When I was a kid I had a great book called “My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes” I loved this book and all the fabulous cats within it’s pages.  Then I got a cat.  Her name was Maisy…  At least I think that was her original name, because for many years, and this sounds awful I know, she was known simply as ”piss-cat”. Did she like to hide in boxes? Sure, why not.  What she really excelled at though was peeing on things.  I loved this little tabby cat with all my heart, but if only I’d known then what I know now!  In subsequent years as a vet I’ve learned many things about cats, their toilet habits, and how their curious, furry little minds tick.  In the interest of keeping all of the carpets, rugs, beds, electricals and clean washing out there in it’s current unsoiled state, I’ve put together a few pointers regarding ”feline inappropriate elimination”.  So read on, dear friend, if you have a cat that pees in the house, outside the litterbox, on your bed, on your clothes, or anywhere.

my cat likes to hide in boxes

Actually no, MY cat likes to pee into the back of the t.v.

So your cat pees outside of the litterbox – is it marking?

Kitty may not be spraying at all.  Medical conditions like urinary tract infections can make cats urinate in odd places due to urgency, and arthritic pain can make it hard to get in and out of the box.  Or maybe the cat just doesn’t like something about the litter box.  This is really really common, and something well worth considering.  It might be the location, litter type, or state of cleanliness.  If your feline friend is actually marking (as opposed to just not wanting to use the available litterbox), it is because Snowball feels a need to leave his or her scent in certain locations.

litter box cupcake

If your cat’s litter box looks like this cupcake BAD OWNER, BAD BAD OWNER!

Why Do Cats Urine Mark?

As discussed for dogs in we’re having a baby – better tell the dog! cats also love predictability and routine. For a cat, the ”odour profile” of the home is very important.  It is made of up the scents of all other animals and humans in the household, as well as the scents of inanimate objects around them. For sensitive individuals, any disruption of this ”odor profile” can be pretty stressful or challenging, which helps explain why the introduction of new family members such as babies or new boyfriends, redecorating, or even that new lamp you brought home, can lead to outbursts of spraying behavior. They’re not just being furry little jerks though – cats use urine marking as a way of distributing their own scent, with the purpose of increasing a sense of security.

Undesexed male and female cats have a tendency to spray urine in association with sexual activity – these cats should be desexed. This accounts for a small subset of urine marking. Other cases are are known as reactional marking.

Reactional marking can happen with any cat, male or female, neutered or entire.  It is a reaction to something unpleasant that has occurred or which the cat anticipates may occur within it’s territory.

cat bath

This cat may be feeling a little insecure right now…

So how do we prevent indoor urine marking?

It’s important to be aware that cats have a ”core territory” – the area in which they eat, sleep and play. This area represents the safe zone of their territory.

Cats do not need to mark where they feel safe.

Our challenge then, is to establish the entire home as core territory and to minimize any factors that may jeopardize this. If you’re going to pay attention to only one thing in this article, let it be the following 6 points.

Making the home cat-friendly

  1. Each cat within the household needs its own feeding area. Eating is not a social behavior for cats.

  2. Sleeping opportunities can be enhanced by providing elevated resting places that allow cats to rest in seclusion.

  3. Opportunities for play that involve scratching posts, observation platforms, resting hammocks and tunnels are great.

  4. Playing with your cat is important, and can provide a suitable outlet for predatory skills.

  5. Ensure that the core territory is not threatened by social intrusion by other cats. If you have a cat door it’s best to use one that is operated by a microchip on the cat’s collar so unwanted strangers can’t make themselves at home.

  6. As well as actual physical invasion, cats are very susceptible to ”visual invasion” of the core territory. Place important resources such as food and water areas and litter boxes away from windows or glass doors and arrange feline resting places within the home so that they are not vulnerable to visual invasion from cats outside.

cat watching

Come out here and fight you pussy!

So Your Cat is Already Spraying Urine Around – What Can You Do About It?

First thing’s first – clean appropriately! The odor of a scent mark changes over time, as parts of it evaporate and break down. These changes induce the cat to go back and spray over the mark again to keep the signal fresh, so often cats have regular places where they spray repeatedly.

lion spraying

Mufasa freshens up the scent, lion-style

It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to effectively clean any soiled areas!

