Friday, January 3, 2014

Why is my cat urinating in the house? and the fine art of litter tray troubleshooting

Going to the toilet: the importance of this in your cat's life cannot be underestimated.

In the veterinary world we often use the term “inappropriate elimination” to refer to litter tray misfires, mishaps, misuse and total avoidance. But I don’t always think it is inappropriate so much as unfortunate. Quite often feline toileting troubles arise because we’re not meeting the toileting needs of our cats.

Here’s the key: going to the toilet is a BIG DEAL for your cat.

Author Mark Twain once said that “one of life’s most over-valued pleasures is sexual intercourse; one of life’s least appreciated pleasures is defecation”.

Putting aside any questions that raises about the quality of Twain’s relationships, it is a very valid point when it comes to cats. A happy cat is able to go to the toilet in a comfortable place, on a good substrate, with adequate privacy and on their own time. They are big on routine when it comes to toileting. And some cats will get SO STRESSED when their litter is changed, or there are litter box politics, that they will get themselves in such a state that they are unable to urinate. This is an EMERGENCY.

Haematuria (blood in urine) can indicate
urinary tract inflammation or infection.
If you find your cat suddenly toileting somewhere undesirable, you need to ask yourself some important questions:

  • Could there be a medical reason? Conditions that can cause litter tray problems include urinary tract infections, kidney disease, trauma and age-related incontinence. Work up may involve urinalysis, urine culture and sensitivity, biochemistry panel and radiographs and/or ultrasound.
  • Is the tray clean? You might think so, but you’re not standing in it. [I met one client who said "yes, our tray is pretty clean, there are usually only six or seven poos in there". Six or seven? There should be ZERO!!! What happens when you go to a public toilet and discover someone hasn't flushed? Maybe I over-react, but I tend to run from the place screaming!!!] Remove solid waste at least once a day (ideally, whenever you see it) and change clumping litters at least once a week. Different types of litter absorb different amounts of fluid so when you change brands that can change the game. [As an aside, back in the day when Phil had more teeth, I heard him rustling around in the cat tray. As I crept up behind him to see what he was up to I saw him retrieve a little bone he had buried in there. Great hiding spot as no human would search for a bone in there, not sure that the cats were thrilled though].
  • What about politics? Litter problems can be due to anxiety or aggression between cats. You should provide at least one tray per cat plus one extra. This is especially handy during times of high stress like moving house. [I’m a bit of a fan of using things like a synthetic feline facial pheromone spray or diffuser, and environmental enrichment, to reduce tensions of the feline kind]. Even if your cat lives indoors and solo, the arrival of another cat in the neighbourhood - especially if said cat is peering through your windows - can set off anxiety that is manifested as extreme toileting. 
  • Is your cat upset about something? Rearranging the furniture, throwing a dinner party, allowing toddlers to chase your cat around or acquiring a new partner are known triggers for litter tray chaos. I've known clients whose cat has urinated somewhere as subtle as the dining room table (when guests are over), and it is not unusual for a client to admit that their new partner has felt a warm sensation spreading over them in the night. I myself have fallen victim to the expertly deposited stool behind the door, positioned such that it is smeared all over the carpet as the door swings open. Again environmental enrichment, feline pheromones, and sometimes some judicious exclusion of felines from certain parts of the house will often solve the problem.
  • Is the tray in the right location? Your cat should be able to go to the toilet in privacy. Don’t keep the litter tray in the same area in which you feed your cat. They find this most off putting (wouldn’t you?) Similarly if the dog is sitting right next to the tray waiting for a protein cookie (of sorts), cats aren’t so keen to go.
  • Is the tray big enough? If it is too small your cat may struggle to aim. Adult cats need adult-sized trays. Overweight cats might need slightly larger trays (and a diet!). Amputees and cats with arthritis can struggle to get into trays so you might need to get creative and modify plastic tubs or lids.
  • Is there enough litter in the tray? It needs to be deep enough to allow your cat to bury its waste. Clumping litters are most effective at absorbing moisture when the tray is filled to the 5cm level. This allows the litter to form a ball around the urine before it drains to the bottom of the tray, so the urine can be removed in a solid clump.
  • Is it the right type of litter? Litter granule size and texture make a huge difference to your cat because the paw pads are one of the most sensitive parts of the cat’s body. If you’re not sure which litter your cat prefers, offer a smorgasbord of trays containing different types and study which is chosen first. Some cats prefer to do solids on one kind of litter and urinate on an altogether different kind.



Sudden changes in litter type or tray placement can cause litter tray mishaps. Cats don’t appreciate surprises in the litter tray and they’re likely to respond with a surprise or two of their own.

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