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Inappropriate Urination in Cats

Close up cat face

Has your cat suddenly decided to use the dirty laundry as a litter box? Maybe your cat was belligerent and backed up to the wall, spraying right in front of you. Then again, you may have been on the receiving end of an unacceptable litter box gift on your pillow. Regardless of the circumstances, your cat may be trying to bring a medical or behavioral problem to your attention.

When a cat is not urinating in a litter box, the first step is to make sure there is not a medical reason for the abnormal elimination. A complete history, physical exam, urinalysis and blood chemistry should comprise the minimum data base. You also want to determine if the cat is spraying, which occurs when the cat is standing, and moving its back feet with the tail quivering while depositing small amounts of urine, in a vertical location several inches off of the ground.

Information that may be useful regarding the behavior includes: how long has the behavior been going on, has the amount of urine increased, has water consumption increased, has a new pet been introduced to the family and the locations where the pet has now decided to eliminate at? Additional useful information involves the location of the litter box, the type of litter including texture, and whether it is scented or not, frequency that the litter is changed and the total number of cats in the household. It is estimated that approximately 10% of households, with more than one cat, have at least one cat with elimination problems. Spraying usually occurs in an area of social significance for the cat such as doors, windows, or new objects.

Particular items of interest on physical examination are the general age and condition of the cat, the presence of mouth ulcerations or halitosis (bad breath), general hydration, status of the patient and general abdominal palpation which may help evaluate the left kidney and bladder size. Blood chemistries should include a BUN (blood urea nitrogen), phosphorous, and creatine to evaluate the kidney function and a blood glucose to rule out Diabetes. IDEXX Laboratories has recently developed a new sensitive blood chemistry test, symmetric diamethylarginine or SDMA. SDMA testing determines kidney disease much earlier than traditional blood chemistries, when there is only about a 40% loss of function.

Osteoarthritis as a cause of inappropriate elimination has largely been overlooked. Sudden inappropriate elimination in an older, indoor-only cat that does not have a history of bladder problems should set off alarms. It’s been reported that social pets become less social and nonsocial cats may become more social when battling arthritis.

When a medical reason cannot be established for the abnormal pattern of urination; it can usually be assumed that a behavioral problem is at hand. First it should be determined if the cat is actually spraying urine. If the urine spots are on vertical surfaces, typically at a level 1 to 2 feet off ground level, or specific items are being targeted such as dirty clothes or an owner’s pillow, a behavior problem is most likely the answer. If only one person’s items are targeted, the cat may have a problem with that person alone.

Castration will eliminate spraying in approximately 87% of Tomcats and spaying intact females is 95% effective. Spraying occurs most frequently during mating season, which usually occurs during the spring and fall of each year. A resident cat, although neutered, may spray if it becomes uncomfortable with its surroundings. Sometimes the comfort level will change if an unaltered cat begins to frequent the home, effectively marking it as their territory although house cats remain therein. It is not uncommon for a free roaming male cat to spray someone’s front or back porch. The strategic placement of mothballs in these areas may eliminate the unwelcome visiting of these areas. Other situations that will stress a cat into marking include the introduction of a new cat or family member to the household, a decrease in attention, change in routine or punishment. Spraying behavior may be changed in one of three ways:

  1. eliminating the environmental stimulus
  2. isolating the resident cat from the offending environment
  3. changing the hormonal and stress influences involved

The solution may be as simple as obtaining multiple litter boxes. In general, you should have one more litter box than cats in the household.

The type of litter box is important. Texture is important to some cats and they may prefer a clay, clumping, or even a paper litter. A cat raised outside cats may prefer to use dirt in which to dig or will deem in necessary to eliminate outside whenever possible.

Most cats prefer a large litter box. As a general rule the litter box should be 1.5 times the length of the cat. Only a shy cat prefers a closed litter box. Covered litter boxes concentrate any odors in a small area and may be distasteful for most cats, especially when not cleaned frequently.

Litter should be scooped daily and completely changed weekly.

Discard any box that has scratches in the bottom of the box for they are places to retain odors. Cats don’t appreciate a smelly toilet. Wash out the litter box weekly with a mild detergent and rinse well. Cats also dislike strong chemical smells.

Most cats prefer an unscented litter at a depth of 1 to 3 cm in their litter box. Cats are much more sensitive to odors than are humans. When a cat does not dig enough in the litter box, they are sending the owner a warning signal that a problem exists. When cats dig in scented litter they release additional perfume which they may not appreciate. When used, clumping litter should stay in the box no more than one month. Electronic litter boxes may effectively scoop the litter for you, allowing for a less frequent disposal of the scooped material.

Other litter box problems may include lack of privacy in multiple cat households. It is not unusual for one cat to take advantage of another when they are in a compromising elimination posture. In fact, social interactions between household pets’ may be compounding the problem. Alterations of some social situations may be necessary to fully resolve an elimination problem.

Some cats may not appreciate sharing a litter box and will refuse to use it when it has been previously used by another. With especially younger kittens, the litter box may not be located in a convenient area and they will seek out a more readily available location in which to eliminate. In these cases, the litter box may be moved to the site of elimination and gradually moved to a more out of site location. Kittens, just like children, may become too wrapped up in what they are doing to seek out the bathroom facilities until it is too late to make it to the bathroom itself.

A host of new products are now available to attract cats to the litter box. One such product is called Cat Attract® which is a formulation of herbs that may be used to literally “attract” the cat to the litter box area.

Multiple cat households often incur incidences of stress related marking. Products for stress related marking includes Feliway® which mimics facial pheromones that give the cat a feeling of well-being and thereby eliminates stress. The spray may be used daily on a bandana worn around the pet’s neck or is available as a plug-in diffuser. This product may also be used to decrease stress when traveling.

When natural therapy is not enough, drugs are available to decrease stress and tension among cats in the household. Your veterinarian will be able to help you with an appropriate choice of medication.

Important to clean, clean and clean again, any household area where the cat has urinated or defecated to eliminate any trace of a scent. The area should be soaked with club soda or seltzer. The area should be blotted repeatedly. Even if you cannot smell any trace of the offending elimination does not mean your can can’t, they have a much keener sense of smell than us. Follow with a good odor eliminator, the best of which have enzymatic capabilities to breakdown or degrade the components of the urine which make it harder for the scents to aerosolize. Check that area with a small black light to assure all elimination areas have been detected.

Following cleaning of a soiled area, it is good to cover the problem site with heavy gauge plastic thereby altering the tactile sensation for the cat and hopefully preventing any penetration should they still try to eliminate in the same area.


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  • “A Veterinary Medicine Interview Dr. Jacqueline C. Neilson”. Veterinary Medicine. July 2007. p 436.
  • Norsworthy, Gary. “Understand Inappropriate Elimination, then Treat It. Veterinary Practice News. April 2009. Vol. 21/No. 4. Pp. 1, 35, 39.
  • Overall, Karen. “Helping Clients understand and treat Cats with Elimination Disorders”. DVM Newsmagazine. July 2011. P. 9S-11S.
  • “Assist Owners in Selecting the Best Pets for their Lifestyles”. The Compendium Continuing Education for Veterinarians. Vol 29(10). October 2007. Pp. 678.
  • Strickler, Beth. “Thinking Inside the Box: A Refresher on Feline Housesoiling Blue Pearl Companion. Spring 2016. P.1.
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