Urinating or defecating on the floor, bed, furniture, sink, bathtub, or any place other than the litter pan is about the most difficult way for any pet to remain a welcome resident of the home. While mopping up the umpteenth puddle most folks are trying to figure out what to do about these disgusting messes. You are not alone. Inappropriate elimination is by far the most common behavior problem in cats. It’s also the reason that many cats cycle through several homes in their lifetimes.
This is a complex group of behavioral disorders. There is neither a single cause nor simple solution. Nonetheless, we are successful for most cat owners thanks to a wealth of knowledge and research on these cats. This article will explain enough about your cat’s issues to get you started in putting some appropriate solutions into play.
You may still need our professional consultation to custom-tailor a behavior modification plan that will work in your particular home with your unique cat. Every situation is different. Some problem cats improve fairly quickly; others take a whole lot of work and time and energy. So read on and learn, but remember that we stand ready to help you take charge and make life better. Please don’t give up without asking for our guidance. Almost all of these cats can be managed.
Why it Happens
When you consider all of the scents that might improve the ambiance of your home, cat urine and stool just wouldn’t make the list. Consider this: Cats often choose elimination locations other than the litter pan based on smell. So if they are so clean and fastidious why do they defile their home?
To understand this problem start by tossing out everything you have ever learned or believed about cats. We love our pets like children-and we should. Our connection with them can reach a deep level of commitment. But focusing on the similarities we share with our cats can cause us to make some totally misguided assumptions. Cats are special and they deserve our affection. They also deserve to be treated like the different species they are.
It’s helpful to understand the basics of feline behavior when trying to fix their problems. Cats are social creatures but in ways that are rather different than humans and dogs. They have group hierarchies that can have a big influence on their behavior but don’t really follow orders. Their sense of smell has been estimated at fourteen times as acute as ours. They communicate in a whole bunch of different ways including scent, urine, and stool.
Many people like to make comparisons between cats and dogs. They have about as much in common as a bologna sandwich and a ’53 Buick. Our kitties are soft and fuzzy and cuddly. They are also wild animals who share our homes. This is not a bad thing; it’s just a reality. While there is a whole range of variation in feline personalities, most are inveterate predators who are solitary by nature doing their best to stake out their turf. In their wild habitats, urination and defecation is a big part of their social interaction (no kidding). When we keep them as indoor pets they are constantly looking for ways to exercise their essential natural requirements. Considering how deeply engrained these fundamentals are, it’s remarkable that so few cats behave badly.
It might seem like a very good idea to release your captive cat to his natural environment in the great outdoors. There he can hunt and spray urine and revel in his solitary existence. It sounds idyllic-but not in our “civilized” society. Outdoor cats have an average life expectancy of 3-4 years because of cars, dogs, infectious diseases, and fight wounds. Relative newcomers to North America, outdoor cats are decimating our wild bird populations. Their indoor brethren, on the other hand, usually make it into their teens with the pampering and love that people like you and I bestow upon them. Indoors is better. It can also be a behavioral disaster.
Cat Facts that Lead to Indoor Elimination
These generalizations suggest that cats are all the same. They are not. Here are some facts that are usually true. (How’s that for spin?)
- In multiple cat households some individuals might feel crowded. This increases the need for one or more of them to urinate or defecate outside their litter pans as a “calling card” to show who’s in charge. Sometimes lower ranking cats express their value to the group by choosing novel locations to eliminate.
- “Crowding” doesn’t affect every cat the same way. Some members of the group manifest their stress by fighting. This adds more anxiety that may cause more inappropriate elimination.
- A few cats have such a solitary nature they can feel crowded even as an only pet in a household of one person. Some will urinate or defecate in bad places because they are highly agitated seeing or smelling a neighbor cat through a window.
- Stress, from a variety of sources, can be a major factor. Too many people, active or aggressive dogs, stinky dirty litter pans, even human tension in the home can easily set feline elimination problems into motion.
