What to do about shelter cats with inappropriate urination (Proceedings)


House soiling is a common behavior problem in cats leading to a break in the human animal bond, and consequently to relinquishment or euthanasia.

House soiling is a common behavior problem in cats leading to a break in the human- animal-bond, and consequently to relinquishment or euthanasia. A diagnosis is needed to successfully address these problems and their underlying causes. In this presentation, we discuss approaches and treatment plans for the most common inappropriate elimination problems with an emphasis on prevention: keeping animals in the home, and intervention: treatment plans for cats in order to maintain the human - animal bond.

“UR- in trouble” – thinking outside the box

House soiling problems are very common with cats, and can be divided into two general categories – urine marking, and inappropriate elimination.  Cats diagnosed with either type of house soiling problem are at a higher risk for surrender and/or euthanasia.  Both of these behaviors are normal behaviors for cats; however, a correct assessment has to be made to successfully address, treat, or manage these problems as well as their underlying cause.

Urine marking

Urine marking can be done either in response to a territorial reaction and/or anxiety.  It is often related to tension and/or aggression between household cats or other stressors in the home, or shelter, and is therefore considered a “social communication problem”.  Cats that mark, deposit small amounts of urine on vertical surfaces with social significance.  Their litter box behavior is unchanged and when they urinate outside the box, they back up against a vertical surface and stand with their tail up straight to deposit a small amount of urine.

Inappropriate elimination

Inappropriate elimination, which can include urine and/or feces, is a “voiding problem” and is not done out of spite like some owners might think, but merely to empty the bladder in an area that is considered inappropriate to us.  Those cats might soil on a specific surface, or in a specific location.  They deposit a large amount of urine (void the bladder) on a horizontal surface.  Their litter box use might be decreased or altered, but when they urinate outside the box they squat and many show pre- and post-voiding behaviors such as digging and covering.

As a first assessment for any urination problem a history needs to be taken, which is not always possible, especially at the shelter.  However, when counseling owners for surrender prevention or for owner surrendered cats to the shelter, it is critical to obtain a history form.  The minimal amount of information should include location, surface, amount of urine voided and posture of the cat while urinating.  If a full history can be attained from a surrendering owner, it should include questions as to location, substrate, amount of urine and frequency of the soiling problem and the posture of the cat if observed while urinating.  In addition to information on husbandry and environmental information such as the number and location of litter boxes in the home, litter type, litter box cleaning schedule, number of cats in the home or the presence of any outside cats and any past medical history.

Surrender prevention counseling: Marking and inappropriate elimination alike


  • Because many medical problems can cause a cat to urinate outside the litter box, owners must be counseled to seek help from their veterinarian. 

  • Because the odor of urine draws cats back to previously soiled areas, cleaning of all previously soiled areas with an enzymatic and bacterial combination cleanser is strongly recommended.  This is of course especially important in the home, but also needs to be considered for shelters and includes items such as cat trees, bedding and any room furniture.

  • Excellent litter box hygiene has been proven to significantly decrease the incidence of any form of soiling.  The boxes should contain non-scented, fine granulated, clumping litter and be scooped at least once daily and completely emptied and cleaned every one to two weeks.  Strong smelling detergents, such as Pine-Sol®, ammonia, bleach should be avoid when cleaning the boxes, since cats typically do not like strong-smelling odors.  Instead, it is recommended to use mild dish soap and rinse well.  It is also worth pointing out that most cats do not like litter box covers, or liners.

  • Number of litter boxes: The magic number is N+1. There should be one more litter box than the total number of cats in the household.  These boxes should be placed in multiple, easily accessible locations, including those locations that have been previously soiled.

  • Previously soiled locations should be made inaccessible.  It is recommended to limit the cat's access to rooms that have been soiled in the past.  This can easiest be done by closing doors to those rooms.  Alternatively, previously soiled locations could be covered with an aversive substance.  Some recommendations are: foil, plastic carpet runner material turned upside down so that the nubby side is up, Scat Mat®, contact paper with the sticky side up, double-sided sticky tape, etc.

  • Cats should only be interrupted if the owner actually sees the cat sniffing an area and is preparing to urinate, but never after the act.  Never should any form of direct punishment (yell, stomp your feet, physically hit, etc.) be applied, as this only makes the cat either more nervous and fearful, or sneakier, and learn to urinate if the owners are not present.

  • All forms of environmental enrichment should be encouraged and recommended.  This is good for any cat and might help to alleviate any anxiety or social tension that may be contributing to these problems.  Some ways to do this are by providing more resting and hiding places, multiple feeding locations, and interactive toys.  Meal times can be made more interesting by hiding small quantities of food around the house (on shelves, in bedding, in boxes, etc.) and in toys (with holes for food to fall out from).  Toys can be made more challenging by hanging the containers just above the cat's head height.  There are many commercially available interactive toys for cats.  For older cats it can be helpful to place a litter box close to their favorite resting spot.


Inappropriate elimination in the shelter

At the SF SPCA we have treated/managed many cats with house soiling problems.  Inappropriate elimination is more common than marking, and many cats have medical problems including renal failure, urinary tract infections, crystals, stones and neurological problems.  Most cats are successfully treated, managed and adopted.

Shelter protocol for house soiling used at the SF SPCA

  • Diagnose the problem by attaining history from the previous home and observations in the shelter.  However, even cats with a known history of either inappropriate elimination or marking might not show this behavior in the shelter due to change in environment.  Therefore, it is important to attain as much history from a previous owner as possible.

  • A full medical work up including physical exam, blood analysis, urine analysis and urine culture and in some cases x-rays will be performed.

  • All cats with a history of house-soiling will be housed individually to treat elimination problems.

  • Behavior modification: Re-establish litter box use by offering a litter box trails: Depending on space two or more litter boxes with different litter type is provided for a minimum of 7-10 days.  Daily use is recorded.  Once a preference can be determined the other boxes are removed and the cat can be “challenged” by moving to a larger confinement space in addition to adding other types of substrates for example pillows or bedding.

  • Once solid litter box use has been established the cat will be made available for adoption with special behavior counseling and post adoption support is provided.

Key points for counseling

  • Are there enough boxes?  The magic number (n+1) is one box per cat in the household, plus one extra.

  • Offer different types of litter to find the cats preferred litter type.  Always offer a fine granulated, clumping and non-scented type of litter.

  • Always keep the litter box clean.  The box might be dirty and the laundry basket is the only “clean alternative”.  Scoop out the litter box daily.

  • Use mild dishwashing liquid to wash the box weekly.

  • Location: Place the litter box in the same room the cat is eliminating outside the box.

  • Please do not place litter box right next to food and water or your washer and dryer.

  • If you have a multi-stored house, have litter boxes on each level, especially on the level where your older cat likes to rest.

Troubleshooting litter box problems

  • Always recommend to begin by consulting a veterinarian to rule out any medical causes.

  • Check all the above guidelines.

  • VERY IMPORTANT: Do not punish your cat for soiling, as this can make the problem worse and your cat more anxious.

In some cases the triggers cannot be found or avoided and medication is needed to control anxiety.

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