Feline Behavior Problems-Inappropriate Elimination

Feline inappropriate elimination (urinating or defecating outside of the litter box) is the most common behavior complaint of cat owners. This can be an extremely frustrating problem, but it is one that can be solved with some time and effort. However, it is important to remember that the veterinarian cannot fix this problem overnight, especially if it has been occurring for many weeks or months.

The first thing a veterinarian will do in a case of feline inappropriate elimination (FIE) will be to rule out any underlying medical causes of the behavior, such as a urinary tract infection or other disease. If this truly is a behavior problem, there are many reasons why it may have come about.

In any case of FIE, it is important to evaluate the placement and cleanliness of the litter boxes in your home. Perhaps the location is unacceptable to your cat. Cats often like the litter box location to be a somewhat private, quiet place where they will not feel stressed out. If the location of the litter box is somehow “scary” to the cat (perhaps it is in the laundry room where the washer went off balance one day) he will probably refuse to use that box. Sometimes access to the box is a problem, such as an older, arthritic cat who does not like to climb up and down the stairs from the basement anymore. If there are other cats in the household the litter box may have become a dominance issue, in which the lower-ranking cat does not feel safe using that litter box. In this case, simply moving the box to a more secure location (such as in a corner so the cat doesn’t feel exposed) may solve the problem. If the cat consistently eliminates in the same area outside of the litter box, moving the box to that location may solve your problem. If the location is not particularly convenient for you, you can place the box in that location and try to move it a few inches a day, until you reach a more desirable location.

Sometimes the cat refuses to use the litter box completely, or will only use it when the litter has been recently changed. This can occur for many reasons, one of which may simply be a failure to clean the litter box often enough. A good rule of thumb for litter boxes is that you should have one more box than number of cats. The litter should be scooped every day and changed completely 1-2 times a week. The box should also be cleaned with warm, soapy water. Sometimes a cat may associate the litter box or the litter type (substrate) with pain, such as if the cat just recently had a urinary tract infection. In this case, the cat will be hesitant to use the litter box because it is a reminder of the pain. Changing the litter type to an unscented, fine grain, clumping litter may be effective. Or if your cat seems to prefer one type of substrate, such as carpet, you can try putting a carpet scrap in the litter pan. Once your cat is consistently using the pan you can gradually replace the carpet in the pan with litter.

If your cat is performing spraying or non-spraying marking, this is probably in response to some form of stress. This is not truly a form of FIE because it is a marking behavior, but it can be just as troublesome. A cat that is performing marking behaviors exhibits a very different posture than a cat who is merely eliminating. A marking cat is standing and has a vertically positioned twitching tail. Spraying marking occurs on vertical surfaces such as the walls, couch, etc, while non-spraying marking occurs on horizontal surfaces such as the floor. Both sexes perform these behaviors, and almost all of them can be controlled by spaying or neutering an intact cat. If the behavior continues, the underlying stressors will need to be identified and eliminated. This often involves another cat. There may be a neighborhood cat who “visits” at the window or there might be a dominance issue between multiple household cats.

In any case of FIE, the best approach to treating the problem is to make the litter box accessible and attractive, and make the soiled locations unattractive and inaccessible (if possible). If you really do not know where to begin with treating this problem, the best approach is to change 1-2 factors about the litter box and wait a few days to see what happens. Then you can repeat this process if the behavior continued, changing two other factors. This is a treatable condition, although it can be very frustrating at the time. However, patience and perseverance will pay off, and you will soon be able to resume your loving relationship with your cat, without worrying about the litter box!