Feline inappropriate urination (urinating in the wrong place) can be quite common. It often involves the cat urinating outside their litter box in an inappropriate area or on an inappropriate object. The causes are generally medical or behavioural.
Diseases of the urinary tract can cause inappropriate urination, including bladder stones, bacterial infections, and other inflammatory diseases that can cause pain and an increased urgency to urinate. Diseases of the kidneys and liver can cause cats to drink more and thus urinate more frequently. Urinating more frequently or with increased urgency means that cats may not reach their litter tray in time or that the litter tray becomes soiled very quickly, which may deter the cat from using it again until the litter is changed.
Age-related brain function decline and hormonal disorders such as diabetes may also lead to changes in urination habits. A cat’s mobility and sensory function may also affect their urinating habits. Medical conditions affecting the nerves, muscles, or joints, could lead to discomfort, stiffness or weakness such that a cat may not be able to get to the litter tray or get into the litter tray easily.
If your cat is urinating inappropriately, it is very important to make an appointment for your cat with your veterinarian for a thorough physical examination and assessment. It is important to rule out any medical causes of inappropriate urination prior to addressing any behavioural causes.
** Please note that if a cat is having trouble urinating, i.e., the cat cannot urinate or urinate normally (signs may include straining to urinate without passing urine or without passing a normal stream of urine, with or without vocalisation when urinating) they could have a urinary ‘blockage’ – this is a medical emergency. ‘Blocked’ urination is generally a problem associated more with male cats and can be fatal. Please see your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your cat could be blocked.
There are many behavioural reasons why cats may begin to urinate inappropriately. Frustration, stress, or anxiety can sometimes cause a cat to change their urinating habits. Any change in their routine, such as a new person in the household or moving house, can lead to changes in urination. They may also “mark” spots in the house with their urine as a means of marking their territory. Territorial “marking” may be considered part of normal behaviour and can be triggered by the presence or odour of another cat. However, some cats will also “mark” their environment in response to stress or anxiety.
Cats may also change their urinating patterns if they have issues with their litter tray. They may not like the type of litter tray, the litter material or where the litter tray is located or they may be put off if the tray has already been used but not cleaned yet. Some suggestions that can help with behavioural causes of inappropriate urination are listed below:
- Number of trays: Providing multiple litter trays in various locations in the house. One cat needs two trays; each additional cat needs another tray, all in different places.
- Location of trays: Litter trays placed in areas that are unappealing to your cat will tend to discourage the cat from using the tray. Cats also prefer to urinate in private, so placing the tray in a quiet area away from any household traffic and noise can help. Cats also do not like toileting near their food or water, so make sure the litter trays are not near water and food bowls or areas where you feed your cat (e.g., food puzzles or areas where you scatter feed/hide food for enrichment).
- Size of trays: Ensure the litter tray is big enough for your cat to comfortably dig, turn around and squat – that means at least 1.5 times the length of your cat (e.g. an average cat measures about 50cm nose to tail, so their litter tray should be at least 75cm long). Many commercial litter trays are too small, but it is easy to make your own using modified plastic storage containers.
- Type of trays: Sometimes cats have difficulty using certain litter trays, for example, an elderly cat with arthritis may find it difficult to climb into a litter tray with high sides. An open uncovered tray, or one with lower sides would be much easier for an older cat to access. Some cats do not like covered litter trays, while others do. If your cat is urinating inappropriately, try giving them a couple of different kinds of trays to try so they can choose one they are comfortable with.
- Litter: Try different cat litter brands/types until you find one your cat is happy using. Some cats prefer a sandy or clay-based litter, and others like wood pellets or crystals. Unscented litter is best, as cats can be put off by the smell of scented litters. Cats need to dig, so make sure you fill the tray with litter to a depth of at least 6 cm.
- Cleaning: Ideally you should spot clean the litter tray every day (scoop out any waste), and replace the litter once a week. Do not leave soiled litter for too long as this may put your cat off using their tray. For some cats, it is necessary to keep the litter tray scrupulously clean. This may mean cleaning the litter trays a few times a day. Cats may be reluctant to use the litter tray if it has been recently deodorised or if the cat dislikes the odour of the cleansers, so rinsing well with water after cleaning is recommended. Please ensure you clean the tray with products that are safe for use around cats.
- How can you tell if your cat is happy with their litter tray? If a cat digs a lot in their tray this generally indicates they like it. Scratching the walls near the tray or sides of litter tray may be a sign that they don’t like something about the tray or litter, so if you see your cat doing this, try changing something about the tray and/or litter to see if your cat seems to be more comfortable with their toilet.
- Cats can develop preferences for certain substrates to urinate on, such as a wooden floor or carpet. Restricting access to the area or object involved may help to break the cycle.
- You may also try placing a litter tray where the cat has been urinating inappropriately, as they may have become accustomed to urinating in that particular area. If the cat uses the tray in that location, the tray should be left there for at least one week. Then the tray can slowly (a little bit each day) be moved to a new more appropriate location, if necessary. This needs to be done very carefully to be sure that your cat follows the tray and continues to use it as it is moved.
- Some cat behaviouralists advise spraying odour neutralisers on the area where your cat has urinated inappropriately. This removes the urine smell which may help to decrease your cat’s interest in continuing to urinate on that spot. At the same time, you should provide litter trays in other locations to further encourage your cat to urinate elsewhere. Please ensure any odour neutralisers are safe for use around cats. If another cat has left their odours around the house and this has caused a change in the resident cat’s urinating habits, it is important to eliminate the other cats’ smells. This may help to reduce the “stress” and drive to “mark” territory in the resident cat.
- If a new cat has been introduced into the house it is vital to provide multiple litter trays throughout the house for each individual cat.
- Another technique to discourage a cat from urinating in an unsuitable area is to change the function of that area by turning it into a feeding, playing, sleeping or scratching area, which may reduce the cat’s desire to urinate there.
- Your veterinarian can provide further advice. They may discuss, for example, feline pheromone sprays/diffusers which can help stressed or anxious cats.
Marking allows a cat to surround themselves with their own familiar smells. When cats “mark” territory they usually back up to a vertical surface, raise their tail, tread with their back feet, the tail may quiver and a small stream of urine is directed backwards. Marking usually involves urinating on vertical surfaces but may also involve urinating on horizontal surfaces. Though unneutered male cats are the most likely to urine “mark”, marking has been seen in neutered males and females as well. If another cat has placed their own smells in the area, cleaning any area where the other cat ventured and cleaning any materials touched by the other cat (where possible) may assist in preventing your cat from feeling the need to mark. Please ensure that any cleaners are safe for use around cats.