I will start by saying sorry to the many dog owners I know who read this column. Usually I will write on a topic that applies to both cats and dogs. This time however I have decided to devote my attention to a problem that is generally reserved for cats.
One of the more common issues we see cats for, and are asked for advice on, is ‘inappropriate elimination’; a nicer way of saying that they’re not urinating or defecating in the litter box. Unlike dogs who mess inside, this is not a problem of training. Cats come, it seems, programmed to use a litter box to eliminate. So what does it mean when your cat urinates in your gym bag, and what can you do?
The first thing to recognize is that inappropriate elimination does not have one cause; it can be brought about by one or a combination of many factors. Very often cat owners will incorrectly assume that every episode of ‘forgetting’ to use the box is a behavioral prob- lem, that their cat is mad at them or feeling put out. While we certainly can’t ignore that cats are very sensitive crea- tures who can at times express their anxiety in rather unusual ways, assum- ing that these issues are all of a psycho- logical nature risks missing some more serious issues and not addressing the real problem.
Most frequently we see inappropriate urination rather than defecation in cats. Whenever we see a cat with this complaint the first thing we need to determine is whether the issue has a medical cause as either the only problem or one
of the contributing factors. Your vet will get a thorough history
to try to get a sense if anything else is unusual about the urination habits other than just poor choice of location. If, as well as urinating outside the box the cat is urinating more frequently we need to consider bladder inflammation
or cystitis as a possible factor. This can be caused by infection, bladder stones or crystals and in many cases by an unknown mechanism. Regardless of the cause, cystitis is a medical problem that needs to be diagnosed and addressed.
If a cat is urinating a larger volume than normal we may consider diabetes or kidney disease, both of these diseases cause an increase in urine production at some stage. Clearly illnesses like diabetes and kidney failure need to be diagnosed and treated appropriately.
All of these conditions will at least need some blood and urine tests to investigate.
Once any medical conditions have been ruled out, the next step is to look carefully at the pattern of this new behaviour in your cat. We generally divide inappropriate urination of non medical cause into two categories; litter box aversion and territory marking.
In territory marking the culprit is usually male and often, though not always unneutered. Generally with territory marking the urine is sprayed outwards by a standing cat against a vertical surface.
If the urine is deposited onto a horizontal surface, or you happen to see your cat squatting to pee, it is more like- ly litter box aversion. It’s hard to figure out why a cat would be happy with a litter box for sometimes a very long time and then suddenly decide they’re not using it anymore. This is probably why many people are quick to assume that the problem is borne out of spite or other behavioral issues.
There are many reasons that cats can develop distaste for using their litter box, and we may not be able to know which ones are contributing to the problem in each case. However I usual- ly recommend a blanket approach when starting to deal with this issue.
The things that are often thought to
negatively impact a cats feelings toward their litter can be roughly divided into three categories; location, substrate and cleanliness/odour. If you have recently changed anything about the litter box, the litter type or its location; that would be the first culprit to consider. In that case, the best suggestion I have is to change it back! You may over time be able to move a litter box to a new location but until the problem has stopped try to keep things just the way your cat likes them. If on the other hand there have been no changes, I usually recommend trying these things:
• If you have a covered litter box remove the cover, most cats prefer this.
• Add at least one other litter box in a different location. Something may have happened to frighten your cat at the current location. You should have at least one more litter box than you have cats.
•Try a different litter, I usually recommend a very simple clay unscented litter at first.
• Use an enzymatic cleaner to wash any areas that your cat has already eliminated on, then if possible use either a citrus based spray or cover the surface with tin foil or double sided tape. Cats are not fans of citrus or walking on tin foil or tape. This is simply to deter them from visiting that area for a while.
• Clean the litter every day
If these things fail it is well worth talking to your vet about other treatment options; there are some very effective, non pharmaceutical treatments that can make big difference when used with the other measures I have mentioned.