Accidents Happen, Part 2: What to Do If Your Cat Goes Outside the Box

Nov 22, 2015 / Behavior / Cats

[cat looks at camera]

Pets should never be punished for house soiling

The most common behavioral problem for which cat owners seek a veterinarian’s advice is when their cat goes outside the box. According to Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a veterinary behaviorist at the University of Illinois Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine, studies indicate that house soiling can account for up to 70 percent of a behavioral referral practice’s feline cases.

Dr. Ballantyne explains that soiling outside of the litter box can stem from either a medical or behavioral problem.

“An example of a medical problem could be a cat with a urinary tract infection that feels the urge to urinate more frequently, and therefore cannot make it to the litter box each time,” explains Dr. Ballantyne. “Behavioral causes include marking (a form of communication in cats), which can occur when the cat is stressed, and inappropriate toileting, which is when the animal develops aversions to something about the litter box or develops preferences for soiling in other locations.”

Which Cat Is It?

In a multi-animal household, it can be challenging to determine which pet is having the issue. It is essential to determine which cat is house soiling, since you want to be sure appropriate treatment is provided to the right animal.

If there are multiple cats in a home, Dr. Ballantyne suggests separating them until it is determined which one is soiling inappropriately. Of course, each cat would need to have its own food, water, litter box, toys, and so on in its area. Using a video camera is an option for owners who are gone during the day. Dr. Ballantyne’s preferred option is using video, as separating the cats can be stressful to everyone in the family. A third option is to feed cats that are defecating outside of the litterbox a small amount of crayon: just be sure to give each cat a different color. Be sure to ask your veterinarian about these techniques before trying them.

Treatment Options

A thorough history provides the veterinarian with clues to differentiate between a primary medical issue and a behavioral problem. The veterinarian may ask questions such as the pet’s posture when urinating, what they are urinating on, whether it is a horizontal or vertical surface, and how they behave while in the litter box. If a medical cause for the soiling is suspected, diagnostic tests may include a urinalysis, x-rays, and blood work.

Treatments for house soiling due to marking behavior or inappropriate toileting include management techniques, such as keeping cats away from previously marked areas or deterring cats from an area by using a citrus scent or upside-down plastic carpet runners. If the house soiling has been going on for a while, cleaning the soiled area thoroughly is so important. Using an enzymatic cleaner is recommended, since these break the odor down to such a small level that the pet is no longer attracted to the area.

Improving the relationship between the animal and owner is very important. “People should never punish their pets for inappropriate elimination,” says Dr. Ballantyne. “Punishment merely increases the amount of stress on the animal, which is not helpful for the pet or the person since house soiling can be a stress-related behavior.”

Behavior modification is another treatment option. For cats with urine marking, provide scratching posts or other objects for the cat to use to encourage other types of marking. Certain medications and pheromones are available to treat urine marking and inappropriate elimination. Medications are usually indicated to treat urine marking, while they are typically not indicated for house soiling if anxiety is not involved. Speak with your veterinarian about the possible benefits and side effects of treating with medications.

The Scoop on Litter Boxes

Improving litter box hygiene is an essential and easy way to address house soiling. The litter box should be scooped daily, litter completely changed weekly, and the box cleaned with mild soap each month. According to Dr. Ballantyne, cats should be provided with one more litter box than the number of cats in the home. This means a two-cat household should have three litter boxes.

Litter boxes should be spread throughout the house. A two-story house should have a box on each level. Switching from a highly fragrant litter to a non-scented may be helpful, since most cats prefer a non-scented, clumping litter. Dr. Ballantyne also recommends positive reinforcement, such as giving the cat a treat for using the litter box to reinforce the behavior you would like them to do.

“Even though feline house soiling is very common, the good news is that most cases can be improved or even completely resolved when following your veterinarian’s recommendations,” states Dr. Ballantyne.

For more information about feline inappropriate elimination, speak with a veterinarian who specializes in behavior.

By Sarah Netherton

Photo by James Vaughan