Cat elimination behaviors: the most common behavioral complaint (Proceedings)


Species-typical feline elimination behavior patterns are urination, defecation, and marking.

Species-typical feline elimination behavior patterns are urination, defecation, and marking.

Species-typical sequences involve - in classic terminology- appetitive, consummatory, and post-comsummatory  behaviors.  Or, in other words, preparatory behaviors, the actual behavior or goal or the end act, and  follow-up behaviors.  Regarding elimination behaviors in cats, this  could include sequences of searching for the appropriate location to eliminate, perhaps digging in the substrate, eliminating, and covering the  elimination or scratching in the substrate. Pre-eliminatory, elimination, and post eliminatory behaviors.  Needless to say, there are numerous factors that can influence the behaviors in this sequence.

Kittens will begin using a litter type material as early as 4 weeks of age, if the material is easily accessible. This means close-by, low-sided containers, and kept clean. It is not necessary that the kittens see the mother cat use a litter box.  Owners should be warned not to take their kittens to a litter box and force their little legs and paws to “scratch” in the litter box.  This may only “teach” the kitten to avoid litter boxes.

At kitten visits, take the opportunity to scare (or impress upon) owners that the number one reason people relinquish their cats is for not using the litterbox and don't let this happen to their kitten. Just because their young cat is using the litterbox now, doesn't mean it always will. The owners need to take preventative measures that their kitten doesn't develop preferences for places other than the litterbox provided.  The box should be cleaned daily, be kept in a convenient location for both the cat and owner, and other environmental factors need to be taken into consideration, such as dogs, other cats, fears, and people in the household.

If an adult cat begins urinating and/or defecating the house, patho-physiological conditions should be considered, confirmed and treated, or ruled out. Sometimes, even after a patho-physiological condition is treated, the behavior may remain. The cat may have acquired a new location or surface preference. 

When a cat has developed a location and/or surface preference for something other than the litterbox, the key factors in shifting these preferences are 1. Increase the attractiveness of the litterbox, litter substrate or litterbox locations and 2. Decrease the attractiveness of the surface or location where the cat has shifted its toiletry habits. Common sense and imagination allows many combinations of alterations of these variables and usually results in correcting the problem behavior. As my colleague, Dr Peter Borchelt, says' “Treating cat elimination behaviors is like playing chess with the cat. First, you make a move. Then the cat makes a move. Then you make a move, etc. Until one of you wins.”

Marking behavior can take the form of spraying, urinating in a squatting posture, or middening. Approaches to marking include 1. Changes in the environment, 2. Surgical procedures, 3. Pharmacological and pheromonal treatment, 4. Behavioral management, and 5 (least likely to be helful) Behavior Modification.techniques.

Castration appears to be effective after a cat has started to spray as it is prophylactically. About 10% of cats spray whether neutered as juveniles or mature, already spraying cats. Spaying will reduce or stop marking behaviors of female cats in estrus.

Almost every drug known to affect anxiety or impulsively in man or animals has been tried to suppress spraying and urine marking in cats. Currently fluoxetine, (0.5-1.0 mg/kg; PO) and clomipramine (0.25 – 0.50 mg/kg; PO) are the most commonly used. All of these drugs are used off-label for treatment of inappropriate elimination and marking in cats.

There appears to be idiosyncratic desired responses to pheromone collars, sprays or diffusers.  They appear to work in some situations but not others. There is no evidence that there are any side-effects with the use of these agents.

Most cat elimination problems can be successfully treated.



Borchelt PL and Voith VL Elimination Behavior Problems in Cats.  The Compendium on Continuing Education 1981; 3 (8), 730-737.

Hart BL and Cooper L. Factors relating to urine spraying and fighting in prepubertally gonadectomized cats. JAVMA 184: 1255-1258, 1984.

 Marder AR and  Engel JM. Long-term Outcome After Treatment of Feline Inappropriate Elimination. JAAWS 2002; 5(4), 299-308.

Pryor PA et al.  Effects of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor on urine spraying behavior in cats. JAVMA 2001; 219:1557-1561

Pryor PA et al. Causes of urine marking in cats and the effects of environmental management on the frequency of marking. JAVMA 2001;  219:1709-1713

Sherman, B. L. Housesoiling-Cats. Blackwell's Five-Minute Veterinary Consult ,4th Ed..634-637. LP Tilley and FWK Smith (Editors. Blackwell Publishing,2007.

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