by Dr. Michelle Arnold
If you have owned or currently own a cat, most likely you have dealt with feline house soiling at one time or another. There are many reasons cats urinate or defecate outside the box; some of them are easily fixable, others are not. Keep reading for tips and advice on how to determine the cause of your cat’s house soiling.
If your cat is urinating outside the box, it should be determined whether or not the cat is urinating or “spraying“. Cats “spray” in order to mark their territory. When they spray, they are usually standing with their tail up in the air, and spray a small amount onto a wall or carpet, as opposed to squatting and urinating a large amount of urine in one spot on the carpet/couch/bed. This can help determine whether the cat has a medical condition versus a behavioral issue.
Medical Reasons for Soiling in the House
First and foremost, a cat that is urinating or defecating outside the litter box should be checked by your veterinarian for any medical conditions that could be causing the unwanted behavior. These conditions may include urinary tract infections, bladder stones, cystitis (inflammation of the bladder), arthritis, anal gland impaction, and many more. These conditions can be painful, and if a cat has had a painful experience in the litter box, it may associate the litter box with pain, causing it to be averse to going in the litter box again. Some cats may have separation anxiety issues that can be treated with medication.
Cats are very sensitive animals, and any change in their day-to-day routine can stress them out or upset them. Some of these changes include the following: bringing home a new baby, bringing home a new pet, changing their food, changing the type of litter, moving, changes in the owner’s daily schedule, and stray animals outside the window/door that they can see, smell, or hear. To see if any of these changes are the reason for inappropriate elimination, try changing back to the original situation if possible. Food and litter can easily be changed back to the previous kind of food or litter as a test to see if they are the root of the cause. New babies, pets, and moving can be more difficult to tackle. Cleaning carpets and walls (or replacing carpets and painting) in the new residence can help to get rid of odors from previous animals. New pets can be separated and slowly reintroduced, or a pheromone product, such as Feliway, can be used to help calm the cat(s).
Some inappropriate elimination problems result from issues with the litter and/or litter box. Cats prefer large, uncovered litter boxes near the areas where they spend most of their time. Large, plastic storage bins that cats can easily get into can be used in place of actual litter boxes. They should have enough room to be able to move around in the litter box and squat comfortably. Some litter boxes are simply too small, forcing the cat to urinate outside the box even though their body is in the box. The litter box should be placed away from the feeding area as well as away from noisy appliances. There should be one litter box for every cat in the household plus one more, as well as a litter box for every floor in the house. Cats prefer specific types of substrate (litter), with clay litter being the favorite of most cats. Litter should be approximately 4 inches deep, and cleaned out daily to keep the litter fresh and clean. It is best to completely empty, clean the litter box with mild dish soap, and refill with new litter every two weeks. There are many types of cat litter and litter boxes that you can experiment with to find the best combination for your cat.
Some indoor cats are simply bored because they can’t express any of their natural instincts sitting inside a house. You can provide environmental enrichment for your cat to ensure that their natural instincts are satisfied. If the cat is not declawed, the cat may be happier to spend some of its time outdoors and in many cases this has helped to resolve house soiling. Provide scratching posts (cats “scratch” objects in order to mark their scent using glands on their paws, not to sharpen their claws), toys to chase (all cats have a natural hunting instinct), cat towers for them to climb and play on (cats prefer to be up high), windows for bird watching/sun-bathing (cats are heat-seekers), and an appropriate amount of food in small amounts several times a day (if on their own, cats like to eat 15-20 small meals per day). For cats that have been declawed, you can set up a mesh tent outside for the cat to sit in for short periods of time during the day, or get a harness leash and take them for “walks” (not all cats will tolerate this).
In summary, there are many reasons that can cause cats to urinate and/or defecate in the house. Together with your veterinarian, you can figure out the underlying issue and provide the best care for your cat.