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Why Is My Cat Urinating Outside The Litter Box?

One of the most common reasons owners bring their cats to the veterinarian is for inappropriate urination. Identifying the underlying cause for this undesirable act is essential for preventing future occurrences.

Ruling out an underlying medical problem should be the first course of action. Sick cats may have accidents outside the box due to urinary tract infections, crystals in the urine, diabetes, kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, arthritis, or cognitive dysfunction. The first step in diagnosing the cause of inappropriate urination is a thorough physical exam and urinalysis. Because cats can't be walked outside to entice them to provide urine for testing, occasionally a patient will need to stay in the hospital for the day so a sample can be collected. Sometimes blood work and an x-ray of the cat's bladder are also indicated. If a medical issue is identified, treatment can be initiated to help resolve both the inappropriate urination and its underlying cause.

If no medical cause for the inappropriate urination can be determined after physical exam and lab work, behavioral causes should be considered. Cats are very particular creatures that can become upset by even the slightest alteration in their routine. The resulting stress and anxiety can lead a cat to urinate outside the litter box. Identifying potential stressors in a cat's life and making adjustments to decrease anxiety can go a long way towards correcting behavioral issues.

What can stress a cat? Moving, new people or pets introduced into the household or people or pets leaving the household, rearranging furniture, irregular or infrequent litter box cleaning, too few litter boxes, dissatisfaction with litter type/brand or litter box type/conformation,litter box location....the list is endless! Owners may have no control over some of these lifestyle changes, but modifying certain aspects in husbandry are easy solutions that may fix the problem pet's behavior.

Irregular or infrequent litter box cleaning: The majority of cats don't want to use a dirty litter box. Litter should be scooped at least once daily, and the entire box should be cleaned and filled with fresh litter monthly for clumping litter and at least weekly for clay litter.

Too few litter boxes: The general rule of thumb is one litter box per cat plus one. One cat households should have two boxes, two cat households should have three, etc. If you live in a multi-level house, it is also a good idea to have at least one litter box located on each floor to which the cat has access.

Dissatisfaction with litter type/brand or litter box type/conformation: Texture can be important, and some cats prefer clumping litter over clay litter and vice versa. Litter should be approximately 1.5-2 inches deep for optimal comfort. Cats can also be very sensitive to perfumes, so it's best to use unscented litters. Litter boxes should be large enough for the cat to comfortably turn turn around and dig (approximately 1.5 times the length of the cat).Although it is often not as cosmetically appealing to us, many cats also prefer open litter boxes to covered ones. Kittens and older cats also require litter boxes with lower rims to provide ease of access.

It's important to address the behavior of all pets in the household. Cats may be reluctant to use the litter box if they feel trapped or cornered by another cat or dog. Ensure one pet isn't guarding the box or preventing the cat from exiting once it has been used.

Litter box location: Many people place litter boxes in laundry rooms, basements, garages, or other areas of the home that are conveniently out of the way. This arrangement may be more ideal for the owner, but not necessarily for the cat. While cats do enjoy a private location for their litter box, they can become wary of using it if it's difficult to access or in a noisy location, especially when the noise is sudden or iregular as with a furnace or washing machine. It is also important not ot feed the cat near the litter box, as cats are reluctant to urinate and defecate near their food.

Spraying: Spraying, or urninating in a standing position, is a behavior often associated with marking or communication between cats. Intact cats are more known for spraying, but those that have been spayed or neutered can still perform this unwanted behavior. More often than not, it can be attributed to the same inciting factors as mentioned above. Additionally, cats can mark in response to territorial disputes with neighborhood cats, and cats from multi-cat households are more likely to spray than single cats. Even indoor only cats can develop the behavior if they can see other cats through windows or screened porches. To correct this behavior, follow the guidlines above. Additionally, use window coverings to block line of sight with outdoor cats that may be coming onto your property.

Medical Management:

Once all medical causes for inappropriate urination have been ruled out or corrected and all husbandry changes have been addressed, medical management with behavioral modifying medications may be considered if a cat continues to urinate outside the litter box. Most medications are to be used long term, and take several weeks to reach full effect. They may be used in conjunction with other over the counter products, such as pheromones, for the best effect.

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