Inappropriate elimination

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Inappropriate elimination in a cat, due commonly to poor weaning or insufficient number of kitty litter trays per household
Territorial behaviour in male and female cats, leading to urine spraying

Inappropriate elimination, in the form of urine spraying or defecation, are a common cause of cats being relinquished to cat shelters.

Feline inappropriate elimination refers to the behavior of cats that engage in either urinating, defecating, or both, on the floor or furniture inside an owner's house. Inappropriate elimination that is caused by a litterbox aversion or because the cat has developed an alternate substrate preference is often referred to as a “litterbox problem”. Urine marking is another situation to which the term inappropriate elimination applies. Medical problems can also be a cause for inappropriate elimination. This lecture will cover inappropriate elimination that results from a litterbox problem and marking.

Feline inappropriate elimination made up 56% of feline cases at Cornell University’s Animal Behavior Clinic between 1991-2001 and it appears to be the most frequent type of feline behavior problem we see at Tufts Behavior Clinic, closely followed by aggression. It will be well worth your effort to develop expertise in treating feline inappropriate elimination because you will be approached by owners with this problem. Successfully treating feline inappropriate elimination can prevent these cats from being relinquished to shelters. The National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy reported that housesoiling was the 7th most common reason for shelter relinquishment. Of those owners who reported a behavioral reason for relinquishment, housesoiling was the most common reason accounting for 43% of the cats relinquished for a behavioral problem. Again veterinarians did not score highly in a self report study on their confidence in their ability to treat this problem, with only 28% of vets reporting that they felt confident about it.

Causes and Treatment of Feline Inappropriate Elimination

The first step in treating feline inappropriate elimination is to try and determine what is causing it by means of a thorough behavioral history. There are four main reasons why cats eliminate outside their littterbox:

  • hormonal
  • medical
  • litterbox problems
  • urine marking.

Hormonal and Medical Factors

Both testosterone and estrogen can contribute to urine marking. Neutering is an effective treatment for most cases of urine marking in cats and is about 90% effective in males and 95% effective in females. The 10 and 5% of non-responders, respectively, continue to urine mark for reasons of social or territorial anxiety.

Medical conditions, notably feline urological syndrome, may also contribute toward urine marking/spraying. Painful elimination can cause a cat to run from the litterbox leading to litterbox aversion issue and development of an alternate substrate preference. Appropriate testing should be conducted to rule out medical causes for feline inappropriate elimination.


The following are points to consider when diagnosing a feline litterbox problem:

Occurs in any age, breed, or sex of cat. Persian cats may be overrepresented.
Can involve either urine or feces or both.
If urine, large volumes are deposited.
Litterbox often not used for urination or defecation.
The location of deposits is the most useful diagnostic clue. Areas soiled are usually absorbent, horizontally-situated and have no strategic significance (e.g. area rugs, floors, bath mats). Often eliminations are found on the floor near the litterbox.

The following behaviors may indicate that a cat is not happy with his/herfacilities: scratching on the sides of the litterbox or on a nearby floor or wall, teetering on the edges of a non-hooded litterbox to avoid stepping in the litter, refraining from circling or digging in the litter (or digging for < 4 seconds), hesitating to enter the box, exiting the box in a rush, or sniffing the box and then walking away.

Litterbox arrangement including: number of litterboxes in the house, type of litter used, number of cats in the house, litterbox hygiene.


Because it is not always possible to know which litterbox attribute(s) is aversive to the cat, a multifactorial approach is often employed. The objectives of the treatment for a litterbox problem are: 1) to make the litterbox arrangement more attractive to the cat, 2) make the soiled areas less attractive to the cat and 3) thoroughly clean the soiled areas.

  • A.Make the litterbox arrangement more attractive. Owners should implement ALL of the following treatments in conjunction for best results:
Litter type: Cats prefer unscented, clumping, fine-grained, sandy litter.
Litterbox hygiene: Cats may avoid their litterbox if it is not clean enough. Daily scooping is recommended to reduce odor and increase the ratio of litter to clumps. Noisy automated litterboxes frighten some cats and could cause a litterbox problem. However, for those cats that are not frightened, the automated boxes are great for keeping the litterbox free of clumps. Zero Odor, a new litterbox spray (and carpet cleaner), can be sprayed onto the surface of the litter twice daily to reduce litter box odor (it’s non-toxic). While it is important to keep the litterbox free of waste clumps and unbearable odor, the litterbox shouldn’t be too clean. A slight residual odor of waste from the box is needed to signal to the cat “hey, the bathroom is this way.” Harsh smelling chemicals such as ammonia or bleach should never be used to clean a litter box. Scrubbing with a sponge and hot water is all that is needed.
Litter depth.

