House soiling is the most common behavior problem reported by cat owners. The solution to your cat’s problem will depend on the underlying causes of their behavior.
Why do cats eliminate outside the litter box?
Your cat may have litter box trouble for any number of reasons, including medical problems, an aversion to the litter box, or a preference for urinating or defecating in places outside the box.
Any medical condition that interferes with a cat’s normal urination or defecation behavior can cause litter box problems. Inflammation of the urinary tract, for instance, can make urinating painful and increase the frequency and urgency of urination. These experiences can cause a cat to urinate or defecate outside the litter box, particularly if he associates the litter box with pain. Kidney and thyroid diseases as well as diabetes mellitus are also possible culprits in a failure to use the litter box, as they often lead a cat to drink more and urinate more frequently. Similarly, digestive tract problems may make it painful for a cat to defecate, increase the frequency or urgency, and decrease a cat’s control over defecation. Finally, age-related diseases that interfere with a cat’s mobility or with his cognitive functions can influence his ability to get to the litter box in time.
Litter Box Aversions
An aversion to the litter box can also lead to house soiling. It could be the box, the litter, the location of the box, or all three that your cat finds unsavory.
A cat with an aversion to her litter box will usually eliminate on a variety of surfaces. You may find puddles of urine or feces on soft surfaces like carpets, beds, or clothing, or on hard surfaces like tile floors or bathtubs. Depending on how much your cat wants to avoid the litter box, he may continue to use it, but only inconsistently.
Inappropriate Site Preferences
Your cat may dislike something about your litter box, but it’s also possible he or she just prefers eliminating in another spot. In this case, the cat may have a preference for a type of surface or for a location. Cats that prefer certain surfaces usually stick with that choice. For example, a cat that finds it pleasing to eliminate on soft surfaces like clothing or carpets would be unlikely to use tile floors. Cats that prefer an alternate location often have an aversion to the current litter box location.
As with aversions, cats that prefer certain surfaces or locations may continue to use the litter box inconsistently. One cause for house soiling may lead to another. For example, a cat with a urinary tract disorder that can’t make it to the litter box in time will urinate wherever she is. She may then develop a preference for the new site and continue to eliminate there.
When your cat rubs against your leg with his face, or scratches his scratching post, he is also depositing his scent from the glands in his cheeks and paws. Another equally normal but less pleasant marking behavior is urine spraying - the deposition of small amounts of urine around a given area. By spraying small amounts of urine around an area, a cat announces his or her presence, establishes or maintains territorial boundaries, or advertises that he or she is ready to mate.
Cats usually spray on vertical surfaces, like the backs of chairs or walls. A spraying cat will stand, lift its tail and quiver, then spray small puddles of urine in several consistent locations (see Figure 1). Cats don’t squat to spray, as they do to urinate. Cats that spray are usually unneutered males and, to a lesser extent, unspayed females, but 10% of neutered males and 5% of neutered females also spray. In households with more than seven cats, it’s likely that one or more of the cats will spray.
Cats may spray when they perceive a threat to their territory, such as when a new cat enters the home or when outside cats are nearby. Alternatively, cats may spray out of frustration with their circumstances, including such conditions as restrictive diets or insufficient playtime (a reaction that owners often misperceive as revenge), or in response to the smell of new furniture and carpet.
What you can do to stop the litter box problems
First, address the problem promptly. The longer the behavior persists, the more likely it is to become a habit.
Second, if you have more than one cat, identify the culprit. You may need to separate them to find the responsible party. Alternatively, your veterinarian can provide you with a special non-toxic stain given by mouth that will show up in the urine. In cases of defecation outside the box, you can feed one cat small pieces (about twice the size of a sesame seed) of a brightly colored non-toxic child’s crayon that will show up in the feces.
Third, if you find urine puddles in the house, you’ll need to distinguish between spraying and other forms of house soiling. Watch your cat for signs of spraying or set up a video camera to keep an eye on the situation when you’re not around.
Once you have identified the house-soiling cat, it is wise to take him to your veterinarian for a thorough physical examination and appropriate diagnostic tests to check for underlying medical problems. Cats with medical conditions may not always act sick.
Identify the Cause
Once medical causes have been ruled out, your detective work begins. Here are some patterns that may point to a cause:
Will medications stop my cat from house soiling?
Anti-anxiety drugs are more likely to prevent spraying behavior than other types of house soiling. Whenever it is used, medication can only be part of the solution, and must be used in conjunction with environmental changes. Also, medication can have potentially damaging side effects, and not all cats are good candidates. Cats placed on medication for long periods must be monitored closely by a veterinarian.
What can I use to clean my cat-soiled carpet, couch, and other household items?
Cats will re-soil and spray areas they have marked with their scent, so cleaning cat-soiled items is crucial for breaking the cycle of elimination. Cleaning is most effective when it’s done soon after an item was soiled, and odors must be neutralized, not just deodorized, to escape a cat’s keen sense of smell. Avoid cleaning products containing ammonia or vinegar as they smell like urine and can be irritating.
What other methods should I consider to stop litter box problems and spraying?
How can I stop my cat from spraying?
Because spraying is different than other types of house soiling, different tactics are necessary to manage it.
"He's doing it to punish me!"
It’s common for owners to think cats soil in inappropriate places as a way of taking revenge, but cats probably don’t have the kind of sophisticated cognitive abilities that they would need to make these tit-for-tat calculations. What’s more, although humans are disgusted by urine and feces, cats don’t see them as unpleasant, so they would be unlikely to use waste products as weapons against their humans.
House soiling can be a frustrating problem, but you should never hit, kick, or scream at a cat. Punishments like these are not only ineffective, the anxiety they cause may actually worsen the house soiling problem. Similarly, rubbing a cat’s face in its excrement is ineffective because cats are not disgusted by their urine and feces, and they cannot make the connection between the treatment and the mess, even moments after they’ve done it.
A common and frustrating problem, inappropriate elimination can be difficult to control. A full resolution depends on early intervention, followed by detective work to determine the cause of the behavior, and time and effort on your part to solve the problem. In partnership with veterinarians, both cats and the people who love them can live in harmony and good health.
Quick Tips for preventing litter box problems:
1. Choose an appropriate litter and box
- Most cats prefer unscented, finer-textured litter about one to two inches deep.
- Young kittens, elderly cats, and cats with mobility problems need boxes with low sides.
- Overweight and large cats need bigger boxes.
- Most cats prefer an uncovered box that lets odors escape and allows a 360-degree view of their surroundings.
- Keep as many litter boxes as cats in the house - plus one.
2. Choose a good litter box location
- Most cats prefer a location that is quiet, private, separate from their feeding area, and easily accessible 24 hours a day.
- Do not locate the litter box upstairs or downstairs if your cat has trouble climbing stairs.
- Place multiple boxes in different areas of the house.
3. Keep the litter box clean
- If you use clumping litter, remove feces and clumps daily and add clean litter as needed.
- A liner may help keep the box cleaner, but many cats don’t like them.
- To clean the box, scrub it with a gentle detergent, dry it, and refill with clean litter. Litter should be changed often enough so that it looks and smells dry and clean. The more cats using the box, the more often this will need to be done.
- Replace old boxes that smell or are cracked.