Inappropriate Elimination Disorders in Cats

What is inappropriate elimination?

Inappropriate elimination generally refers to urination and/or defecation in places other than the litter box. The behavior is sometimes referred to as ‘house soiling’.

What causes inappropriate elimination?

Inappropriate elimination may be due to a medical condition, a behavioral disorder, or both. Behavioral stress can even trigger medical conditions in cats. If your cat is eliminating outside her litter box, the first step is to have her examined by your veterinarian. If everything checks out fine, a behavioral workup by a veterinary behaviorist is recommended. An accurate assessment from the start will improve the outcome.  

What are some of the medical causes for inappropriate elimination?

Cats who experience discomfort during elimination often seek an alternate location that allows them to stretch or move their bodies more easily than they can in a confined box. Cats may also associate their pain with being in the litter box and develop an aversion to it. For example, infection or inflammation in the urinary tract causes discomfort during urination. Similarly, inflammation in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, as with inflammatory bowel disease, may cause discomfort during defecation. Cats with orthopedic or neurologic pain may experience discomfort when entering a traditional litter box or when posturing to eliminate.

Many medical conditions that cause cats to urinate or defecate more frequently, such as kidney disease, diabetes, and digestive disorders, cause cats to produce more urine or stool. Their boxes may fill up more quickly, driving them to seek cleaner locations to eliminate.

A physical examination and lab work, including a urinalysis and fecal examination, will allow your veterinarian to reduce the medical causes underlying your cat’s house soiling. Sometimes the behavior can persist even after medical conditions have resolved. A behavioral treatment plan will be needed, as described later in this handout.

"Cats who experience discomfort during elimination often seek an alternate location..."

How can I protect my furniture and carpet from being damaged by urine?

Until treatment has been completed, it can be helpful to prevent your cat from accessing or spending time in high-risk areas. You may close your cat out of an area entirely or use protective covers. If your cat is soiling on a bed, use a waterproof mattress cover under the bedding, and in addition, place a furniture cover designed for pets (these are washable and have waterproof backing) on top of the bed.

If your cat is soiling on the carpet, you can use a plastic or rubber carpet runner with the pointy nubs sticking up instead of down. Most cats do not like walking on this surface. You can use the same material on a couch and remove it when you want to relax or can supervise your cat.

Some areas can be effectively blocked by placing citrus rind or cat-safe potpourri in a small dish nearby. Most cats do not linger near these odors.

It is important that you do not simply block your cat from a location without providing an outlet for the behavior. Provide enough litter boxes of choice for your cat. Over time, as your cat begins to consistently favor using a litter box, some of these extra boxes can be removed.

"Until treatment has been completed, it can be helpful to prevent your cat from accessing or spending time in high-risk areas."

If you cannot keep your house safe, then until treatment is complete, when you are not available to supervise, you may confine your cat to a comfortable room where you can provide a litter box cafeteria. Ensure your cat has plenty of food, water, toys, and comfortable resting places. Provide quality social time, including interactive play.

Use an enzymatic cleaner, such as Urine Away® or Nature’s Miracle®, to remove residual odors that could encourage your cat to return to previously soiled areas.

How can I treat my cat’s stress-related medical condition?

Cats are susceptible to chronic stress-induced illnesses, particularly illnesses related to the bladder and GI tract. Providing social and environmental enrichment can reduce stress and help your cat stay physically healthier. Most cats living indoors benefit from kitty hunts, interactive play, interesting places to explore, a wide variety of toys, a choice of resting spots with prime views, and social interactions with their people. (See the handout “Cat Behavior and Training – Enrichment for Indoor Cats” for more information.)

Cats experiencing stress may respond to synthetic pheromones (i.e., Feliway®). If your cat is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, your veterinarian may prescribe a medication and/or a nutraceutical. (See the handouts “Behavior Counseling – Medication” and “Behavior Counseling – Complementary Treatments” for more information.)