Behavior training



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It's a common problem: You live with a wonderful kitty whom you adore, but suddenly he can't seem to find his way to the litter box. He may urinate outside the box, may defecate outside the box, or he may ignore the box altogether. This is one of the most common complaints cat owners bring to their veterinarian.

There are many reasons why your cat may not use his litter box. As with the majority of behavior-related concerns, the more information you have about the problem, the easier it is to find the cause and to correct the problem. In multi-cat households, knowing precisely which cat is the culprit is crucial.

Isolating each cat may be needed to identify the offender. Establishing whether the problem involves urine, feces or both, the location of the inappropriate elimination, and the length of time the problem has been going on are all important when it comes to diagnosing this problem and planning proper treatment. A veterinary examination is critical to making the correct diagnosis and, thus, to treating inappropriate elimination.

Urination Outside the Litter Box

Abnormal urination can be categorized into either a) simple litter box aversion or b) spraying or urine marking. These problems can be tricky to differentiate.

Confounding Medical Issues: Urinary tract infection (UTI), with or without bladder/urethral calculi (stones), is one of the most common medical causes of litter box aversion. Pain or discomfort associated with litter box use may render the site aversive. UTI can lead to litter box aversion or spraying. Conditions that increase water consumption lead to increased frequency of urination so that a cat may not be able to find a convenient litter box in time. Older cats with arthritis problems may find it difficult to step into the litter box. Treating the underlying medical condition frequently resolves inappropriate urination.

Inappropriate Urination as a Result of (Pure) Litter Box Aversion

Failure to urinate in the litter box can occur for many different reasons. Usually it occurs when something about the box becomes disagreeable. It is important that you find the exact cause so that you can correct the situation. Some reasons might be:

  • Cats are fastidious creatures. For some cats, a litter box that is not frequently cleaned will be unacceptable, and daily or more frequent cleaning may be required.
  • Some cats may develop a preference for a certain type of litter, with regard to texture and odor. Some dislike scoopable litters and others dislike coarse clay litter. Some will not tolerate chlorophyll-based litter or perfumed litters because of the strong odor. If the problem regarding urination or defecation outside the litter box develops after changing the type or brand of litter, returning to the original brand should resolve the problem.
  • Some cats want their own litter box and some will not urinate and defecate in the same box. Having multiple litter boxes for a multi-cat household is important. The correct formula is N+1 (where N = the number of boxes required in a multicat household).

    For all housesoiling problems, a variety of environmental changes may be helpful. If environmental changes are not effective, you might have to isolate the cat in a room with a litter box in order to re-train it. Treats or playtime with the family are rewards that can be used for successful use of the litter box. Once your cat is using the litter box properly with no mistakes, then he/she can be allowed back into the general family areas.

    Urine Marking

    Spraying is generally directed onto a vertical surface or may be directed toward strategic objects, including clothing, shopping bags, heating registers, stove tops, desks, computers and stereo speakers. You may observe your cat twitching his/her erect tail while spraying a small amount of urine. Urine marking can also be performed from the squatting position.

    Most frequently, spraying is related to sexual behavior and is most commonly seen in un-neutered male cats. These cats tend to spray (scent-mark) during mating season. Neutered cats spray as a result of anxiety. Some examples of situations that may lead to spraying include:

  • Decreased attention given to the cat
  • Punishment
  • Change in routine/remodeling
  • Overcrowding - too many pets in a small area
  • Introduction of a new cat to the family
  • Outdoor territorial incursions by other cats and/or wildlife

    Urine spraying typically develops in cats over 6 months of age. If the cat is not spayed or neutered, neutering or spaying usually resolves the problem. If the cat is already spayed or neutered, consideration of potentially stressful stimuli is important. If possible, eliminate or attenuate any offending stimuli or at least create a safe place for your cat to use as a retreat. If overcrowding or a new addition to the family causes your cat stress, arranging for it to have some private time in a separate room may help resolve the problem. If environmental modification is not effective in shutting down urine marking, there are a variety of medications that may be helpful.

    Clean up

    In treating any case of inappropriate elimination (for whatever cause), it is vital to completely remove odors from previously soiled areas or the cat may be lured back to the same location in future. Use a good commercial product specifically for pet odors. In a pinch, use a mixture of equal parts of vinegar and warm water. You may also consider placing a litter box or food bowl on an area your cat normally soils.


    Punishment doesn't help in nay case. In fact, it may make a housesoiling problem worse by increasing your cat's anxiety level. Never hit your cat or attempt any physical, deterrent methods of correcting the problem e.g. rubbing his nose in the mess. Your cat may rebel at such an approach and cease using is litter box completely. What you can do, if you catch him in the act, is distract him with a loud noise.

    Last but not least, if all fails, speak with your veterinarian.