- Another feline fundamental is status. Instead of sporting a new car or a trophy wife like our species, many cats practice an intriguing game of oneupsmanship by out-urinating each other. “You peed here? Ok, then I’ll just pee over there. How do you like that, pardner?” Beware the shootouts. It isn’t pretty. Relaxed kitties enjoying a peaceful life don’t stoop to this nonsense. Feline house soiling = misery.
- Some cats lead relaxed healthy lives but got accustomed to eliminating on the wrong “substrate” as kittens. For example, babies under age 5 weeks who are allowed to use carpet instead of cat litter will prefer carpet throughout their lives. We can teach them to use a new surface (substrate), but it takes time and special care.
- Substrate preference often takes the form of a simple partiality for a very specific type of litter of just the right depth in a particular size and shape litter pan. Sound silly? This is a common cause of elimination behavior problems. Some cats are remarkably fussy.
- Cats truly are fastidious creatures. If they stop at a filling station during a road trip, it better have a clean bathroom. If it’s not up to standard many cats just jump back in the car and wait for the next exit. If your cat lives with nasty litter pans she might find another part of your home to relieve herself or she might just hold her urine for as long as she can. Finally she may even be willing to use a litter pan that is more reminiscent of the latrine at Boy Scout camp. By then the urine that has stagnated in her bladder, leading to chronic inflammation. These cats have genuinely physical bladder disease caused by behavioral stress.
- While most cats really need and want an unused pristine litter pan, they tend to be drawn back to the scene of previous crimes because of the urine or stool smell that remains. And because they have such an acute sense of smell, it can be really difficult to completely eliminate those previous odors. The human smell test means nothing. Complete odor elimination is essential.
- Anxiety is contagious. When the most wiggy kitty in the home finally loses her grip and begins to stress-urinate or defecate the next most freaky can soon follow suit. Only the strong maintain control. Don’t assume culpability. It’s often the apparently strong, silent type who only manifests his angst by surreptitiously leaving his calling card.
- Location of the litter pan(s) can be part of or all of the problem. Some cats want privacy while others find that a confined space causes odors to be too intense. Litter pans located near appliances or busy areas of the home can be too unsettling or downright frightening. Cats with these problems may establish their own bathrooms in very bad places.
- Bullying is common in multi-cat households. Shy kitties can be ambushed near the litter pan. These scaredy cats often find “safer” places to eliminate that don’t fit your decorating scheme.
- Testosterone is a famous cause of normal feline behavior (territorial) that just does not work indoors. All cats should be neutered-especially indoor cats and especially outdoor cats, because they reproduce. Especially everybody.
- Physical disease can be a major stress. The most important example is bladder disease, which in cats is seldom caused by infection. Chronic inflammation, bladder stones, and blockages caused by crystals are all painful. These kitties may be afraid to urinate. They hold their urine then let go in a place that they do not associate with pain. Anxiety plays a big role for these sick cats.
- Diabetic cats can drink and urinate large volumes. If the litter pan is often wet, a cat may look for a cleaner place.
- Diabetes whose disease is uncontrolled for long periods can begin suffer neurologic symptoms. A cat with “diabetic neuropathy” becomes weak. Struggling to get to the pan, this kitty may urinate elsewhere.
- Disease of the colon or anal glands can cause defecation in the wrong places because a cat associates pain with her previous misery while she was in the litter pan. For many, a single painful experience can be enough to make them completely avoid their litter pan.
- Some physical diseases, including chronic liver or kidney disease and tumors next to the brain may manifest as partial dementia. Cats who don’t think normally anymore are prone to elimination mistakes.
- Pain, like the arthritis of degenerative joint disease of many older cats, can make it just too uncomfortable to climb into a litter pan with tall sides.
- Like some people, there are cats who struggle emotionally. These kitties carry anxiety that may be traced back to early weaning, a malnourished feral mother, or a failure to socialize with littermates. Almost any unexpected event can trigger fear-based behavior like inappropriate elimination.
