Inappropriate Elimination Disorders

What is "inappropriate elimination"?

Inappropriate elimination means that a cat is urinating and/or defecating in the house in places other than its litter box. One of the most common issues, especially in male animals, is territorial marking, or spraying. If your animal is not spayed or neutered, that is probably the first step to take in controlling spraying.

What causes it?

This can be caused either by medical problems or a behavioral disorder. Behavioral causes of inappropriate elimination fall into two general categories: 1) a dislike of the litter box or litter box aversion, and 2) a stress-related misbehavior.

Medical problems? What do I do about that?

The first thing to rule out in a cat that stops using the litter box is a medical problem such as a urinary tract infection. No amount of training will work if an underlying disease is not addressed.

The most common medical problem causing inappropriate urination is a urinary tract infection. Bladder infections in cats, as in humans, cause a stinging/burning sensation during urination, which the cat may associate with the litter box, leading to avoidance. Bladder infections can also cause urinary urgency, so the cat may not have time to make it to the litter box when they need to go. Your veterinarian will collect a small amount of urine and examine it under the microscope, looking for bacteria and inflammatory cells. Most bladder infections are quickly resolved with antibiotics.

If your cat is male, and urinating small amounts in multiple places, especially if the urine is bloody or gritty, or he is straining to urinate and not passing a good stream of urine, this is an emergency situation. Crystals that form in the urine associated with urinary tract infections can block a tomcat's narrow urethra, causing the bladder to overfill and potentially rupture or leak urine into the abdomen. Do not wait if this is occurring! Call your veterinary clinic immediately.

Defecating outside the litter box may be a result of diarrhea, again causing urgency and an inability to get to the box on time.

Either inappropriate urination or defecation can be a result of injury to a leg, making it uncomfortable to climb into the litter box or squat in the normal position for elimination. Arthritis of the hips or knees may also result in difficulty positioning, discomfort, and litter box avoidance.

The first step in treatment of any inappropriate elimination is diagnosis! Call for an appointment to have both cat and urine examined to rule out a medical cause for the mess. Remember, you cannot train away a disease.

Why would a cat not like its litter box?

The two most common reasons for a litter box has become objectionable to the cat are because it is not cleaned frequently enough or because the cat does not like the type of litter in it. The latter is called substrate aversion. It can occur because the litter was changed to a new, objectionable type or because the cat just got tired of the old litter.

What stresses can cause inappropriate elimination?

There are probably hundreds of these, but the more common ones are as follows:

  • A new person (especially a baby) in the house
  • A person that has recently left the house (permanently or temporarily)
  • New furniture
  • New drapes
  • New carpet
  • Rearrangement of the furniture
  • Moving to a new house
  • A new pet in the house
  • A pet that has recently left the house
  • A new cat in the neighborhood that can be seen by the indoor cat
  • A cat in "heat" in the neighborhood
  • A new dog in the neighborhood that can be heard by the indoor cat

I feel that this is a problem that cannot be tolerated, even if the cat has to leave my house. Is that wrong?

No. Many people are very proud of their home and feel that way. Before giving up your cat, you should discuss the problem with your veterinarian since there may be a simple solution to manage the behavior.

Can the problem be treated?

Yes, in most cases. However, the treatment is more likely to be successful if several of the following are true:

  • The duration of the behavior is less than one month when treatment begins
  • There are only one or two locations in the house that the cat uses for inappropriate elimination
  • It is possible to identify and relieve the stress-causing situation
  • It is possible to neutralize the odor caused by the urine or stool
  • You have only one cat

What is involved with treatment?

Most successful treatments rely on a combination of behavior modification techniques and drug therapy.

What are behavior modification techniques, and how are they used?

They can be described as aversion therapy and attraction therapy. The former repels the cat from the inappropriate location, and the latter encourages the cat to choose an appropriate location.

The purpose of aversion therapy is to make the area of inappropriate urination or defecation undesirable for the cat. There are many ways to do this, but the following steps have proven successful in a high percentage of cases:

  • A product to neutralize the odor of urine or stool should be used in places where inappropriate urination or defecation has occurred. If the objectionable location is on a carpet, it is necessary to treat the carpet and the pad below because most of the odor will be in the pad. This usually means soaking the carpet with the neutralizing product so it penetrates into the pad. Test an inconspicuous area of the carpet to ensure that it won't be damaged before using any odor-neutralizing product.
  • Cover the area(s) with double-sided tape or aluminum foil taped down to the carpet or furniture. Aluminum foil or sticky surfaces are textures on which most cats do not like to walk. You can also purchase a pressure-sensitive mat that emits a loud noise when the cat walks on it.
  • If the soil in potted plants is being used, place a lemon-scented air freshener at the base of the plant. This will usually repel the cat.

The purpose of attraction therapy is to make the litter box more desirable than the inappropriate site. The following are usually successful:

  • Purchase a new litter box; even well cleaned litter boxes have odor deep in the plastic. It is important not to use a litter box with a hood in cases of inappropriate elimination. Many cats find a hooded litter box undesirable.
  • To increase the chances of your cat using the new litter box, purchase unscented litter. Many cats prefer clumping litter over regular clay litter. And, although you might prefer a scented product, most cats do not. Texture is very important to cats; try different types of litter, such as pine or paper pellets, shredded paper, "crystal" litters, and different coarseness of clay litter. Avoid very fine, dusty litters.
  • Try a different style of litter box. Some cats prefer a litter box with a cover, so they don't feel as exposed. Conversely, some cats will not enter a covered litter box, as they may feel trapped.
  • Place the new litter box near the area of inappropriate urination until it is used for several days. Then move it 2-3 feet (0.7-1 m) per day until it is back in the desired location. In some cases, it will not be possible to relocate to the litter box to its original position.
  • Keep the existing litter box in the normal location in case the aversion therapy causes your cat to return to it.

What medications are available to treat inappropriate elimination?

In general, there are three categories of medications that are used to treat these problems:

  • Anti-depressant and/or anti-anxiety medications such as amitriptyline and buspirone
  • Sedatives such as diazepam
  • Hormones such as megestrol acetate and medroxyprogesterone acetate

This client information sheet is based on material written by Ernest Ward, DVM © 2005 Lifelearn, Inc. Used with permission under license.

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