Feline Inappropriate Elimination

Elimination outside the litter box

What recent studies have revealed may come as a surprise to many who have always heard that the cat is a particularly fastidious and clean animal.  But all that licking of fur and grooming may have misled many casual observers.  The fact is that high on the list of reasons that cats are given up – if not actually topping the list – is inappropriate elimination or failure to use the litter box.  And when the litter box is not used the carpet, sofa, and even the bed are usual targets.

Even with cats that are not given up, inappropriate elimination is a common enough problem.  According to Dr. Victoria L. Voith, about 66% of the calls that were made to the Animal Behavior Clinic at the University of Penn-sylvania over a 24-month period were complaints about cats who soiled the house.  Another well-known animal behaviorist, Dr. Peter L. Borchelt of New York’s Animal Medical Center, found that almost 25% of the 800 cat owners who answered a questionnaire about cat behavior reported that their cats eliminated outside the litter box at least some of the time.  Another survey found that almost 80% of calls about behavior problems in Persian cats were complaints about elimination problems (Siamese cats did better, but 37% of calls about them in the same survey were also about this problem).

Reports from Cornell confirm these observations.  Dr. Katherine A. Houpt says that of 59 behavioral cases seen in one period, 38 involved inappropriate urination or spraying.  As in the other studies and surveys, both sexes were equally represented.

Marking and spraying

Marking – that is, spraying with urine – is not the same as missing or refusing the litter box and has different causes and solutions.  In marking, the cat approaches an object, usually a vertical one, sniffs, then turns and with uplifted and quivering tail directs a spray of urine at the object.  The cat does not squat as it does when urinating.  Behaviorists have assumed that marking, which is seen in large cats such as the cheetah as well as in a number of other animal species, is associated with the instinct to mark off territory.  The level at which the urine is sprayed more of less guarantees that its scent will be picked up by another animal of the same size.  Why domesticated cats – and both males and females will spray – engage in this behavior in the house is not fully understood.  A possible explanation is that this is an example of an instinctual and once important function continuing in spite of the changed circumstances in which the cat is presently living.  Dr. Patrick Melese-d’Hospital, of Veterinary Behavior Consultants in San Diego, says that the composition of spraying urine and normally excreted urine may be significantly different, with spray containing compounds that telegraph a message.  Studies have shown that cats sniff sprayed urine more frequently than normally excreted urine.  Cats will also do what is termed “over marking,” that is, spray over a previous mark that is several days old.

Among the still unsolved issues in marking is why its time of onset is so variable, occurring at any age after puberty.  Neutered males and females can also mark, mark at various separate locations in a house, and mark with a variable amount of urine.

According to Drs. Borchelt and Voith, a house cat can be stimulated to spray if cats in the neighbor-hood have sprayed near the cat’s territory.  Even the sight of another cat can be the cause, especially if the house cat responds strongly to the sight of an outside cat.  This response usually involves rushing to a window, hissing or growling.  For an indoor cat with no other outlet, marking inside the house may be the only way it has to express its instinct to put a seal on its own territory and guard it against “invasion,” as unlikely from a human point of view as that would be.  An indoor/outdoor cat may spray inside because it does not make a distinction between inside and outside – both represent territory that has to be marked.  The behaviorists also believe that the introduction of a new cat may provoke the original cat or the new cat into spraying to assert its claim to the place.  In addition, spraying may be the result of fear, aggression, or arousal by another cat or even a human.

A number of drugs have been proposed to help control spraying in cats, but the behaviorists warn that none are marketed for use in cats.  The most useful drugs appear to be buspirone hydrochloride, amitriptyline, or even fluoxetine (Prozac).  Drs. Borchelt and Voith note that buspirone is considered relatively safer than diazepam (Valium) or progestin and therefore can be considered the drug of choice for spraying problems.  Any drug has to be given under close monitoring by a veterinarian.

