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Pee, Love, And Understanding

cheetah uring markingInappropriate elimination can be one of the most frustrating problems for a cat owner to encounter. Solving it may take tenacity, a variety of approaches and above all, compassion for the cat. This article introduces some useful solutions to dealing with inappropriate urination in cats.

I’d love to hear and share what works for you and your cats, so please log in and join the conversation.

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Inappropriate elimination is a common problem

Urination and defecation outside the litter box is reported as the most common problem that cat owners encounter. It’s cited as the number one reason people take their cats to shelters. However, surrendering a cat may be unnecessary. Often, inappropriate elimination is due to medical issues or stress, and may be made worse by putting the cat in a strange new place with new people and new routines.

There are a number of things people can do to help the cat and try to fix the problem. It’s useful to focus on three areas: the cat’s needs, his home environment and finally, the litter and litter box.

Consider the cat

Take the cat to the vet ASAP

Many medical conditions and anxiety-producing situations can cause a cat to urinate in inappropriate places. When a cat begins to urinate outside his box, the first action his human should take is getting him to the vet for an exam.  Results of blood and urine tests might point to a medical problem that has an easy solution, where giving the cat a little medication could be the end of the ordeal.

Some of the health problems that can cause cats to urinate outside the litter box:

“In short, any medical condition that interferes with a cat’s normal elimination behavior can lead to house soiling.” (from the American Association of Feline Practitioners and the Cornell Feline Health Center article “Feline Behavior Problems: House Soiling.”)
Try more than one tactic to address behavior problems

After the vet rules out medical issues, there are a number of things you can do to address the behavior.

Act fast

The longer the behavior continues, the more habitual and ingrained it will become, and the more difficult it will be to resolve.

Spay or neuter cats to head off this problem

Hormones greatly influence feline behavior and intact cats are more prone to use urine and feces to communicate with other animals, letting them know about their presence and reproductive status (among other things). Spaying or neutering a cat with this issue may solve the problem.

Cats that are indoor-only and neutered or spayed at an appropriate age are the least likely to mark their territory, so if your marking cat is not neutered or spayed, make an appointment with the vet to have this done as soon as possible.

Address marking behavior using appropriate solutions

Never punish a cat for doing this. Scolding, swatting or rubbing their noses in urine after they exhibit this behavior will create more anxiety, which is likely to make the behavior worse, not better. Scientists do not believe that cats make connections between crime and punishment in the same ways that other animals do. That said, there are actions you can take to deter cats from doing this.

What people generally call urine marking isn’t always due to a cat marking his territory. Inappropriate urination is basically a cat’s way of screaming. It’s the best way to get attention from their humans and other animals as they try to communicate something with us. Pain, fear, anxiety, jealousy, competition and frustration have all been linked to cats suddenly urinating outside their litter boxes.

To complicate matters some cats who are marking their territory don’t always have the typical “spraying” behavior: lifting their tail and quivering their back end as the urine sprays onto a vertical surface. Sometimes marking looks like other urination behavior – even among males – and results in a small puddle.

Snicklefritz notices intruders

If he is marking territory, he either sees someone moving in to his territory or he doesn’t have a big enough kingdom. If he marks near windows and doors, keep an eye out for new cats outside that he might be noticing and try one of these solutions:

  1. Deter the outside cat from coming into view. Add motion detectors that trigger sprinklers (like the Scarecrow), move or remove bird feeders and baths and plant rue in areas you want outside cats to avoid.
  2. Block your cat’s view of that area. Keep blinds or curtains closed or use a deterrent that feels uncomfortable on his paw pads.
  3. Provide more vertical space as described below.

Deter and redirect the cat’s attention

Below are some easy-to-implement ideas for deterring cats from peeing outside their litter boxes. Different deterrents work for different cats, due to individual preferences.

Solving this problem isn’t a linear process, so you’ll need to trust the instinct of those who know the individual cat pretty well – the cat’s veterinarian, behaviorist, communicator, or another human who lives with the cat – and start with the ideas that have the best chances of working for a particular cat.
If there are multiple cats living in the same area, there are a few easy methods of identifying which one is peeing outside the box. These are outlined in an article called “Feline Behavior Problems: House Soiling” written by the American Association of Feline Practitioners and the Cornell Feline Health Center.
Find and address the cause(s) of the anxiety

If the behavior is related to anxiety, try reducing the cat’s anxiety. Identifying the root cause and addressing it is the best way to put an end to the behavior.

For example, if there have been recent changes in the cat’s living environment, figure out how to make him more comfortable with the changes. Have you rearranged furniture recently? If so, consider moving it back to its old arrangement and make the changes more gradually. Has the cat’s daily routines – feeding times, social times with humans, location of favorite nap spots – been changed recently? If possible, try to make these kinds of changes very slowly.

If this is impractical or if a root cause can’t be determined, consider giving him supplements or medicines that help with anxiety. I’ve had great luck using a product called Rescue Remedy, although many people discredit flower essences because there have been few scientific studies on them. Of course veterinarians can prescribe anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals, too. As with any anti-anxiety supplement or medicine, there usually need to be additional, environmental solutions too.