- Punishment for past mistakes can lead to more of these behaviors. Cats learn differently than dogs and humans, but people can get frustrated. Convinced that they’ve “tried everything” loving cat parents have resorted to hauling the perpetrator to the mess, rubbing his nose in it, spanking, whatever. Not only does this always fail, it causes fear and an aversion to the litter pan. This makes the cat sneakier and less inclined to use the litter pan. Punishment seriously damages the trust. It worsens the whole problem.
Confused? Sorry. These are truly complex issues. Only a thorough understanding of every possible factor will get you and your cat through this maze. If you have more than one cat in your home start by making absolutely sure that the suspected perpetrator is truly the guilty party. This can be harder than you might think.
Knowing for Sure which Cat(s) are Responsible
The politics of feline life often leads to one responsible party, but there may be more. Home surveillance cameras are a great tool. Propping a smart phone against a book and aiming it at the scene of past crimes can also work well. No research-based management method will make a difference if we treat the wrong pet.
Eliminating Physical Concerns
Once you’re sure which cat(s) deserve the attention, bring him/her/them to the doctor for an exam and urinalysis. Three to four hours before your appointment confine each in a separate cat carrier with a bowl of water and no bedding. (Even cats with urination problems can, in most cases, hold their urine.) Beyond a careful physical exam, urine taken directly from the bladder can answer important physical questions like the low possibility of infection. That’s valuable but fewer than 2% of cats with urinary bladder symptoms suffer from infections. Abdominal x-rays have even greater value. That’s because 15-21% of these unhealthy urinators have bladder stones.
Don’t stop there. Bring a fresh stool sample so your cat can be checked for intestinal parasites. If you’ve fasted your kitty your veterinarian can also take a blood sample that will help rule out kidney and liver disease, diabetes, and several other problems. The anal glands should be expressed and the abdomen palpated for bladder stones and constipation. The job isn’t done until every body system is thoroughly evaluated.
All of this physical evaluation will cost money. Please do it anyway. It saddens me to consider the number of physically ill cats whose diseases have worsened while caring, but parsimonious care-takers have tried a myriad of unnecessary behavioral remedies. These cats get sicker. Many develop unnecessary permanent diseases. Insist on thorough diagnostics.
Treatment for Elimination Disorders
Litter Pan Management
So you’ve endured the rigors of modern medicine and your kitty has been awarded a clean bill of health. Good news. Now what? One-by-one the most common cat management problems need to be addressed. Start by providing plenty of litter pans. You should have as many pans as you have cats, plus one more. Locate these cat bathrooms in a variety of places-all easily accessible but not in heavy traffic areas. Remember to keep the pans out of the utility room to avoid scaring the daylights out of your cat if the washer or dryer fires up at precisely the wrong moment.
Healthy litter pan management involves a lot more. In order for your cats to believe that the pans are really clean enough to use, well, they’d better be. The point is to have a perfectly unused pristine litter pan available any time any cat has the slightest whim that it might be time to go. That’s because in the wild (and your cat is primarily a wild creature) they love to choose a nice soft pleasing spot that doesn’t stink. Your litter pans must be that good. Your job is to check the pans at least twice a day. Any that have been used must be emptied, rinsed, and refilled. Pans with clumping litter need twice daily scooping and weekly dumping and washing. For some persistent peers and devious dumpers, that’s all it takes.
Many cats are really fussy; others will use anything that’s clean. The type and depth of litter in the pans could be significant issues. If your cats had been doing fine in the past with a particular brand of litter, go back to it. If they’ve never liked your selections, it’s time to offer them every variety-cafeteria style.
This can get complicated and time consuming. You might get tired. But you need every possible advantage if you’re going to win. Each type of litter has its devotees but there are a few that are more popular than others. The highest ratings from fussy felines go to fine playground sand, number 3 blasting sand, and premium (soft) clumping litter. That said, I recommend trying those and several others too. Litters that seem to be most disliked are clay. Try pushing your hand on those hard-edged little rocks. Not for me.
