House soiling and furniture destruction are two very common reasons that owners give up their cats. I have never been to a talk on feline behavior where these topics were not discussed, and for very good reason: nobody wants to live in a house that smells like urine, or where they are unable to have nice looking furniture. Some people tolerate more than others, but I have never met anybody who enjoys these behaviors.
So why do cats urinate and/or defecate outside of the litter box? There are several possible reasons: medical, environmental, and territorial. I will discuss these, as well as what steps cat owners take to encourage cats to go inside the box. If you are not having litter box problems with your cat and don’t feel the need to make changes, even if what you are currently doing is the exact opposite of what we are recommending here, the old saying holds “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But if you are having trouble in this area, hopefully you can find some new tips to help.
The first step is a thorough veterinary exam to eliminate medical problems. There are a variety of medical reasons a cat might stop using the litter box: urinary tract infections, anal sac issues, constipation, bladder stones, kidney disease, diabetes and sterile cystitis, just to name a few. It is important rule out medical causes and treat any problems before trying behavioral modification. If you jump straight to the behavior modification you will just be causing undue stress on yourself and your cat, when a vet exam and treatment can help resolve this issue much faster.
Once medical problems have been treated or ruled out and the house soiling is still present, there are two aspects to consider. One is litter box avoidance, where your cat knows where the litter box is and can access the box, but doesn’t want to use the box. The other is territory marking.
As you look at the litter box setup in your house, what is the ratio of cats to litter boxes? A good idea is to have at least one litter box per cat, plus one extra box. This isn’t possible for all owners and all houses, but try adding at least one more box to your house, and not right next to the other box. Cats, like humans, prefer a degree of privacy from other cats when using the box. Also, avoid putting litter boxes near noisy appliances. An unbalanced washing machine is sure to drive a cat out of the litter box, and he might not come back! When you add the new box, try a new type of litter in it. Some cats have litter preferences, but don’t rush and change all the boxes to new litter, especially if the cat is sometimes still using the box. There are cats who prefer to urinate in one type of litter, and defecate in another. Cats have very sensitive noses, so avoid litters with heavy perfume, and try a litter with a different texture to it. As anyone who ever left a child’s sandbox uncovered can tell you, many cats prefer a sandy texture.
Making sure that there is enough litter in the box is important. Cats like to dig around and bury their excrement, and if the litter is too shallow they might look for somewhere else to go. Aim for 4 inches of litter in the box. Also check out the size of your litter box in comparison to the size of your cat. Make sure the box is big enough so that your cat can stand all four feet in the box and turn around. This is especially important if the box is in a corner: nobody wants to use the toilet with their nose pressed against the wall! If your litter box has a hood over it, try removing that as well, since in addition to making it hard for a cat to move around in the box, the hoods can trap odor. Speaking of odors, most people know that if a litter box isn’t cleaned often enough, cats will avoid them, but did you realize that if you use strong smelling cleaners that can also drive cats away? Citrus smells are a common cat deterrent, so make sure that what ever you are using to clean the box is not a citrus scented cleaner. In fact, if you are having issues with the litter box, try cleaning it every 2 weeks with just plain hot water avoiding disinfectants and cleaners all together. (but be sure to scoop it every day!)
Finally, make sure that your cat can access the boxes. If you have older cats, age related conditions like arthritis might make them not want to climb a flight of stairs to find a box. A litter box with high sides might seem like a great way to keep the litter in the box, but if the sides are too high, it might also be keeping your cat out of the box, so consider cutting an access hole in the side of the box to make stepping in easier, or finding a box with a access entry which is lower than the sides. Follow up any changes you make with a good cleaning of the area where your cat went, but wasn’t supposed to go. Be sure and use an enzymatic odor neutralizer designed for cats when cleaning.
If you cat doesn’t have a medical issue and everything about your litter box setup is under control, then your cat might be urine marking. Look at where your cat is urinating outside the litter box: is your cat finding a quiet, hidden place, or is your cat urinating or defecating on your clothes, bed or near windows? Usually if you cat is urinating/defecating on personal items or near windows they are marking. Urinating on things says “this is mine,” so if this is happening, look for what is threatening your cat. Did you just get a new roommate? If so, try to have the new person interact with your cat in a positive manner, having them feed and play with the cat. Are there strange cats outside the window? If this is the case, try blocking your cat’s view of the outside. There are also medications that can help with this, so talk to your vet. Be sure and spend some one-on-one time with your cat as well.
Scratching is a normal cat behavior. Cats mark their territory visually with their claws, and they leave a scent mark behind from glands on their paw pads. But many owners don’t want their cat to claim the living room couch. There are two things that need to happen to stop a cat from clawing the couch: the couch needs to be less desirable to the cat and the cat needs more appropriate things to scratch. Cat trees and scratching posts work great, but only if your cat uses them. To encourage use, make sure they are sturdy, and at least 36 inches high. Try getting several posts, with a variety of materials, at least until you know what type of material your cat prefers. To make the couch less desirable, try putting double stick tape, or aluminum foil over the areas your cat is scratching. You can also try putting the scratching post right in front of the part of the couch your cat is scratching can encourage you cat to use the post. Once your cat gets used to using the post, you can try moving it to another location if you want.
SoftPaws are small plastic caps that can be applied over your cat’s nails. This can be a great solution for determined cats, and you can apply at them at home, or have your veterinary staff apply them. Each application usually lasts 4-6 weeks. If stress is increasing your cat’s need to scratch, anti-anxiety medication can help, so talk to your veterinarian.
Hopefully this information will help you understand your cat better, and help you solve any problems you may have been having, so that you and cat can live together for a long and happy time.