Cats were originally dessert dwellers and like to dig in sand. Litterboxes should be maintained at a depth of at least 3 inches of litter to simulate a sandy environment.

Number of Litterboxes. The formula for the appropriate number of litterboxes in the house is the number of cats in the household plus 1 (n + 1). Some cats prefer to urinate in one place and defecate in another.

Type/Size of Litterbox. Most cats prefer large open litter pans and therefore we recommend that owners remove hoods from most or all boxes in the house. Low-sided boxes are easier for cats to enter and are especially appropriate for arthritic cats but they do make maintenance of suitable litter depth more difficult. The appropriate length of a litterbox is 1.5 times the cat’s body length. Many commercially available litterboxes are too small.

Litterbox Accessories. Cats do not appreciate plastic mats placed around the perimeter of the box that are designed to deter litter from being tracked through house. Also, plastic litterbox liners are not appreciated by some cats.
Litterbox Location. There should be at least one litterbox on every floor of the house. Boxes need to be spread out within the house. Two boxes next to one another is the equivalent of one large box. Litterbox locations should be in low-traffic areas and easily accessible. Cats do not like to eat where they eliminate thus litterboxes should not be placed near a feeding station. Ideally, a litterbox should be placed in the area(s) where the cat is soiling outside of the box. The litterbox may be successfully moved back (in steps) to a place that is more appealing to the owner once the litterbox problem has resolved.
  • B. Make the soiled areas less attractive.

The soiled site can be covered with foil or plastic so that it is textually unappealing. Cats find the scent of citrus objectionable. Orange or lemon scented air fresheners or body sprays could be used to make an area aversive to a cat as well as commercially available odor deterrents. One such product is called Boundary Spray, which must be applied daily in order to be effective.

Place the cat’s food bowl at the area previously soiled. For cats that are defecating or urinating in bathtubs or sinks, keep the basin filled with 2 inches of water Double sided sticky tape can be used to make a surface tactilely unappealing.

  • C. Proper clean up of the soiled areas and removal of feline urine smell. This important step is often overlooked in the treatment process. Urine and fecal matter must be broken down by a proper enzymatic cleaner or the cat will be triggered to eliminate in that area again.

Clean all surfaces, rugs, etc., with a professional odor neutralizer (e.g. Nature’s Miracle, OxyClean, Zero Odor, and Anti-Icki-Poo). Check the area with a black light to ensure the urine has actually broken down and been removed. Not all fluorescent black lights are strong enough to illuminate urine. The most effective type of black light is one that is at least 12 inches long and uses AC power. The light must be held at most a distance of 10-12 inches from the spot. An extension cord may be needed. Battery powered black lights may not be powerful enough to detect urine. Repeat for each stain if urine is detected with a black light or the odor of urine lingers.

  • 3. Diagnosing Urine or Fecal Marking.

In a study done in 2002, a 1/3 of veterinarians surveyed did not attempt to categorize an inappropriate elimination as a litterbox problem or urine marking before making treatment suggestions. Making the diagnosis is important since, as you will see, the treatment protocols are quite distinct.

Cats use urine as a form of communication. Seasonal marking on windowsills and baseboards can occur when owners open windows for the first time each spring and the cat catches the scent of roaming outdoor cats. The addition of a new piece of furniture within the home can cause a cat to urine mark the object. When cats become stressed for a variety of reason, they can redefine their territory with urine or feces (middening), and that manifests as marking in the home. The most typical sources of stress for cats are: addition of a new cat/person to the household, person or cat with whom the cat was bonded moves out of the house, intercat aggression within the home, presence of outdoor cats within neighbourhood, changes in owner’s work schedule and pain. Sometimes the source of stress can not be identified. Below are some points to consider when diagnosing feline urine marking: Any age, breed, or sex/neuter status can be afflicted.

