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Inappropriate Urination: Problem Solving

September 29, 2015

Inappropriate elimination (urinating and/or defecating outside the litter box) is one of the most common problems we see in pet cats. Once medical causes such as a bladder infection have been ruled out, there are many behavioral causes of inappropriate urination: For example, stress; anxiety; conflict with another pet in the home; or a learned aversion to the litter box’s location, litter type, or cleanliness.  Sometimes it takes some detective work to get to the bottom of why a cat is inappropriately urinating. I would like to share a recent experience with one of my own cats to demonstrate how subtle the clues can be.

We have two cats: Gertie, a 15 year old female and Solo, a 12 year old male. Several months ago, a third cat in the home passed away and at that time we removed a litter box in a second floor spare bedroom that had been used primarily by that cat. The remaining litter boxes are in the basement.  Gertie spends most of her time in the basement during the day and in the second floor bathroom at night. Solo spends most of his time in our bedroom during the day and on the main floor at night. There are also dogs living in the home who have no access to the litter boxes, and the cats have dog-free eating and resting areas.

About a month ago Gertie started urinating on a dog bed on our main floor overnight, every other night or so. Medical causes were ruled out (including pain that might prevent her from using the stairs), so we began to think about things that she might not like about the litter box or why she might be unwilling to go into the basement to use them.

The inappropriate urination was only happening overnights, when Gertie potentially has to travel from the second floor bathroom to the basement. What might prevent her from doing so? A few things we considered but ruled out: The dogs? No, they are shut in the bedroom with us at night and can’t bother the cats.  Dirty litter boxes? The litter boxes are cleaned regularly and after removing the second floor litter box there were still four boxes for two cats, but we added a fifth litter box to the basement anyway just in case (which did not help). There were no changes in litter brand or type and no changes in the household or our schedules.

Through a process of elimination, we became very suspicious that Solo was the culprit. Generally these two cats are neutral towards one another but Solo used to periodically bully the cat who passed away. It was very possible that he was now bullying Gertie by blocking her access to the basement overnights and rather than “run the gauntlet” she chose to use the dog bed instead. To test our theory, we simply replaced the litter box in the upstairs bathroom where she sleeps.

The inappropriate urination stopped! This scenario is a good lesson that even though we never saw the two cats overtly fighting, there was some conflict between them causing the problem. Also, even though these cats have lived together for Solo’s entire life, the death of the third cat had clearly changed the dynamics of their relationship even though this did not manifest right away. We can’t always figure out what triggers a cat to start urinating outside of the box, but a little thought and investigation will often turn up something even if it is not obvious at first.

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