Spend more quality time with the cat

Another approach to consider is spending more time with a stressed cat, particularly if the extra time is spent playing. Over-stimulation can be eased by extra physical activity. This is especially effective when a cat starts urinating outside the litter box around a time when his people changed their daily routines around the house. Adding play routines at the same times each day can reduce the cat’s anxiety by allowing him to predict and expect that something positive will happen.

Startle the cat when he’s caught in the act

Cats don’t like being started and they’ll avoid areas where there are frequently startling experiences. Use this to your advantage and startle the cat when you catch him in the act of peeing outside the box by doing something such as spraying him with water from a water gun or shaking a glass jar filled with popcorn kernels or coins.

Try positive reinforcement

When you catch the cat peeing inside the litter box, give him a treat. This has to be consistent to have the best odds of working.

Take a fresh look at the litter and litter boxes

Clean more often

Another set of causes that have easy solutions are a cat’s frustrations with the environment inside the litter box. A couple signs of this are peeing and pooping near the box but not in it, or perching on the edge trying to not touch the litter itself. These might indicate that he wants a box that is cleaner than he’s getting. (Trying to find two cats or people who agree on what constitutes a clean litter box is like trying to find two people who agree on what constitutes a clean kitchen. Our definitions vary.) If this describes your cat, try cleaning the box more frequently.

Professionals recommend scooping waste out of the box at least once per day.

Complete replacement of all litter in the box is also recommended, and the frequency of this activity varies depending on the litter used. Clay litters should be tossed and replaced every week. (Some non-clay litters can remain fresh for several weeks at a time and don’t need to be replaced nearly as often.)

Each time the litter is changed, clean the box thoroughly before filling it up again. Clean it with enzymatic cleaners formulated specifically to destroy cat urine odors (such as Petastic) or OxiClean. I also tried dozens of cleaners to get rid of the urine smells. I use non-toxic cleaners almost exclusively and I’m all for using non-toxic, natural, old school cleaning products. But I’m sorry to report that I have yet to find one that works really well on cat pee. Oxyclean is my choice for cleaning cat urine. I’ve tried the “natural” version of Oxyclean – peroxide and baking soda – and have found it to be less effective. So Oxyclean is one of the few toxic cleaning products found in my home.

It might also help to avoid using scented cleansers or detergents that can leave behind smells that cats dislike. And if a cat dislikes the smell of his litter box, he’s likely to find a different place to do his business.

Switch litters

Urinating and defecating outside the box can be signs that the cat doesn’t like the litter in his box. There are a lot of options for litter these days. Most cats dislike perfumed and scented litters, so consider switching to unscented litter of the same brand he’s already used to.

If he still seems to dislike the litter, try switching to a different litter material altogether. Litter texture can be very important to some cats.  Indoor cats tend to have softer paws and so may prefer finer textured litters or those made out of softer, less compacted materials. Outside cats may have tougher paws, be bigger and more muscled and so may prefer pelleted litters that can support their weight.

Consider adding more boxes

Most experts recommend having one more litter box than there are cats. So for three cats, provide four litter boxes.

Shy (or bullied) cats might do best by getting a litter box of their own, placed near their favorite resting places or placed in a room with a magnetic lock cat door (like the one made by CatWalk) that only he has access to.
One challenge for kittens and cats with dementia might be that they simply forget where the box is located.
Reevaluate the size of the litter box

Litter pans come in many different sizes. Professionals recommend using a litter box that is at least 1.5 times the length of the cat. If you have difficulty finding a box that’s big enough, search online for dog litter boxes. (Yes, they exist and they’re much bigger than cat boxes.)

Kittens and older cats can have difficulty getting into and out of the box. Finding urine and feces near the boxes but outside of them can be a sign of this issue. For these cats, look for a shallow box with lower sides that the one they’re currently missing.

Another option for people whose cats simply miss the box when they’re doing their business is to use large, plastic storage containers instead of traditional litter boxes. Just cut one of the four sides down to be about 4 inches off the ground and leave the other three sides tall, so litter and waste material doesn’t get tossed out of the box when the cats are burying their treasure.

Consider moving the box

See if there’s something about the location of the litter box(es) that bothers the cat.

Some cats don’t like litter boxes with lids or litter pans hidden under shelves or benches. Most cats prefer boxes to be in quiet areas, away from activity and noise. Some cats want to use boxes that give them a 360-degree view and that have more than one way out. (Cats don’t like to be cornered or ambushed by other cats, dogs or young humans.)

Try moving a litter box to the new targeted location

If he uses it consistently, gradually move the box back to the location where you want it to be – where it was originally. Some people report that they can move the box a few inches per day without upsetting the cat. Take it slow and as you’re moving it, pay close attention to his litter behavior. As soon as he stops using the box again, return the box back to the last spot where he used it regularly and wait a few days before starting to move it – very gradually – again.

