Cat Behavior Problems: House Soiling - Synopsis

House soiling, or feline inappropriate elimination, is not uncommon. The term refers to any urination or defecation that occurs outside the litter box. There are two main categories of house soiling: 1) inappropriate toileting and 2) marking behavior. A cat may soil for either reason, or sometimes for both reasons.

House soiling related to toileting may occur because something about the litter box experience has made the cat uncomfortable or because the cat has found a much more desirable location for elimination.

House soiling related to marking occurs when a cat is attempting to communicate or send a message by using the chemicals (pheromones) in their urine and stool. Marking can occur when a cat is fearful, anxious, or frustrated. There may be social stressors within the home or the cat may be threatened by an outside cat or person. Most cats that mark their environment continue to use their litter box on a regular basis.

You may not need to be concerned about a rare or isolated event. However, if you notice your cat is consistently urinating or defecating outside the box, the first thing to do is to ask your veterinarian to examine your cat. A painful condition can cause a cat to mark or to avoid the litter box, and cats are very good at hiding their pain. Your veterinarian will likely want to run some laboratory tests, including a urine test and fecal evaluation.

"A painful condition can cause a cat to mark or to avoid the litter box, and cats are very good at hiding their pain."

Diagnostic testing will indicate whether your cat is suffering from a metabolic condition that affects her urine. For instance, some illnesses can cause a cat’s urine to be dilute so that each urination contains a large volume that quickly fills the litter box. A full litter box is not appealing for a fastidious cat, and she may leave the box to seek an alternative location. Similarly, inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract can produce large quantities of feces.

Furthermore, some illnesses create discomfort during elimination. Sensitive cats may associate this discomfort with being in the litter box and, even after the medical condition has resolved, the sensitive cat may continue to avoid the litter box. A veterinary behaviorist can help work through this behavior with a treatment plan that helps your cat form a more positive association with her litter box.

My veterinarian said that my cat is healthy. How do we determine the behavioral cause?

The first step is to keep track of the house soiling behavior. A written journal can be helpful to document both soiling and litter box use. The journal can include any unusual changes in the routine or any changes in your cat’s overall behavior, health, or diet. Here are some important questions:

  • How often does your cat use the litter box?
  • How often do you find urine and/or stool outside a box?
  • What is the location for soiling? Is it very near the box, in a hidden corner, in the middle of the room, or near a window or door?
  • If your cat does not use a box, what surface does your cat use instead?
  • Does the behavior occur at a certain time of day?
  • What types of boxes are available, and where are they located?
  • What type of litter do you use, and how often do you clean the box?

Cats are very sensitive to their physical and social environment, so the behavioral assessment includes questions about the home environment and routine, which help determine whether your cat’s social needs are being met and whether there is any underlying anxiety or frustration. It is particularly important to evaluate your cat’s relationship with other household cats.

What can I try first?

Sometimes, house soiling is uncomplicated, and a few easy steps can resolve the problem. The first step is to consider the litter box experience from your cat’s perspective.

  • Is the box clean? Boxes should be scooped once or twice daily. If you are not home to clean that often, you may need to add more boxes.
  • Did you recently change the litter type or depth? If so, try adding a second box, and test different types of litter in each box to determine whether your cat has a favorite. Then, try two different depths of litter.
  • Is the box big enough for your cat? Most cats like boxes at least 1.5 times their body length.
  • Can your cat get to the box? Be sure there are no children, dogs, or other cats that could ambush your cat on her way in or out of the box.
  • Do you have enough boxes? If you have a large house, or you have more than one cat, you may need to provide several boxes (one box per cat plus one) to ensure that your cat always finds a vacant and clean box and that your cat does not have to travel far to reach the box.

Sometimes, cats have a strong preference for a particular location. In many cases, it is convenient and effective to place a box in that location. If your cat uses this box regularly, then, after a period of time, you can move the box very gradually to a spot that is more convenient for you. If it is not possible to put a box in your cat’s favorite spot, you may be able to change the function of the area from a toilet to a feeding or play station. Do this by placing a food dish, a food-filled toy, or a favored toy in the area.

If your cat is soiling in an area that she does not typically frequent for any other reason, you may block access to the area using a gate or make the area less pleasant by leaving some citrus rinds near the elimination spot.

What is a litter box preference test?

Some cats are very particular about their litter box experience. It can be helpful to provide a variety of boxes and litters – a cafeteria experience – so your cat can indicate just what she wants. For example, test your cat’s preference for different litter types by providing two or more identical boxes with different litters inside (e.g., clumping versus non-clumping). You can try replicating the substrate on which your cat has been eliminating (e.g., piece of carpet, towel, floor tiles, soil, or even an empty box).

Provide a choice of litter depth and a choice of liner versus no liner. Some cats prefer a shallow depth of litter for urination and a deeper depth for defecation.

Once your cat’s favorite substrate has been determined, place that substrate into different types of boxes to test whether your cat has a box style preference. Offer two or more different boxes, such as covered versus open, small versus large, standard versus self-cleaning, etc.

My cat uses all the litter boxes but continues to eliminate in inappropriate locations. What next?

If your cat uses litter boxes, often the house soiling is related to marking. It will be important to have a professional assessment. Meanwhile, create a list of any possible stressors. Keep good track of the timing of any soiling – you may be able to identify a specific trigger. For instance, some cats mark when they are hungry or when they are left alone.

"Keep good track of the timing of any soiling – you may be able to identify a specific trigger."

Observe interactions with people and pets in the home. When cats are uncomfortable emotionally, they often hide, freeze, stare, and/or choose high resting spaces. Cats that are in pain may not be able to easily access their favorite resting spaces and are sometimes harassed by other pets, which in turn can trigger marking behavior.

Be sure that your cat is getting plenty of interactive play time and that she has access to many interesting activities and areas to explore. Pheromones such as Feliway Optimum® may be helpful if placed in target areas.

Should I confine my cat?

If your cat is diagnosed with house soiling due to toileting, you may protect your home by confining your cat in an area with a “litter box cafeteria”, but confinement should be kept to a minimum and done with care; otherwise, your cat may become distressed and will be at risk of physical and behavioral illness. Ensure the confinement area is very comfortable for your cat. When you are home to supervise, your cat should be free to enjoy your company and your home.

If your cat is marking, confinement can exacerbate the behavior. Your cat may be even more motivated to communicate (i.e., mark) when let out of the room.

What should I do if I catch my cat spraying?

If you catch your cat about to eliminate, the best tactic is to distract him. Do not scold or otherwise try to frighten your cat. Cats are very sensitive to any form of punishment, even verbal reprimands. Punishment can cause fear and can permanently damage your cat’s trust in you.

"Punishment can cause fear and can permanently damage your cat’s trust in you."

A novel sound can often be used as a distraction, and you may then be able to lure your cat to the room that does have a litter box. It is sometimes possible to lure a cat directly to the litter box itself and then step back – but be careful not to frighten your cat or the box will become even less appealing.