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Inappropriate Urination: Thinking Inside the Box

Thinking Inside the Box

When your cat begins to exhibit inappropriate elimination behaviors (urinating outside the box), it can be stressful for everyone in the house. The chances of correcting it are greater the sooner you deal with the issue. Thankfully, there are many solutions.

Why Does She Do This?

You must always FIRST consider whether there could be a medical explanation. Some cats have been subjected to various forms of abuse for no other reason than they're ill! Spanking and scolding are always inappropriate human behaviors. Banishing a cat to the outdoors is not the answer, especially if you've not yet taken him to the vet.

If the cat has not yet been spayed or neutered, that could very well be the only problem. "Intact" cats, by design, tend to mark their territory. It's who they are. While this behavior is usually associated with male cats, it can also be a female behavior. An unsterilized cat can develop tumors or other health issues in their reproductive systems. If your cat is not yet sterilized, schedule this very important, and simple procedure today! See our Clinics list for a variety of low-cost options.

If the cat is declawed, tossing her outside because she is urinating somewhere that you don't like, is simply abuse. There is no other nicer way to say this. The cat did not ask to be declawed, and had she been asked, we're sure she would have adamantly said, loudly and clearly, NO WAY! Since some human did this to her anyway, she may be having urination issues as a direct result of that amputation procedure! Yes, even years later. "Peeing" outside the box, and biting, are the two most common reasons for euthanasia or relinquishment of declawed cats, both of which are a man-made consequence, and both completely avoidable. Further, if the cat is not yet spayed or neutered, placing her outside is one of the most irresponsible things you can do to the cat and your community. For more scientific explanations of the many consequences of declawing a cat, see Declawing: What You Need to Know.

Medical or Behavioral?

So how can you tell the difference between medical and behavioral? It's not always easy.

If your cat is meowing or making other verbal noises while he's urinating, he's probably having to strain to get it out. This is definitely a health issue, and it means he's in a LOT of pain. He may be blocked, and could die as a result, within a very short period of time. Take him to the vet.

If he's making frequent trips to the litter pan, or sitting there longer than usual, it's definitely a health issue.

If his output is small or none at all, if it contains blood, or if the amount is excessive, it's definitely a health issue. If the odor is unusual, either a strong ammonia or pheromone smell, or a sweet smell like fruit juice, it's probably a health issue, and should be checked by a vet.

If he's squatting when he goes somewhere outside the litter box, scratching around on the object afterward, perhaps kicking his hind feet, or sprinting through the house like something's after him, it's probably a health issue.

If he's standing up, backed up toward a wall or piece of furniture with his tail up in the air, and directing a stream at the vertical object, it may be a behavioral issue. But this behavior may actually be the result of an underlying health issue that you have not yet had checked out. To be sure, take him to the vet. Yes, female cats can spray like this too!

When kitty has been trying to bring your attention to the fact that he's in pain, and you're not hearing him, he sometimes has to become more obvious to get the message across. DO NOT punish him for this, even if it does end up being behavioral. Punishment only exacerbates the issue. The key to training a cat is repetition and praise.

How do I change his behavior?

So now that kitty has been given a clean bill of health from the vet, and he's still going outside the box, what can you do to change this behavior? You want him to think inside the box.

Rule #1:
Never punish! No rubbing his nose in the spot, spanking, screaming at him, or anything else that's abusive.

As soon as you see him begin the behavior, interrupt him by simply picking him up, then gently place him in the box with kindness. You don't need to push his butt down, or his nose. You don't need to scruff him and carry him angrily. In fact, anger will make it worse. No brutality! Repetition is the key. You want him to associate this place with good feelings, so that he thinks of it as a safe place, not one where he'll be mistreated. You can create in him an aversion to using a litter pan if he knows he's going to get in trouble while there. He needs to feel safe and stress-free while in the litter pan.

Praise when he gets it right. Teach him to like the litter pan. Remember, you want him to "think inside the box".

