside to interact with your pet, preferably for 15-20 minutes twice a day at a consistent time. This serves to strengthen the bond between owner and pet as well as reduce the cat’s stress. Suggested activities include playing with a toy, or string (be sure never to leave the cat unsupervised with string), petting, or grooming the cat.

Making the Litter Box More Inviting

  • Keep the litter box as clean as possible, scooping daily and changing litter weekly.
  • Invest in a bigger litter box, especially if the cat goes near the box. As a general rule, the litter box should be at least 1 1/2 times the length of the cat.
  • Provide one litter box per cat plus one extra.
  • Use open litter boxes rather than covered ones as many cats find them objectionable.
  • Don’t use litter box liners (plastic or newspaper).
  • Buy a new litter box if the current ones are over a year old. After repeated use, the odor penetrates the box and cannot be removed with cleaning.
  • Wash the litter box with warm soapy water only, rinsing and drying well after. Avoid strong smelling cleaning solutions or disinfectants.
  • Keep the litter box in a quiet place out of the main traffic areas in the house. Cats refuse to go in their litter boxes if they are disrupted.
  • Provide litter boxes in different locations throughout the house, especially if the territorial rivalry between cats may be at play.
  • Avoid scented or deodorized litter as cats often object to the odor. If litter box odor are a primary concern, a good alternative is dusting the bottom of the litter box with baking soda. Cats tend to prefer plain clay litter, clumping litter, sand, or soil. Try a few varieties of litter to find which your cat prefers.
  • When your cat does use the litter box, praise him/her to positively reinforce this good behaviour.

Discourage Elimination in Alternate Sites

  • If the cat seems to prefer a specific area, place a litter box in that site at least temporarily. Once the cat is using the litter box again, it can be gradually moved to a more acceptable location.
  • Alternately, feed the cat in the area it tends to eliminate. If it has several locations, try putting a food bowl at each.
  • Use the preferred area for an alternate purpose, such as a play area, or put a scratching post or catnip toy there.
  • Put something on the surface where the cat urinates. If it goes on the floor, plastic runners (to protect carpets) can be turned upside-down (ie with the pointed knobs up) to discourage the cat from walking in that area. Tin foil, wax paper, or plastic can be used against walls or on furniture as cats don’t like standing on these and are frightened by the sound of the urine hitting these surfaces. Double-sided tape can be used to secure these in place. Place a piece of furniture over the area.
  • Prevent access to the area by closing off the room if possible. Put a new litter box outside of the door to encourage use.
  • If the cat is eliminating in a bathtub or sink, fill it with about 5 cm of water. Keep water in it for at least 2 weeks after the cat has stopped the inappropriate behaviour.
  • If the cat is eliminating in potted plants, try to prevent access if possible by suspending or placing the plant on an elevated surface or moving them to a room that the cat is not permitted access to. If this is not possible, cover the soil with wire mesh or aluminum foil for at least a few weeks after the cat has stopped showing interest in the plant.
  • Be sure to clean the area where the cat has urinated thoroughly with an odor-neutralizing product. Be sure to clean baseboards and carpet edging as well as the floor or wall. Washing with water just spreads the odor around. Avoid cleaning products that contain ammonia, as this smells similar to urine and can encourage urine marking. Available odor-binding products include “Cat Off”, or “Eliminodor”. A dilution of one part Dettol to 10 parts water soaked into the area can also be effective in discouraging repeated use of an area.

Written By: Centennial Animal Hospital