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Inappropriate Elimination in Cats

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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You love your cat and, until now, have enjoyed a perfect relationship with him. But suddenly he can't seem to find his way to the litter box. Nothing can be quite so distressing for a cat owner as this pungent issue. And as tolerant as you may be, there's probably a limit to the amount of time you can put up with living in a house that smells like a feline latrine.

Sad but true, inappropriate urination is responsible for the annual surrender of myriads of cats to shelters and pounds, a result that more often than not is the equivalent of a death sentence. So what causes cats to behave in this way? Why would they choose to foul their own nest, and what can be done about it?

Causes

Inappropriate elimination does not comprise of just one condition but rather a spectrum of conditions: some medical, some physiological (pertaining to normal biological functions), some to do with elimination preferences, and others related to anxiety and stress. It is important to find out what motivation underlies inappropriate urination in any particular case so that therapy can be properly directed.

Medical Causes

  • Cystitis and other bladder conditions
  • Medical conditions that cause increased thirst and urine formation, like certain kidney problems and diabetes
  • Intestinal parasites, especially worms (contributing to inappropriate defecation problems only)

    Hormonal Causes

    Hormones are normally only a factor in the case of intact cats. Hormonally induced urine marking often begins around puberty (5 to 8 months of age), and will persist for life if unchecked. The way to deal with this problem is neutering. Not all cats stop urine marking following neutering, but most do – nine out of ten in fact – and those that continue may have other issues.

    Although testosterone levels plummet after removal of male cats' testicles, the behavioral "fix" is not immediate. A respectable reduction in spraying frequency may take a few months after neuter surgery. No one knows what causes this latency: It may simply be that old habits die hard.

    Some intact females urine mark around the time of a heat period to signal their receptivity to passing males. Spaying a female will resolve this problem in 95 percent of cats and is recommended for medical and other behavioral reasons, too.

    House Soiling Problems

    Although technically all elimination problems are "house soiling problems," this term tends to be reserved for simple litter box problems. This is a behavior problem in which the cat chooses not to use the litter box for any one of a variety of reasons, electing to use an alternative area for elimination of urine, feces, or both. Affected cats simply avoid shun the litter box and select a quiet, carpet-clad spot behind a chair or in the corner of a room instead.

    There are many reasons why your cat may dislike his litter box:

  • Too few boxes
  • Inappropriately positioned boxes (damp cellar, high traffic area)
  • Inconvenient location (basement)
  • Hooded box (most cats dislike hoods)
  • Box too dirty (not scooped often enough)
  • Box too clean (cleaned with harsh smelling chemicals, such as bleach)
  • Liners (some cats are intimidated by plastic liners)
  • Plastic underlay (convenient for the owner but not always appreciated by the cat)
  • Wrong type of litter
  • Litter not deep enough
  • Animosity between cats in the house (competition/guarding of litter boxes)
  • Difficulty getting into/out of the box, especially in elderly, arthritic cats

    Treatment

    While inappropriate urination used to be a condition that veterinarians found extremely difficult to fix, clinical knowledge has increased to the point that no cat need lose his life as a result of now eminently treatable syndrome.

    Medical problems should always be ruled out first before trying to control inappropriate elimination disorders and most can be addressed or contained. Have your veterinarian examine your cat and perform laboratory tests (usually a urine test, blood test and fecal exam) to establish the presence of any contributing medical problem. Obviously such conditions should be treated before proceeding further, but sometimes, even when the medical problem is under control, the elimination problem may persist because new habits have become established.

    Anxiety-based problems are now treatable, thanks to modern medicines and a better understanding of the root cause of these problems. Drugs like buspirone (Buspar®) and fluoxetine (Prozac®) have revolutionized the treatment of anxiety-based inappropriate elimination problems.

    Litterbox problems are a cinch to treat. Increasing the number of litter boxes to N + 1 (where N is the number of cat in the household), altering the location of litter boxes for the cat's convenience, using scoopable litter, removal of hoods from hooded boxes, etc., will usually produce a dramatic turnaround, especially if done in conjunction with proper clean-up of previous "accidents" using a proprietary odor neutralizer (nothing less!).

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