Small amounts of urine are often released, though large volume urine marking is possible too. Cats can release urine from a standing or a squatting position. The behavioral precursors to classical marking by spraying include; tail straight up, backing towards a vertical surface, and treading with the front or all four paws. When marking the cat often twitches its tail back and forth. Cats can also “phantom mark,” that is they assume the aforementioned body postures of marking but do not release urine. Location is the most important diagnostic cue. Typically, urine-marking cats deposit urine in strategic locations, sometimes on vertical surfaces and often involving only a small volume of urine. However, cats can urine mark from a squatting position and may deposit urine on horizontal surfaces (a.k.a. non-spraying marking). Non-spraying marking can be difficult to distinguish from a litterbox problem. Typical areas targeted include: window sills, walls, drapes, furniture (including desktop), people’s personal items (computer, clothes, baby carriage, kayak), heating registers, laundry baskets, stovetops, new items in the house (e.g. boxes, luggage) and sometimes the owners themselves. When a cat marks personal items, the stress may be related to that person. The stressful feeling can range from dislike to possessiveness.

Urine or fecal marking cats will often continue to use the litterbox to urinate or defecate. As the number of cats in a house increases, so does the rate of urine marking. It is said that the incidence of urine marking is 100% in households with 10 or more cats.

Treatment of Urine or Fecal Marking

  • A.Identify and eliminate (or decrease) the stress if possible.

Example 1: If two cats are fighting within the house, the intercat aggression must be dealt with as described in this course. Note: intercat aggression could cause urine marking, a litterbox problem or both.

Example 2: If the appearance/smell of outdoor cats is thought to be the source of stress, products can be used to deter the unwanted visitors. One such product is a motion-triggered water spray device called “The Scarecrow.” “Get Out of My Garden” non-toxic, but unpleasant smelling crystals can be positioned around the vicinity of the owner’s property. The Critter Gitter can also be used. It is motion-activated and deters animal intruders via noise and flashing lights.

Example 3: The source of stress cannot be determined. Medication may have to be employed to address the purported stress.

Example 4. The source of stress known but is unavoidable (e.g. the cries of a new baby). Medication and behavior modification may be needed to help engineer a more positive relationship between the cat and the baby.

  • B.Ensure that the cat’s litterbox arrangement is optimal. In most cases, it won’t be. Recommend that the owner follow the treatment outlined above for litterbox aversion. A study has shown that treatment of urine marking as a housesoiling problem is partially effective in decreasing the rate of urine marking.
  • C.Proper clean up of soiled areas (as above).
  • D. Neutering


Various drugs are available for eliminating urine-spraying behaviour in cats. These include:

- MPA-50 - medroxyprogesterone acetate 50mg SQ once every 1-3 months
- Clomicalm (Clomipramine) - 5 mg orally once daily - has tranquilising effects and risks of diabetes mellitus
- Fluoxetine - Prozac has been shown to be highly effective for treatment of feline anxiety-related urine marking.
- Suprelorin (deslorelin) - a GnRH agonist, is a newer off-label drug sometimes used and has shown some clinical efficacy in reducing inappropriate spraying in male cats.

Determining the Culprit in Multi-Cat Households. An important consideration in treating feline inappropriate elimination problems is to ensure that the right cat within the home is treated! There could be more than one. In some cases, it could be well worth the effort of systematically determining which cat(s) is inappropriately eliminating. There are two ways this can be achieved:

1)Separate and monitor all cats. Give each their owner litterbox and feeding stations. However, this process can be unsuccessful because separating the cats disturbs the social dynamic and can decrease stress-related inappropriate elimination.
2)Orally administer fluorescein dye to one cat (put the tips of six opthalamic strips into a gel capsule) once daily and check for glowing urine stains via a fluorescent black light. Owners should check a non-fluorescein dyed urine stain under black light before evaluating one containing the dye in order to avoid confusion.

What not to do

Punish the cat when caught in the cat, or afterwards. Cats will not associate a reprimand with the act of inappropriate elimination after the fact. Owners should never “rub the cat’s face in the soiled area to teach it a lesson” or bring the cat to the area and tell it “No!” Use of spray bottles when caught in the act does not work. Punishment teaches a cat to avoid eliminating outside of the box in front of the owner. If the punishment is severe enough, it could cause the cat to fear and avoid the owner as well.
Place the cat in the litterbox. This technique does not work. It has to be that the cat wants to use the litterbox and voluntarily seeks it out. The owner should concentrate on making the household litterbox arrangement as cat-friendly as possible.


(C) Dodman, NH (2009). Inappropriate elimination. Pers comm.