There are a lot of products marketed for this purpose, but beware those containing ammonia or chlorine – to the cat these smell like urine and can actually worsen the problem!

The most effective cleaning regime is to scrub the area with a 10% warm solution of a biological washing powder (removing the protein component of the urine), rinsing it, allowing it to dry, then spraying with a surgical spirit (removing the fat component). The area then needs to be completely dry before allowing the cat to return.  Sounds like a pain in the ass I know, but it will save you LOTS of work down the track.

Make the litter box attractive to your cat

Not attractive in a creepy romantic way, but the litter box itself does need to be very very clean. Waste material should be scooped out once to twice daily, and the tray should be totally emptied, washed out, and filled with clean litter weekly. The type of litter used depends on personal preference (the cat’s, not yours). As far as the depth of litter in the tray, most cats prefer 3-4 inches. Remember that the litter box needs to be easily accessible to the cat in a quiet location. Every cat in the household needs it’s own litter tray. Behavioral specialists usually recommend one tray per cat plus one.

shared litter box

No good can come of this…

Avoid Aversion

There are various clever and devious deterrents people may recommend with the idea of making it uncomfortable or unpleasant for the cat to engage in marking behavior. These generally rely on scaring the cat.

ANY method that induces a negative emotional state will DECREASE the cat’s perception of safety and security.

These methods may well work pretty fast in the location where they are applied, but they will generally make the cat move it’s urine spraying to somewhere less obvious or accessible. So Felix was peeing on the laundry wall, you squirted him with a water bottle, and now guess what, he goes behind the bar and pisses on your prized wine collection (true story, ask my dad).

How do we increase security?

  • Feed more frequent but smaller meals

  • Provide predatory play opportunities using puzzle feeders and fishing rod style toys

  • Increase availability of elevated resting areas

  • Move key resources away from windows and glass doors

cat house

Now THAT’S a feline-friendly house!

Identify triggers and remove them

Great if you can but commonly it is difficult to find the the trigger, or if it is something obvious like a new baby, impossible to remove!

Use pheromone therapy

I am hugely reluctant to push products on people and that’s not what this blog is about, but this topic can’t be discussed without mentioning Feliway.  It’s an analogue of a feline pheromone that has given really good results by helping cats to perceive the home as a safe and secure environment. Feliway is particularly effective in situations where the spraying is a response to changes in the environment (e.g. moving house, new pets, etc). Ask your vet for more information about this product or leave me a comment at the end of this post.

Consider drug therapy

  • This is sometimes required as an adjunct to behavioral therapy and NOT a substitute for it.

  • Anti-anxiety medications can be used to give a more rapid cessation of the behavior than can be achieved with behavioral therapy alone. They act by reducing anxiety and thus increasing the likelihood of the cat feeling secure and confident.

  • These medications usually take 2-4 weeks to show any effect on behavior, and usually need to be continued daily for at least three months.

drunk cat

As he finished his third beer for the morning, Monty wondered idly if there might be a better way to deal with his anxiety.

PLEASE! Don’t punish Kitty!

  • Upsetting a cat that is already so stressed out it’s spraying urine around the house is only going to make things worse. It will DECREASE the perception of safety and INCREASE the risk of marking behavior.

  • Punishing a cat in any way for spraying, even if you catch it in the act, is more likely to result in a cat that sprays more frequently than less. On top of this, in an anxious cat it can really damage the cat-owner relationship and remove any trust, so it is not recommended.

cat using toilet

If all else fails…

Joanna Paul
Dr. Joanna Paul BVSc (hons) BSc Jo is a practicing small animal veterinarian based in Melbourne, Australia. Working in partnership with loving pet owners to ensure their fur-kids remain happy, healthy family members life-long is what brings her joy. Well, that and taking naps. Jo strongly believes that helping to maintain the wonderful bond between a pet and their human is reason enough for a happy dance.
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Showing 12 comments
  • pamela odonnell
    Reply

    my daughter has a cat female and it was using the kitty litter properly, along came another cat kitten and didnt like it at first had to keep the first cat out of a night and the younger one in the bathroom all day and night as she worked full time, they were both getting the love from my daughter and her son. But they had to be watched as the kitten was still small. The older cat was decexed at 5 months, the younger kitten had gone to me which was a male cat. It has settled in our house with no trouble but we are home a lot and spend a lot of time with her. But my daughters cat who she thought would settle down after being decexed has been worse weeing everywhere, she puts it in the bathroom of a night but as soon as she lets it out it wees on the bed and other places, she seems to be washing all the time on things the cat has weed on, what can she do please?