Normal elimination in cats

Like all other creatures, cats have a species-specific manner of eliminating wastes.  But don’t count on it being the same for every cat, nor for every cat at every time.  The basic pattern is for the cat to approach a location with material loose enough for it to dig into, dig to make a de-pression, urinate and/or defecate, then sweep whatever loose material is available over the deposit.  Kittens show this behavior by the time they are four weeks of age.

Adult cats may urinate two to three times a day, but not every cat performs in the same way.  Some dig, some do not.  Some urinate and defecate in the box, but dig (or go through digging motions) and scratch elsewhere.  How much digging and scratching goes on is also variable, and all the variations in digging can be considered normal for the individual cat.

Checking out medical problems first

Before considering why the cat avoids the litter box, it is necessary to rule out any medical problems the cat may have.  It is known that the common feline urologic syndrome (FUS) is associated with painful and sometimes bloody urination.  Dr. Houpt says that a cat with FUS may avoid the litter box because it has come to associate the box with the painful experience or with the frequent urge to urinate.

Most recently, researcher Dr. C. A. Buffington of The Ohio State University has pointed out a relationship between breaks in litter box training and signs of idiopathic cystitis in cats.  Cats with this disease, which is similar to cystitis in women, suffer pain along with increased frequency and urgency of urination.  The condition is difficult to diagnose and treat, although the drug amitrip-tyline, used in treating humans, does help some cats.  A previously well-trained cat who begins to break the rules deserves a thorough medical checkup.

What’s wrong with the litter box?

A cat may be perfectly adjusted to using the litter box and then suddenly turn away from it.  As-suming that there are no medical reasons behind this behavior, and assuming that the cat has not been under stress (a recent move, the introduction of a new cat or human, for example), the problem might be with the litter box itself.  A box that is not clean is not a welcoming place for any cat.  Boxes should be cleaned out twice a day and the contents replaced at least once or twice a week.  Urine odors should be neutralized with vinegar or lemon juice.  Ammonia will intensify the urine odor and should not be used.  A box with a cover may trap odors that the cat finds offensive.  It is sometimes valuable to have one litter box for urination and another for defecation.

Every cat in a multiple-cat household should have its own litter box, and every box should be placed in a convenient area where the cat feels comfortable – location, location, location, as the real estate agents are fond of saying.  Location and cleanliness , as the behaviorists say.  But with all this said, the wise owner would be prepared to have these preferences change at a moment’s notice.

Giving cats a choice of litter

Litter aversion is easily detected – the cat doesn’t go anywhere near the offensive stuff.  At first the cat may perch on the rim of the box to avoid touching the material, then it may avoid the box completely.  Some cats do not like to have the litter they like suddenly changed, and they will avoid the new litter.  It may be necessary to offer several boxes with different types of litter to determine which is the most acceptable.  In Dr. Houpt’s experience, giving cats a choice of different types and sizes of boxes and different types of litter can be of tremendous help in overcoming inappropriate elimination habits.  It is clear that for some cats the feel of certain litter materials is not acceptable.

Litters vary greatly in size of material, deod-orants, additives, dust, and absorbency.  Drs. Borchelt and Voith cited a study showing that cats prefer a fine-grained, clumping litter over the more common large-particle litter.  Their ex-perience has shown that individual cats like litter made from wheat, which controls odor and clumps well.  They also found that litter made from corncobs, paper, or wood flakes usually does not control odor nor does it clump well.  Another bit of evidence comes from a study that found cats with elimination problems were more likely to have had scented rather than unscented litter – evidence of cat’s dislike for perfume.

Drs. Borchelt and Voith point out that a cat may learn to associate elimination with a different surface than that offered by standard litter.  This surface may be a carpet, a piece of bedding, or even a smooth kitchen floor.  The reasons for this are not always clear.  For instance, a cat that has been frightened away from the original location of the litter box may seek another place in which to eliminate.  Sometimes the owner has punished the cat for inappropriate elimination by picking it up and depositing it in the box.  The cat will learn to associate the box with the unpleasant experience of the reprimand and avoid the box in the future.

