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Elimination in Cats

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Inappropriate elimination in cats

Urinating or defecating in places other than the litterbox can be caused by either medical problems or behavioral issues.  Medical problems often relate to urinary tract infections, which are often associated with straining and pain, usually producing only a small amount of blood-tinged urine (see also Urinary tract infections).  In male cats that become completely blocked, this is an emergency situation.  Diarrhea can also be associated with elimination outside the litterbox.

Behavioral causes usually fall into two general categories:

  • a dislike of the litterbox (ie, litterbox aversion)

Cats usually begin to dislike the litterbox when it is not cleaned often enough, or when they object to the type of litter.  Most cats are very fastidious creatures of habit that become used to the certain texture or smell of a specific type of litter.  Examples of common stresses associated with inappropriate elimination include a new person or pet joining (or leaving) the household, new furniture or carpeting, moving, and new cats in the neighborhood.  Many cats also shy away from the litterbox if it is located in a high-traffic or noisy area.

Treatment is aimed at the particular underlying problem.  Medical issues should be addressed first, especially the potential for life-threatening urinary obstruction.  Once medical conditions have been either ruled out or treated, then behavioral issues can be assessed.  Your veterinarian may initially give you some suggestions on how to proceed.  If the problem continues, your vet may recommend referral to a veterinary or animal behavioral specialist.

Behavior problems are often frustrating—patience and determination are usually key factors in successful treatment, and behavioral modification is more successful in some cases than in others.  Some problems, such as a dirty litter box, can be easily corrected by more frequent cleaning.  Other problems, such as those that have been going on for a long time or are in multiple cat households, are much more difficult to treat.  In some cases, behavior modification can also be combined with judicious drug therapy.

Much of behavior modification focuses on aversion or attraction.  Aversion therapy works by repelling cats from inappropriate locations, often by using protective coverings (eg, plastic, tape, or foil) or objectionable fragrances.  Attraction therapy encourages cats to choose an appropriate location, often using new litter or litterboxes.  One strategy is placing a litterbox over the area where the cat is eliminating, and then moving it slowly (2-3 feet per day) to a more desirable area over a period of days to weeks.  All soiled areas should be cleaned thoroughly and treated with a good odor neutralizer, so that residual odor does not encourage your cat to return to spots associated with accidents.



What causes cats to eliminate outside the little box?

This problem can be caused by medical conditions such as urinary infections, or by behavioral problems.

Is this problem ever associated with a serious medical condition?

Straining inside or outside of the box can be a sign of urinary obstruction, which is an emergency situation that needs to be seen immediately.

What common behavioral problems cause cats to eliminate outside the box?

Cats often go outside the box when they dislike the litter or when the litter box is dirty.  They will also develop this problem when under stress from changes in the household, such as moving or new pets. 

Can this problem behavior be successfully treated?

Yes, but behavior modification can be a frustrating and time-consuming process that requires patience and determination on your part.  Your veterinarian can guide you through the process and suggest helpful outside resources.  In some cases, behavior modification can be combined with judicious drug therapy. 

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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