    • Joanna Paul
      Reply

      Hi Pamela,
      I’m sorry for the delayed response, and I hope there has been some improvement in the meantime. It’s definitely worth your daughter speaking to her ver about the problem. Medical problems like a urinary tract infection need to be ruled out before assuming it’s behavioural. If there is nothing physically wrong then the kitty is highly likely to be anxious for some reason. Often it’s changes in the household or other cats lurking around outside. It can help to ensure the litter tray is very, very clean and inviting, and contains a type of litter that the cat likes. Perhaps exclude her from the main areas where she is weeing (e.g. the bedroom) while working out what’s going on. I know how frustrating it can be from previous personal experience. A vet, particularly one with an interest in cat behaviour, should be able to give you a much better plan after checking her out. Sometimes medications can be helpful if you are dealing with a very stressed out cat.

  • Kim
    Reply

    Hi I’m at a lose of what to do my cat uses her litters but still likes to pee on the couch and under my bed. I’ve tried just about everything, even putting her treats where she’s peed and she still eats them. Any ideas would be great I don’t want to give her away thanks

    • Joanna Paul
      Reply

      Hi Kim,
      Sorry to hear about your kitty – it can be a really stressful situation. If it’s possible to exclude her from those areas, even short term, avoidance may be the only way you can control things to start with. It’s incredibly important to clean the soiled areas thoroughly, because they can smell even tiny amounts of urine that we can’t smell and will continue to associate those areas with toileting. A visit to the vet would be a great idea to rule out any medical causes for her behaviour – for example if she has a urinary tract infection she will need to go more urgently and frequently. If all medical causes are ruled out, then it is likely to be stress-related. This is also something your vet should be able to help you with. I really hope things improve x

  • Cat care
    Reply

    These are really useful tips, But I have trained my cat to pee on a Pan which I’ve kept separately so it uses that when she wants.

  • Maria Kelly
    Reply

    Hello.
    I have a cat which came in from the street with his sister about 1 and 1/2 years ago. His sister is really calm and friendly but he’s super anxious and always stressed. He’s more friendly now, but it took us an entire year to get him to let us pet him.
    Every time he sees another cat in our garden he screams his little head off. And now he’s taken to spray pretty much every corner of the house.
    I increased the amount of litter boxes in the house and clean them as often as possible, but it hasn’t helped.
    I have a total of 4 cats and they get along great. This little fella loves the other 3 to bits.
    What could I do to make him less anxious and feel safer. I like the sound of the Feliway but don’t know of I’d be able to get it in Ireland.

  • Travis Kocher
    Reply

    Kitten loves to keep themselves clean and they loves to keep their living place clean. My cat jumped from 4th floor a few days back and cannot move much as half of his body is paralyzed now. He is forced to do everything in the litter and I have to clean it very frequently.

  • Kelly
    Reply

    Love this post. We have a very anxious little man who after having a barrage of tests that came back all clear has been put on kitty Prozac. We are at our wits end with all the inappropriate peeing and pooing so this has to work!

    • Joanna Paul
      Reply

      Oh, poor little guy (and poor you)! I hope there’s something here that is helpful for him. It’s a really frustrating, difficult thing to deal with, but fingers crossed some medication will take the edge off enough for him to feel secure.

  • Nina @ Whats for eats
    Reply

    I loved that book too! Every time I find one of my cats in a new hidey-hole in my place, I am reminded of it. Thankfully I haven’t had any peeing incidents since they were kittens- peeing behind the TV and into stacks of DVDs was most fun to clean up!

    • Joanna Paul
      Reply

      Hey Nina, I recently bought a copy of the book for my own kids – my little boy and I both love the cat from Norway that got stuck in the doorway best, haha. Eek, stacks of DVDs are the worst!!

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  • […] frequently in the consult room, like how to introduce your dog to a new baby, how to deal with a cat that pees outside of the litter tray, or tips for socializing a new puppy.  Admittedly there are also occasional self-indulgent […]

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