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Bad kitty, Or…sad kitty? Feline Urinary Issues & What You Can Do About Them

By Dr. Courtney Smock

Litter box problems, or “inappropriate elimination behaviors," are among the most common complaints I hear from cat owners.  If it has ever happened in your home, you're probably thinking “inappropriate” is a rather mild way to describe urine or feces in the middle of your carpet, but bear with me.  With some investigative work and patience, we can help most cats get over bad bathroom behavior. And, with the right information you may prevent future problems.
 
Medical causes
The first step in these situations should always be a visit to your vet to rule out underlying medical causes.  Conditions like kidney disease, diabetes, and hyperthyroidism can increase urine production, while urinary tract infections and bladder stones are uncomfortable and may result in frequent urination.  Likewise, issues such as parasites, constipation, and inflammatory bowel disease may make defecation urgent or uncomfortable.  Even arthritis can affect bathroom habits – imagine if you had to climb over a waist-high wall to get to the toilet!  So, it’s possible your feline friend doesn’t feel well and just can’t make it to the litter box.  A thorough physical exam, blood work, urine analysis and/or fecal exam will establish your cat’s general health status and help guide treatment if necessary.
 
Behavior
Now that we’ve ruled out medical conditions, it is safe to start questioning behavioral causes… But before you send kitty to a psychiatrist to work out his anger issues, we need to talk about YOUR behavior too.  You may think that your cat doesn’t deign to notice you unless it’s dinner time, but cats are actually quite sensitive critters.  They can’t tell you with words that they are stressed out by something in the house, but peeing outside the litter box is one way to get your attention (my two cats prefer to barf in my shoes or self-mutilate, respectively).  Here are some things that might be ruffling kitty’s tail feathers.
 
Litter box issues:
 
  • Hygiene – Is it possible that you and kitty have different standards when it comes to cleaning the bathroom, so he decided to seek out a cleaner facility?  Most cats are quite fastidious, so litter should be scooped daily and changed out completely on occasion (non-clumping litter should be dumped every few days). You might also consider tossing your box for a new one if it’s really worn, as plastic can retain urine smells.
  • Availability – Are there enough litter boxes in the house?  I recommend having one box per cat plus an extra (e.g. 3 cats, 4 boxes) unless you have a very large number of cats, and then you will probably get into trouble despite the number of boxes.  There is a scientific study from the 80s showing that individuals with 10 or more cats have a 100% probability of becoming a victim of inappropriate urination, and a 90% probability of eventually being a crazy cat person (ok, maybe only the first half was shown in the study).
  • Location – Maybe kitty was just settling down in his laundry room litter box to “read the Sunday paper” when that really loud timer on the dryer buzzed and startled him into Tuesday.  If you think location could be the problem, leave the current box in place but add one somewhere else in the house.
  • Type of litter – Cats have preferences about their potties, and it may be your cat doesn't care for that fresh pine scent as much as you do.  Try a few different types (clumping, clay, recycled newspaper, etc.) at the same time to give kitty a choice of textures and smells.  Be sure to include a finely-textured clumping litter in your test, as it was chosen more than twice as often as other types in a thorough study by behaviorist Dr. Peter Borchelt.
  • Type of box – Try out a new box shape or size.  However, a word of caution on covered boxes…  Many people favor covered litter boxes for obvious reasons, but I find most cats do not, especially in multi-cat households. For example, my cat thought his sister was playing hide-and-seek in the covered box we used to have, so he would wait outside and ambush her upon exit.  Needless to say, she did not enjoy this.
 
Environmental stressors – Pretty much any event or change in your cat’s life can fall into this category, but common issues include:
 
  • New people – Houseguests, new spouse or roommate, new baby, etc.
  • Disruption of environment – Moving, renovations, holiday decorations and celebrations
  • Change in your schedule – New job, leaving for vacation
  • Visiting the vet – I wish they all loved seeing me…
  • Inter-cat aggression – self explanatory, and common.
  • New pets – Introducing a furry family member can be a very delicate process, and strategy may depend on the personalities of your current critters. I recommend talking to your veterinarian if you are thinking of adding a pet.
These issues are tricky, as it’s often difficult to control them unless you plan on letting your cat completely run your life.  What you can do is implement some practices that will hopefully make kitty more resilient to life’s little blips. We've already discussed litter box recommendations, but additionally all cats should have fresh food and water, something they’re allowed to scratch, and a safe space where they can go to get away from other pets and people if they choose.  Perches can often provide such a space, and when placed near a window also serve as a source of entertainment.  You should also carve out some time each day to interact with your cat via play, grooming, or even training (yes, cats can be trained!).  Toys and catnip are great stimulation for some kitties, while others will be engrossed by “cat TV” or nature videos.  Feliway (http://www.feliway.com/us), a synthetic pheromone product, may also help reduce stress.  Be creative and try different things to find what lights your cat’s fire, but the message is that your cat may be bored or stressed if his basic needs are not met, and this can lead to health and behavior problems.  Ohio State University's Indoor Pet Initiative (http://indoorpet.osu.edu/cats/) has done a lot to further our understanding of how environmental enrichment can help our feline friends live happy lives.
 
No dice, Doc.  Now what?
So you’ve had kitty vetted, offered a Pu-Pu platter of litters and boxes, enriched his life and pheromoned the heck out him, and he’s still “thinking” outside the box.  Now may be the time to head back to your veterinarian, or a veterinary behaviorist if one is available and finances permit.  If the problem has been going on for a long time or your cat is particularly sensitive to environmental stressors, finding a solution can be very specific to the individual animal and situation.  There are anti-anxiety medications that can help, especially in cases where feline housemates are not getting along, but they are not magic pills and must be used in conjunction with environmental modifications, many of which have been discussed above.
 
To sum up…
 
  • Rule out medical causes
  • CLEAN the litter box
  • Try different types of litter in different boxes in different locations
  •  Reduce stress with environmental enrichment and interaction with your cat
  • Medications can be useful in conjunction with behavior and environment modifications