A word about litter pans themselves: Bigger pans with low sides are usually best because some cats have painful joints. If it’s easy to climb in and out and turn around, it’s more likely to get used. Forget the roofs, hoods, vents, and filters. Covered pans trap odors and are hard for you to watch. They are more likely to stink and to stay stinky. Liners mess with a cat’s footing and may discourage litter pan use.
Be methodical about your offerings and learn what works. Then stick to it. If your cats prefer clumping litter, consider making your job as litter pan manager easier by investing in a self-cleaning litter pan. This spiffy device automatically scoops out the used litter and dumps it in a sealed receptacle after every use. They work great. I wish I had invented it.
Finally, you have those areas of the floor that still reek of past crimes. No matter how good you are at all of the above, you will not succeed unless every hint of old urine or stool odor is gone. First I will explain what not to do. Do not use cleaners that contain ammonia. They smell like urine to a cat because urine contains ammonia. Forget germ killers and anything scented. If parts of your home start to smell different (like scented cleaners) they may trigger more stress for a species that hates change. Cleaning with detergents is important but it is not enough. Urine and stool odors are not about bacteria and dirt; the smell comes from the organic matter left behind after the fluid portion of urine and stool evaporates.
Pick up the stool and blot the urine. Then go after the real cause of the odor with a product meant for the purpose. Enzymatic cleaners with an active organism that breaks down organic matter and then consumes it get the highest marks. My faves: Anti Icky Poo and Zero Odor. Follow label instructions to the letter and you’ll have a fighting chance.
Preventing Future Crimes Against the Home
These methods are good but they are not guaranteed. Cats are creatures of habit. They develop a preference for the surface that they’ve defiled (like the rug) and they want to continue using that surface. Every area of your home with an ugly history needs a cat deterrent. Several things can work, depending on what your particular cat really hates. Here are a few of my favorites.
Remember going into a model home and walking on the plastic carpet runner? Turn this stuff upside down and cut it into pieces just long enough to cover old urine or stool locations. Most cats really hate stepping on those little pointy plastic bumps. Another winner is aluminum foil. Set little weights on the corners so it doesn’t blow around with drafts. If all else fails, you can lay a Scat Mat on those old locations. Plug this rubber mat into a wall outlet and your cat will get a surprise static electricity-strength shock when he steps on it.
There are other tricks too. Some people recommend putting the food dish or a litter pan on old stool and urine spots, but I have found cats to be confused by these methods.
All that said, you might face special challenges. Carpets that have been soaked through to the padding are especially tough. Again, it may not smell bad to you, but your cat will know. If you’ve done everything right and you still have a problem, replacing the carpet may be necessary. Bad habits can usually be broken as long as the old elimination places are uninviting and the excellent new bathrooms are oh, so nice.
These are the nuts and bolts but there is another side. These instinctively outdoor feline creatures, who we confine to the inside of our homes, need special care. Recent studies have shown the value of a fun environment. Cats who can run up and down a carpet covered cat tree with hidey holes are better adjusted. Games like fetch the bottle cap, chase the feathers on a stick or the laser pointer keep cats in touch with the realities of their God-given personalities. Activities like these lower stress levels. They also bring back the fun we all thought we’d share when we first brought that cute fuzzy kitten home. Implement everything you can from the list of Feline Environmental Enrichments (https://drjeffnichol.com/feline-environment-enrichment/). Floor-to-ceiling cat trees and multiple hide boxes at various heights in different rooms will be the most important.
Your cat’s elimination disorder may be manageable using this information alone. But damage to the home is the biggest single reason that cat owners part company with the pet they love. Your situation may more difficult. Many cats have underlying anxieties or chronic bladder disease that requires a doctor’s care. Custom-tailored behavior modification will be essential for these kitties. In many cases, antianxiety medications are critically important to overcome the challenge.
For people who are willing to do whatever it takes, elimination disorders are almost always manageable. Please do not feel overwhelmed. Call us so we can get this turned around ASAP. We will not give up until we win.