Retraining the cat to the box

After taking the cat for its medical checkup, cleaning the litter box meticulously, and finding out which litter is the preferred one, the owner can begin the process of retraining.  It is possible to begin by confining the cat to a small area with the litter box.  The cat, it theory, will avoid soiling its living quarters and will be retrained to the box.  The cat may use the box, but once it is released from the confined area it may revert to its bad habits because the carpet is still preferable to the litter.

Dr. Houpt says that placing the box in the location that the cat has most recently favored may help in retraining it.  The box can then be gradually moved to its original location.  Some cats can be fed and then gently lifted and placed in the litter box, with praise for evidence of its retraining.  As mentioned, punishment is usually counterproductive, and harsh punishment can lead to the cat’s avoidance of the owner.  In some instances, a shot from a water pistol can deter a cat in the act of inappropriate elimination.  The drawback is that the cat may learn to avoid the owner or else continue the objectionable behavior when the owner is not present.

It is well known that dogs experience separation anxiety when left for varying periods of time (often the barking begins within minutes of the owner’s departure), and this gives rise to a variety of behavior problems, including inappropriate elimination.  Cats also suffer from separation anxiety, but in a different manner than dogs.  The behaviorists say that cats generally do not exhibit separation anxiety during an ordinary 8 to 10 hour separation but will show signs if the owner is absent for 24 hours or longer.  Separation anxiety may lead to soiling the house, and the cat may show preference for locations where the owner’s scent is strong, such as a bed.

Drug therapy is the usual method of dealing with a separation problem, although the addition of another cat to the household may be beneficial, provided that the other problems associated with a multiple-cat household are anticipated, such as providing separate litter boxes for all cats.

Dealing with the problem after the fact

After the elimination problem the odors that cling to carpets and other surfaces remain to be dealt with.  The odors are inevitable, as Dr. Melese-d’Hospital explains.  The carbon- and nitrogen-rich organic compounds found in urine and feces are a food source for bacteria, which then break down the compounds into ammonia and various other molecules.  When these become volatile, they produce the offensive odors.

Many products are available for neutralizing urine odor, including odor masking systems, odor absorbers and detergent cleaners, odor-source chemical modifiers and disinfectants, enzyme products to degrade organic material, and bacteria and enzyme combinations.  Some of these products are available over the counter, some are used only by professional carpet cleaners.  The consumer is at a disadvantage in that many products do not list their ingredients and most products have not undergone rigorous testing.  In addition, problems in home use of the products can limit their effectiveness.  The problems include under-application, applying in an adverse environment (too hot, too cold, too damp, too dry), applying over previously applied chemicals.

The odor masking systems cover the odor or prevent the formation of gas from bacterial action on waste products.  Odor absorbers and foaming detergent cleaners, which must be removed with a vacuum cleaner, control odors temporarily, but they do not totally eliminate the urine source, especially if it has penetrated through the carpet and into the underlying pad.

Many claims are made for the odor source chemical modifiers and detergents, including chemical binding and inhibition of bacteria.  Agents in these products may do this job, but the products must be applied in a flood technique to contact all the organic material.  If that is not done, residual odor will remain.  In some instances, double the recommend amount must be used.

Enzyme products are effective in removing organic urine material, but they too must be used in sufficient quantities to penetrate all soiled objects.  And because the products are easily affected by other chemical agents, the results are variable.  The bacteria/enzyme combination products use live strains of bacilli bacteria to break down organic contaminants, and they appear resistant to environmental factors that inhibit the effectiveness of some of the other products now available.  Dr. Melese-d’Hospital concludes by saying there is still little solid information about how individual products work and also about the conditions under which they might be most effective.  The best solution to odor problems is behavior changes in the cat that has produced them.

This is a partial reprint of an article entitled Eliminate the Inappropriate Elimination Problem, Not the Cat that ap-peared in the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Animal Health Newsletter, Volume 14, Number 9, November 1996.