Rethink the use of noisy, self-cleaning boxes

If you’re using a self-cleaning litter box, try going back to the old-fashioned, manual route.

Box liners bother the majority of cats

If you use litter liners, try going without one for a while to see if that makes a difference in his behavior.

Adjust the home environment

Try pheromones and calmatives

Using pheromone sprays and diffusers near targeted areas can be really effective. However, it can take up to a couple months of continuous use to begin seeing an effect. You might need to spray every location twice a day to make it most effective.

To save time, consider investing in a diffuser. Be sure to use the spray according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Add more cat-friendly territories to the house

The litter box is a resource that some cats will try to control. By adding more spaces for fun and resting, the importance of dominating the litter resource can be greatly diminished.

Make sure the cat has plenty of vertical space in his territory. Cats feel comfortable and secure when they can survey their domain from above, so include enough high perches in every room for each cat. Of course there are kitty condos and similar structures built specifically for cats, but it’s possible to add vertical space using less obtrusive approaches. For example, put blankets on a shelf or two of a bookcase in the living room, on top of a dresser in the bedroom, or on a filing cabinet in an office.

Add more food bowls

Place food dishes in the places where the cat is peeing. Very few cats will urinate or defecate near a stable food source. If he begins to associate a certain spot with food, he’ll probably stop peeing there. This will mean dividing up meals into a number of smaller portions and putting one portion in each of several dishes placed deliberately around the house.

Deterring cats from targeted areas when their misbehavior becomes habitual

Make the area uncomfortable for their feet.

The best deterrent schemes we have tried ourselves are those that require cats to walk on something that feels uncomfortable on their paw pads. Aluminum foil that has been crinkled up and then spread out as a bumpy (and someone sharp) surface is something that’s easy to come by.

Plastic doormats that look like artificial grass provide another effective, prickly surface.

Another creative surface to try are clear plastic mats that most people use under rolling chairs so the wheels run smoother over carpet. These mats have little plastic spikes on the underside. These can be turned these upside down – spiky side up – and placed in a cat’s favorite marking place. These mats are frequently given away by freecyclers so there’s no need to invest in a brand new one. There are also products designed specifically for this same purpose, such as the Scatmat.

Double sided sticky tape works well for this, too. Many pet stores sell wide double-sided tape intended to deter cats from scratching furniture.

Make the area uncomfortable for their noses.

Cats are very sensitive to certain smells, which can also be used to deter them from places where you don’t want them to spend time. Try placing a little citrus juice in a bowl near the targeted spot. Slices of fresh citrus also works, as do things that have a citrus smell such as Goo Gone or lemon fresh cleaning products.

Rubbing alcohol is another good odor aversion.

If you can tolerate the smell of moth balls, put some in a cloth or paper bag and place it in the place where the cat is peeing. (Moth balls are hazardous, though, so be certain that the cats won’t come into physical contact with them.)

Rue is almost an anti-catnip. Although I don’t smell anything when my nose gets close to it, most cats stay away from it. Like many people, I plant rue outside near bird feeders. I’m sure it could be planted in a pot indoors too.

Make the area impossible to access.

Some people have luck by simply blocking the cat’s access to the targeted area. Close doors to the room if there is door access or cover the area with furniture or plants. Something we’ve learned the hard way: use furniture that is easy to clean in case the cat just pees on the obstacle.

Find ways to cope until your solution is discovered

These tips might be useful to put into place as you try deterrents and/or wait for medication to kick in.

  • Put litter boxes in the cat’s chosen pee spots. It’s easier to clean urine out of a litter box than out of drywall and carpet.
  • Tape puppy training pads (a.k.a. pee pads or wee-wee pads) to the vertical surfaces where the cat’s peeing. These are easy to clean: simply untape and toss in the garbage.
  • Use a combination of a litter box and a training pad taped to vertical surfaces as described above, if necessary. Arrange the training pads so they drape into litter boxes and pee that isn’t get soaked up by the pad is very easy to clean.
  • If the cat is peeing on furniture, cover it with plastic. Waterproof mattress covers work well for this. Even better is rubberized flannel sheeting that many crib sheets are made out of. Large fabric stores make it easy to buy this by the yard. Rubberized flannel sheeting is also very easy to clean: just toss it in the washing machine.

What’s worked for you?

I’d love to hear and share what works for you and your cats. Please log in and join the conversation.

(Note: I do not accept payment for mentions or reviews of products and services that I write about on this site.)

Select sources

  • American Association of Feline Practitioners and the Cornell Feline Health Center. “Feline Behavior Problems: House Soiling.” Nov. 15, 2006. Aug 1, 2010.
  • The Cat Health Guide. “Male Cat Behavior.” Aug 1, 2010.
  • Church, Christine. House Cat: How to Keep Your Indoor Cat Sane and Sound. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005.
  • Duno, Steve. The Only Cat Book You’ll Ever Need. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2005.
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