Cat Behavior Problems: House Soiling

What is house soiling and Inappropriate elimination in cats?

The most common unwanted behavior described by cat owners is house soiling. This includes urinating or defecating in unwanted areas outside the litter box. House soiling is sometimes called inappropriate elimination. If there is a change in your cat’s elimination habits (location, frequency, consistency, amount), a veterinary visit is highly recommended. Early detection and early intervention are key in helping resolve house soiling.

Supporting the lifestyle and elimination needs of cats can prevent and assist in reversing inappropriate elimination. Regardless of the cause, assessing the needs of your cat is a good starting point.

What lifestyle supports can help cats maintain litter use?

Whether the cause is an illness, a behavioral disorder, or an unwanted habit, the checklist for encouraging litter use in cats is largely the same. Follow these steps to set cats up for success, especially those with underlying illness.  

1) Identify the correct cat or cats. The easiest way to do this is to set up a small video camera to observe the location where the elimination is happening. It may surprise you that many cat owners improperly identify the “culprit” (in a multi-cat houselhold).  

2) Meet the needs of the cats. Cats need exercise, social contact, and attention. They also need time to rest, opportunities to engage in seeking/finding behavior, and freedom from stress. Cats also require:

  • Adequate social interaction with preferred social partners (human/other species) daily.
  • Daily physical and mental exercise.
  • Feeding program consistent with the normal behavior of cats (numerous small meals daily.)
  • Use of synthetic pheromone products may be helpful for all cats.
  • Food foraging toys (ex. Indoor hunting feeder systems for cats).
  • An environment with no competition for resources which includes: a high perching area, enclosed hiding areas, multiple feeding stations and elimination stations, (especially for multi-cat households).

How do I know what my cat likes or needs?

Based on research, here are items most cats prefer when it comes to a litter box:

  • Unscented, fine grit clumping style litter.
  • A deep box with at least 3” of digging material.
  • A large area inside the box with enough room to walk in and turn around without touching the sides or top.
  • Enough room inside the box to eliminate and dig without touching the sides or clumped waste.
  • Storage containers with an entry door or large sweater boxes often make excellent litter boxes.
  • Boxes in quiet areas that are easily accessible and away from appliances and high traffic areas.
  • Kittens and senior cats need lower sides to enter & exit boxes easily.
  • Most cats prefer uncovered boxes, but this varies depending on the individual cat.
  • Larger homes and homes with multiple cats will need multiple litter box locations. (multiple boxes together in the same area or same room count as one box).
  • Cats who eliminate while standing may need a box with high sides to prevent urine or feces falling outside the box when the cat is inside the box.

How can I tell if my cat is happy with a litter box?

Providing a “litter cafeteria” temporarily can help owners assess what a cat prefers. Offer several boxes with a variety of litter types  located in the same area. Providing a box with sand and one with soil may also be helpful. Take note of which litter type is used most frequently over the course of a week, and provide that litter moving forward.  

If your cat is eliminating outside the box, pay attention to the surface they are choosing. Is  it paper, fabric, or towels? Sometimes providing a litter box with the preferred material will prompt the cat to use the litter box. Cat litter can then be gradually mixed in with the preferred material to retrain over time.  

Why is it important to keep a cat’s litter box and “bathroom” area clean?

Most cats are by nature fastidious which means that they spend a lot of time grooming themselves. They naturally prefer a tidy bathroom as well. Consider a human going into a public restroom. If someone before you forgets to flush, do you proceed and use the toilet? Doing our best to keep the litter clean and appealing to cats is one of the most important factors in maintaining good elimination habits for your cats.  

Every Day: Scoop all clumps. Some cats prefer the litter to be scooped even more frequently.  

Every Week: Empty all litter and any residue from the box. Refill with clean litter.  

Every Month: Empty all litter and thoroughly scrub the box with hot water and mild soap before refilling. Some cats prefer this to be done weekly.

Every Year: Completely replace the litter box.  

Can changes in elimination be a sign of illness?

There are numerous medical concerns which can lead to house soiling including:

  • Bladder or kidney infection.
  • Bladder or kidney inflammation.
  • Anxiety and stress which can lead to bladder inflammation.
  • Crystals or stones in the bladder or urine.
  • Illnesses that cause increased thirst and urination such as kidney disease or thyroid disease.
  • Stomach upset for any reason (short-term or long-term).
  • Diarrhea for any reason (short-term or long-term).
  • Any source of pain anywhere in the body, including dental pain.
  • Decreased mobility or arthritis.
  • Cognitive changes.

A thorough health checkup, behavioral checkup, and lab testing are the first important steps in changing house soiling. A thorough history, physical examination, blood tests, urine testing, and x-rays may be recommended.

The veterinarian may recommend follow-up testing and treatment for underlying illnesses as part of a comprehensive therapeutic plan to reduce house soiling.  

What are behavioral causes of inappropriate elimination?

Marking and toileting are the two main strictly behavioral causes of inappropriate elimination. These behaviors can be caused by stress.  

Marking can be done with urine or feces and is a normal behavior in cats. But marking with urine or feces outside the litter box can be a sign of social pressure or stressors. Most cats who are marking will also use the litter box sometimes and deposit small amounts of urine or feces in other, socially important locations.

Some examples of socially important locations:  

  • Near windows or doors.
  • Sleeping areas of people or animals.
  • Territory boundaries with other animals.
  • Pathways used by people or other animals.
  • Clothing.

Toileting is a term used to describe relieving a full bladder or bowel. Cats who toilet outside the litter box rarely also use the litter. They tend to void fuller amounts, and not necessarily in socially important locations.  

Toileting frequently involves one or more of these factors:

  • Depositing a normal size elimination.
  • Eliminating on similar surfaces repeatedly.
  • Eliminating near but not inside a litter area.
  • A change in litter habits after previously using litter.  
  • A history of a health issue that influences litter use (such as pain during elimination or pain when assuming the position to eliminate)

How do I help reverse unwanted elimination?

The diagnosis behind the cause of the inappropriate elimination will help guide treatment. Your veterinarian can assist with making this diagnosis and in prescribing an appropriate treatment protocol. Most treatment plans involve trying to re-establish the habit of using the litter box.  

Some suggestions:

  • Keep a journal of where, when, and how much your cat eliminates both inside and outside the box to track progress.  
  • If there are multiple pets, video surveillance to assure the proper pet is identified.  
  • Determine what litter the cat prefers and provide it.  
  • Block access to areas which have been used repeatedly for inappropriate elimination.
  • Remove stressors. Your veterinarian can help evaluate signs of stress and develop a de-stressing plan.  
  • Do not use a squirt bottle. Do not scold or punish your cat. Conflict with you will only increase a cat’s stress or fear and may worsen the problem or simply redirect it to another location.  
  • Confining a cat to a small area may be needed for a few weeks to re-start litter use. The area can then gradually be made larger over time. Consult your veterinarian before starting confinement training.

What medications can be prescribed for behavioral elimination?

Sometimes medications are prescribed for behavioral elimination, especially medications that reduce anxiety and stress. Medication alone will not solve or reverse inappropriate elimination and should always be accompanied by a detailed retraining plan. Your veterinarian can help discuss whether medications are appropriate and how they might be incorporated to facilitate litter retraining.