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Feline Urine-Marking

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Urine-marking can be a troubling behavior for cat owners and may indicate some hard-to-handle stresses in the cat's life. It is probably the most common form of inappropriate elimination and is the number one cause of surrender of cats to shelters and pounds, which often results in their untimely demise.

There are several reasons why cats may urinate outside their litter boxes, most of them simple in etiology. But when urination is employed as a signaling device, there is often intriguing motivation underlying the behavior. This motivation must be understood before the problem can be properly addressed.

All cats are capable of urine-marking – both males and females, intact and neutered. The likelihood of urine-marking is greatest in the intact male cat; neutered males are next most likely to urine-mark, then intact females, and finally spayed females. Urine-marking can be performed with the cat in a standing position or in a squatting pose. The volume of urine passed ranges from small and almost insignificant to a regular flood, and vertical surfaces are often the target. There is also a type of "virtual" marking behavior in which no urine is passed at all, so called phantom spraying, though owners do not usually regard this as a pressing behavior problem.

Spraying is the most common form of urine-marking behavior. In spraying, cats back up to a vertical surface, tread with their hind legs, quiver the tip of their tail, and deliver a fine stream of urine onto the surface. The purpose of this behavior is to inscribe a urine-born pheromonal message for subsequent passers-by to detect. The message probably reads something like: "Kilroy was here," or "This is Kilroy's place: Keep out." Intact males have the greatest motivation to mark because of the behavior is testosterone-enhanced, but neutered males will also spray if suitably aroused. Though females can spray, especially intact females in heat, they urine-mark more commonly from the squatting position.

Recognizing Urine-marking

  • It typically involves interesting and varied locations, such as countertops, heating registers, stereo speakers, electric toasters, oven tops, refrigerators, windowsills, drapes, desks, screened porches, shopping bags, clothes or beds.

  • It usually involves multiple sites and often has a discernible pattern, such as on a person's belongings or near sites of access to the outside world.

  • It often involves a small amount of urine deposited on a vertical surface.

    Diagnosis and Treatment

    Urine-marking used to be the most difficult behavior problem to treat. However, we now know much more about the reasons why cats mark with urine and have numerous treatment options at our fingertips. Here are some things you can do.

  • Patterns. Recognize the typical pattern of urine-marking and consider possible initiating factors. It is important to consider events that occurred at the same time as the onset of urine-marking, such as the arrival of a new person in the household, the departure of a key household figure, the arrival of a new cat, or the opening of porches in the springtime.

  • Neutering or spaying. Intact males almost always mark. Neutering eliminates urine-marking in 90 percent of male cats. Intact females may spray when they are in heat, but spaying intact females is 95 percent effective in eliminating female estrus-linked marking behavior.

  • Medical examination. Rule out all possible medical causes of inappropriate urination by means of a urine analysis plus any other relevant veterinary tests. Sometimes, feline urological problems can trigger spraying and, if present, must be addressed first.

  • Litter boxes. Make sure there are enough litter boxes, at least one more than the number of cats in your household. Make sure the litter boxes are cleaned regularly and litter boxes are strategically placed at all levels of the house.

  • Odors. Clean up all urine marks as soon as possible with an enzymatic odor neutralizer. A black light can help detect urine marks.

  • Stress. Address any stresses in the cat's life, such as conflict with other cats or separation anxiety.

  • Outside visitors. Shield the cat from unwelcome outside visitors by adding translucent plastic shields positioned in the lower half of windows to make window sills inaccessible, using blinds or curtains to cover windows, moving chairs to deny access to certain windows, shutting doors to certain "high risk" rooms, and closing off screened-in porches.

  • Pheromone spray. The use of a pheromonal spray containing facial pheromones in an alcohol base (Feliway®) can help deter some cats from urinating in particular locations. The active ingredient in Feliway is oleic acid. It is thought that this delivers a message of "peace and love" rather than the angry "keep away" message of territorial urine-marking.

  • Medication. In some cases, urine-marking can be reduced through medication that decreases feline arousal and thus the drive for territorial or anxious urine-marking. The most effective medication is fluoxetine (Prozac®), which resolves the problem in some 90 percent of cases. The next most effective medication is a trycyclic antidepressant, clomipramine (Clomicalm®) (80 percent effective), then buspirone (BuSpar®), with a 50 or 60 percent efficacy rate, and finally, the trycyclic antidepressant, amitriptyline (Elavil®), which is also sometimes effective.

    The purpose behind giving these medications is to stabilize the cat's mood and reduce anxiety. Sometimes medications need to be given long-term, but other times a short course of medication for just a few weeks, can be enough to resolve an otherwise chronic problem.

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