Re-establish the Scent:
Thanks to ALF Friend, Wanda, for this great tip. Getting the cat to use that box again can be a problem. I found that taking up the urine with a paper towel and then putting that into the litter box and partly covering it helps re-establish the cat's scent in the place you want it to go to do "its business". If they poop then I put the fresh poop in the box and leave it uncovered. I then gently put the cat in the box with the poop. It then smells its fresh droppings and then covers it up. I praise and pet the cat as this is going on.

Once he's been taught, if he reverts to the old behavior, you can use a spray bottle (no hard streams which could injure an eye) to surprise him and take his mind off that particular thought. Shaking a coffee can with coins in it may work too. Anything that's not harmful to him, that will interrupt his train of thought.

Remove the Odor:
When kitty has eliminated outside the box, you have to completely remove the odor from that area. Just because you don't smell it anymore, doesn't mean that he doesn't. There are a number of enzymatic cleaners on the market which break down and remove the components of urine and sexual hormones.

Cover the Area:
To discourage him from using that location again, try placing his food dish there. Cats don't like to urinate where they eat. Or perhaps place a new litter box there, if appropriate.

What are some other contributing factors for this behavior?

While you're retraining your cat, you will need to get to the root cause.

Perhaps her toilet is dirty. None of us like using a dirty public toilet. Cats are no different! Be sure you scoop at least once every day, more often if you have multiple cats. Completely empty and disinfect the pan regularly as well, replacing the contents with clean, fresh litter.

Location, Location, Location:
The location of the litter box is also important. If it's in a high-traffic area, where there's no privacy, she may feel unsafe or shy about eliminating in front of others. Is there a draft? Furnaces or air conditioners blowing in the area may disturb her. Is it too close to her food? Cats are creatures of habit, and as such they don't like change. You'll need to gradually move the box to its new location, a few inches every day. Or add a second box in another, more private area.

Number of Boxes:
If you have multiple cats, you may need more litter boxes. The rule of thumb is two litter pans for two cats, or if you have more than two cats, one litter pan for every pair of cats, plus one extra.

Type of Box:
Some cats prefer a covered box, some are clostrophobic. So try a variety of litter boxes to find which type suits her. The box may be too small or too large, too high to step into. She may not like litter pan liners, or deoderizers. Experiment with the various types of boxes to see what she prefers.

Type of Litter:
Most cats don't like perfumes. Many commercially available litters are scented to make it more pleasing to the humans, but this can cause stress for some cats, and could contribute to other health issues as well. Dr. Elsey's Cat Attract litter is made with a scent that cats like, but isn't offensive to humans. Likewise, the texture of the litter may be contributing to the problem. You may need to experiment with a variety of litters to find which one she likes. Clumping, gravel-type litters tend to be more dusty. The more cats you have, the more quickly it breaks down. If she's declawed, a softer litter may do the trick. Try one made of ground corn, wheat, or pine. But remember that cats are opposed to change, so go slowly. Instead of removing the old litter, add another litter box with the new type to see what she prefers.

Depth of Litter:
Some like a thick layer, some like less.

Changes in the environment can also cause stress and trigger a new behavior in cats. Did you recently get a new pet, lose one, have a baby? Are there stray cats outside who are making your cat anxious? Often sterilizing the neighborhood strays will lessen their attraction to your cat, and curb her stress. See our SOS page for resources for the strays. There are some products on the market to help ease your cat's stress. We like Feliway and Comfort Zone. Same product, different labels. It comes in a diffuser or a spray, and is made of cat pheromones to mimic facial marking and create a state of familiarity and security in the environment. Available at most pet supply stores. Another favorite is Rescue Remedy to help calm the cat, or other Bach Flower remedies to help her to let go of unhealthy emotions. Available at health and natural food stores.

Remember, rule out medical issues first, and never, ever punish your cat for inappropriate elimination. If you can think like a cat, you can get him to think inside the box.

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