Updated: Aug 7, 2019
By: Caroline Montgomery, DVM
One of the advantages of having cats as pets is that they do not require the great outdoors for their waste elimination. A cat does not have to be walked 2-4 times a day. Most cats are very good about using a litter box. Even very young kittens quickly learn or seem to intuitively know what to do in that box with "sand".
But, when a cat does not use the litter box, either for urination or defecation, the rest of the household suffers.
Inappropriate urination is one of the most common complaints/concerns we get calls about. There are three broad categories to explore to help solve the problem of Inappropriate Urination or Defecation: 1) Physical
Physical (the litter box itself)
The rule of thumb is to have at least one litter box per cat. And many sources cite the need for one box more than you have cats. So, a household with 2 cats would need at least 2 boxes, preferably 3. A home with 5 cats would need at least 5 litter boxes.
A Clean Litter Box is the next issue. All boxes should be scooped daily. Many cats will not use a box that is soiled. Total change-out of scoopable litter and cleaning of the box is needed at least on a monthly basis. Clean with a non-toxic product and rinse the box thoroughly.
The type of litter does not matter to most cats. But some are particular. It may take trial and error to determine what you cat favors. Things to consider are clumping vs. non-clumping; scented vs. non-scented; clay vs. other types of substrate.
Litter boxes should be in a quiet, non-threatening area. Children, dogs, or other aggressive cats in the household could make a shy cat not want to go to a particular area in the house. An older cat may not be able to climb steps easily, due to arthritis, and a box located on another level of the house becomes too difficult to get to. A pathway that has physical or other barriers (dog, children, or a closed door) can deter a cat from using a box in that cat's comfort zone.
The actual shape and size of the box can affect a cat's affinity for the box. An older cat may not be as able to step into a box that has high sides. A large cat cannot fit in most normal boxes (and hangs out to do his "business"). The box should be at least 1 1/2 times the length of the cat. A less dominant cat does not want to use a box with a hood because he feels trapped in the confined box and cannot see when "the enemy", the more aggressive cat, is near. Getting a box with lower sides, buying a larger box (we recommend those plastic boxes meant for sweaters or under-the-bed storage), and/or removing the hood from a covered box might solve the problem.
Assuming you have addressed the location, size, quantity, and type litter but the urinating outside the box has not stopped, medical reasons need to be confirmed or ruled out.
When you present your cat to Metro Cat Clinic with a complaint of inappropriate urination, we will first ask questions about food, number and size of litter box(es), household (other pets, changes in environment, etc), then perform a physical exam. We will want to check kidney function and perhaps perform other blood work based on information gathered from the history and the physical exam. And we will want a sample of your cat's urine. Most times this can be gotten at the time of the examination via a procedure called a cystocentesis. A "cysto" is performed while our tech holds your cat on his side. The veterinarian will locate the bladder and advance a needle, with syringe attached, through the skin into the bladder where a fresh sample of urine can be taken. If the bladder is empty, your cat will need to stay with us for a few hours, or even overnight, until there is enough urine in the bladder to collect, or he can urinate in a litter box that has special plastic pellets that will act as the litter but will not absorb the urine, and we will get the urine from the box. This is not as clean a sample as that gotten with the cysto, but it is better than not having the urine.
A urinalysis is then performed. We start with a test strip with many color-changing pads on it that indicate the presence of various components - glucose, protein, blood, and PH. The remaining urine is then spun in a centrifuge to separate any solid material (blood, bacteria, crystals, fat droplets, etc) from the liquid part. We then place a drop of the solids on a slide and examine it under the microscope.
An X-ray or ultrasound may or may not be needed at this time to check for stones in the kidney or bladder.
So, what medical reasons can cause an increase in urination and therefore a problem with the litter box? Urinary tract infection (UTI) with bacteria, crystals or stones, inflammation, diabetes, kidney disease, constipation, hyperthyroidism, hypertension (high blood pressure), and arthritis are the major diseases we are trying to rule in or out.
Specific treatment will be advised based on findings from the exam and lab work.
Let's say the litter box situation is perfect and no medical abnormality has been found. Now what?
Your cat may be either very shy or way too territorial.
Stray cats or other animals that come calling around your house may be aggravating your indoor cat. Some stray cats have even been known to spray on the outside door frame. Your indoor cat can smell that and wanting to let this stranger know that this is his territory, he will urinate near a window or an exterior door. Cleaning the area from the outside and discouraging the stranger from hanging around, as well as a thorough cleaning of the inside areas, may be all it takes.
There are ways to discourage your cat from frequenting an inappropriate location. Putting down strips of double stick tape; inverting a plastic carpet protector used for office chairs, so the points that normally go into the carpet are sticking up, discouraging your cat from stepping on them; placing pine cones around the base of indoor plants - these are just some ways to deter your cat.
It may take a thorough cleaning of the urinated on area to remove the smell. This involves removing the urine. Thorough soaking and blotting with water and towels multiple times is the first step. If the spot is carpeted, the pad underneath must also be cleansed. Don't forget under the baseboard. Then apply one of the cleaners that aim to destroy the odor-causing proteins in urine and feces.
Confining your cat to a specific area of the house may be the way to control the issue. Don't let him roam as widely from the litter box.
There are also some commercial plug-in "pheromone" products that have had varying degrees of success and can be tried. Go to http://www.feliway.com for more information.
Boredom may be the issue and can be addressed by creating an enriching environment. Things to consider are having area(s) where food and water are offered (hiding treats around the house so your cat can "hunt" them); having places for the cat to perch, climb, and hide; and having appropriate places for the cat to scratch and play with toys. And don't forget why you have a cat in the first place, for that special interaction between human and cat - are you playing with your cat daily?
Sometimes the only other option is to put your cat on anti-anxiety medication. These are drugs that need to be given daily and can take up to 2 weeks before results are seen. They are not given on as-needed basis and cannot be stopped "cold turkey" if the medication does not seem to control the problem. Our goal is to help you and your feline live in peace and harmony!