Litter Box Blues: an Overview of Feline House Soiling
It’s every cat owner’s worst nightmare: the cat who decides he’s no longer going to use the litter box. In some cases, it’s a long-term issue – maybe you’ve struggled with it since the day of your cat’s adoption. In other cases, a cat who has dutifully used the litter box all his life may one day start soiling outside of it, seemingly out of nowhere. Regardless, it’s a frustrating issue that can cause stress, costly home damage, or even surrender or euthanasia. Read on for some insights on feline house soiling and what you can do about it.
A Common Problem
Feline house soiling can consist of either urine or feces, and it’s one of the most common issues cat owners face. One study found that of cats that were relinquished to a shelter for a behavioral problem, 40% were for house soiling. It’s also the #1 reason adopted cats are later returned to shelters.
Feline house soiling can be separated into categories of medical problems, toileting, and marking. If your cat is a kitten or a senior, a medical problem is more likely to be a contributing factor to going outside the litter box. Young cats may suffer from bladder or kidney stones or anatomical abnormalities such as ectopic ureters, while older cats are more likely to be affected by urinary tract infections, kidney failure, or metabolic diseases. No matter your cat’s age, it’s important to start with a visit to the veterinarian to rule out potential medical issues before behavior is addressed.
“Toileting” means your cat has found a new place to use the bathroom – and he prefers it to his litter box. Factors such as litter type, cleanliness, or location can affect toileting – we’ll discuss these more below. Marking, on the other hand, is a method of communication used by cats. In contrast to toileting, cats that are marking are more likely to release a vertical spray while toileting cats will release horizontally. Fecal soiling is also more indicative of toileting, as marking is almost always urinary. Cats that prefer one “substrate” over others (i.e., your bed) are more likely toileting than marking. Interestingly, there’s no difference in the volume of urine released in toileting vs. marking, although many people think cats release just small amounts of urine when marking.
Treatment of a toileting cat focuses on making the litter box as enticing as possible. Litter boxes should be placed in quiet, accessible, well-lit areas, as many cats will avoid noisy laundry rooms, crowded bathrooms, or basements only accessible via stairway. Common knowledge is to have one litter box per cat plus one extra – buy the biggest litter boxes available and keep them clean (scoop daily, empty and scrub monthly). While studies have shown that most cats prefer a clumping clay litter, it may be worth offering several litter boxes with different types of litter in each so you can observe which type your cat prefers. Clean up any soiled areas outside the box immediately, and make these areas unattractive to your cat.
Treatment of marking cats focuses on reducing the need for your cat to “communicate” with others. If your cat is intact, spaying or neutering is the first step to a cat that isn’t desperate to get his “message” out to his peers. The next step is to get rid of any potential triggers for marking. If multiple cats in the household are fighting, institute full or partial segregation and put a belled collar on the aggressor so the other cat can avoid him or her. If other cats out the window are the trigger, remove outdoor attractants and work on blocking your cat’s view outside.
Creating an “environment of plenty” is another important component of treatment. Perches, scratching posts, puzzle toys, even bags and boxes are all good distractions and ways for cats to release some pent-up energy. Short bursts of playtime (i.e. 5 minutes of play followed by 5 of rest) are ideal. The pheromone product “Feliway” has also been shown to reduce marking, and comes in several formulations (plug-in diffusers, sprays, etc.).
Medications are a last-resort option, but often necessary for difficult cases that may be resistant to behavioral therapy. The treatment of choice is fluoxetine (Prozac), given as a daily oral medication. While this can be an incredibly useful tool for some cats, most cats do return to some level of marking when the drug is discontinued.
We Can Help!
While feline house soiling can be challenging to treat, you’re not without options – and with a little work, most cats can be managed at an acceptable level. Your veterinarian will guide you through diagnostic and treatment options and help create a plan for your cat, so you’ll be able to put away that carpet cleaner in no time.