Inappropriate urination and Inappropriate elimination in cats

A cat showing spraying behaviour.
Credit to Cornell University for the image

This is the most common behavioral condition reported in cats, accounting for  40-75% of reported behavioral problems.


Signs seen: urination, defecation or both outside the litter box. This may be associated with an underlying medical condition or it may be a normal response.

Predisposing factors include:

1. Litter box aversion (to the substance used and/or location)

  • A new type of litter or a dirty box
  • Cats that experience pain while urinating or defecating (constipation, arthritic pain)
  • Aversion can also be induced by catching the cat in the litter box before performing potentially unpleasant procedures such as medicating or grooming

2. Litter box preference (substance and/or location)

  • This may be influenced by fear and/or anxiety
  • Separation anxiety can lead to elimination problems – usually when owner is absent. Also can be associated with objects that owner has contact with. Usually seen after separation longer than 12 hours or immediately after the owner returns.
  • Fearful cats may eliminate in the place where they are frightened because they are too frightened to go back into the litter box.
  • The presence of another cat can also lead to elimination problems as they may increase anxiety or block access to the litter boxes.

3. Medical conditions

  • Arthritis, diarrhea, constipation, lower urinary tract disease and any cause of polyuria (excessive urination) have been implicated as factors contributing to elimination problems.


Careful history taking and thorough physical examination, blood tests, urinalysis and possibly radiography or other imaging procedures are indicated to exclude any possible medical causes first.

After any concurrent or contributing medical problems are addressed, the treatment involves two aspects:

1. Increasing the attractiveness of the area the owner wants the cat to use.

2. Decreasing the attractiveness of the area that the cat wants to use.

Punishment is discouraged because it increases the cat’s anxiety and impedes learning of appropriate behavior.
Litter box solutions

  • Change the type of litter by changing brand, or to sawdust, shredded newspaper, clumping litter or sand.
  • Increase the frequency with which the litter box is cleaned and changed (should be AT LEAST once daily)
  • Change the cleaning agent used to clean the litter box, and avoid disinfectants or bleaches when cleaning the litter box.
  • Increase the number of litter boxes (one per cat and one extra)
  • place litter boxes in easily accessible, separate locations – away from food and water.
  • Provide a litter box that is large enough for the cat (at least 1 and ½ times the length of the cat)
  • Make sure the cat can enter the litter box (high sides may cause problems)

Location solutions

  • Place a litterbox over the area that is being used by the cat. Then very gradually change the location until it is in an area that is more acceptable to the owner.
  • Cover the litter box to make it more private for the cat
  • Change the type of litter box (higher or lower sides)
  • Place the box away from noisy or high-traffic areas.

To discourage cats from using specific locations: feed or play with the cat in these areas, place dry cat food in these areas, leave the cat’s toys or bedding in the area, make the area less accessible and less pleasant to the cat by covering the area with thick plastic, aluminum foil or double sided sticky-tape.

Litter solutions

  • Change the litter type to one the cat prefers (start by placing a couple of litter trays side by side with different litters and see which is the most ‘popular’)
  • Clean the litter box as soon as possible after it is used
  • Use an empty litter box for cats that prefer smooth surfaces such as bathtubs and sinks.

Urine spraying

Urine spraying is a marking behavior and is often associated with anxiety. It may be territorial, sexual or agonistic. In multicat households it may be associated with overt or covert aggression. Intact cats spray more than neutered cats, and male cats spray more than female cats.

It is reported that up to 30% of cats that present for spraying may have a concurrent medical condition.

After a thorough physical examination and diagnostic testing (blood tests, urinalysis and imaging as appropriate) have ruled out medical problems, behavior therapy can be instigated. If possible any anxiety provoking stimuli should be removed or minimized. Provision of ar egular, predictable routine – such as feeding the cat or playing with the cat at a set time each day, has proved helpful in many cases.

Punishment is again NOT recommended because it increases the anxiety and impedes the learning of appropriate behavior

We have a kindle book called Purrfect Cat Behavior which covers these issues available for download on Amazon

Author Lucie Allcutt MRCVS

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