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Behavioral Inappropriate Voiding in Cats

Since my last post focused on a common behavioral issues in dogs, today my focus is one of the most common behavioral problems in cats: inappropriate elimination in the home, outside of the litter box.  Most feline enthusiasts, who as a regular part of their existence have cats in the home, have dealt with this issue at one time or another.

Before really delving into this issue, it is important to dispel the common notion that cats do this out of some form of personal spite or anger toward the owner.   This could not be further from the truth.   Cats do not act out behaviorally in a spiteful manner, they do not hold grudges; those kinds of emotions are distinctly human character traits that we erroneously tag these cats with.

So if it is not spite, then what is it that causes a cat to urinate or defecate outside of the litter box?  Unfortunately there is not a simple answer, but the causes of cats engaging in behavioral voiding in the home can generally be broken down to one of two basic causes: a medical problem or anxiety.

From a medical standpoint, cats that suffer from bowel problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease, intestinal parasites, or infections of the gut, or pancreatic disease, likely experience discomfort while in the process of defecating.  They may have less control of their bowels, and as a result, void outside the litter box simply because they could not make it.  From the discomfort standpoint, cats feeling discomfort as they eliminate in the litter box may associate that discomfort with the actual litter box, and therefore avoid it.

Similarly, if cats suffer from painful conditions of the urinary tract, such as infections, crystals, or inflammatory lower urinary tract disease, as they experience pain while urinating it the litter box, they may begin to associate the litter box with that pain, and thereby begin avoiding use of the litter box.  From a control standpoint, systemic conditions such as kidney failure and diabetes increase thirst, reduce the ability of the feline to concentrate its urine, the bladder fills rapidly, creating a control issue and the kitty may not make it to the litter box in time.

In consideration of a possible medical cause because we cannot ask our feline patients why they have chosen to avoid the litter box, the first step in these cases that should always be taken is a thorough examination and medical work-up.  Medical work-up should include stool analysis, bloodwork, urinalysis, and possibly imaging with x-rays and/or ultrasound.  If any medical issues are found, then treating them may stop the behavior.

Only after a medical work-up has for common diseases that may lead to litter box avoidance has been performed and ruled out, can it be assumed that litter box avoidance is a behavioral issue that stems from anxiety.   It may seem unusual to hear that a pet may suffer from anxiety, but make no mistake, stress is not unique to humans, but is in fact a more prevalent problem in cats.

Cats are actually stress driven creatures, that is, their everyday existence and survival is predicated upon the fight or flight response.   This is an important distinction that makes cats very different from dogs.  While all mammals possess a fight or flight response to some degree, cats survive by remaining hyper cautious at all times with a hair trigger fight or flight response.  If you have any doubt about that, watch a neighborhood cat cross the street some time, and you will note that it often takes much longer than it should, as the kitty darts behind parked cars and behind trees time and again as his finely tuned senses take in smells and noises that constantly and instantaneously influence their movements.

So what could possibly stress out a pampered house cat that never even has to endure the stress crossing the street?  Lots of things!  They may pick up on the scent of a new neighborhood cat or the scent of new wildlife in the area.   A major change in a home, such as remodeling, new furniture, or a move to a new home could be a source of stress.  One of the most common sources of stress that we see lead to litter box avoidance is a new pet in the home.  Lastly, some cats are exceptionally fastidious, and get stressed from only a small amount of excrement in their litter box, thus causing them to avoid litter box even after only one use in some cases.

While we cannot fully explain why some felines eliminate in the home as a consequence of anxiety, it is believed that it essentially serves as some sort of coping mechanism.  Frustratingly, the longer the behavior continues, the more difficult it tends to be to stop it.

Once a behavioral cause for inappropriate voiding can be reasonably assumed, I will generally first look for basic solutions to problems, such as making certain that there is one litter box for every two cats in the home.  In homes with multiple cats, too few litter boxes is a common mistake.  Even if you have the correct ratio of litter boxes, placing additional litter boxes in strategic locations in the home can also be helpful especially if placed in areas where the kitty tends to inappropriately void in the home; can also help quell the behavior.  Lastly, keep the litter boxes as clean as possible, scooping them as often as possible, at least 2 times per day may encourage our highly fastidious kitties to use the litter hbox again..

If these measures do not help, I will then recommend trying Feliway sprays and plugin diffusers.  Feliway and other products like it, consist of a feline is a biochemical hormone like sensory compound known as a pheromone, that is calming for cats.  These items are best used in regions where the cat spends the most time, as well as the regions in the home where he tends to void.

In cases where the owner has come to me already at his or her wit’s end, or in cases where the aforementioned measures do not provide relief, then I will treat the troubled kitty with amitriptyline.  Amitriptyline is a tricyclic anti-depressant whose net effect is to increase serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of contentment.  It is often effective, generally safe and well tolerated, and very inexpensive.

It would be so nice if veterinarians were like Dr. Doolittle and could sit litter box avoiding cats on the couch and help them talk out their issues that may be leading to their behavior.  Since we will not likely ever gain this 6th sense, we instead have to rule out a medical cause or treat any that may be contributing factors, try creative litter box placement and ensure proper litter box ratios and clean litter boxes, try soothing pheromones, and/or kitty anti-depressant therapy to resolve the problem.

Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital and CEO/Chief Editor of the veterinary information and blog online community, Web-DVM.

One thought on “Behavioral Inappropriate Voiding in Cats

  1. Sharon A. Mathewson says:

    After reading your comments, we will try some of the suggestions. I fear that our other female cat is bothering Misty when she is in the litter box.
    Misty hates Fiona and will hiss and spit at her when she gets too close.
    Thank you

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