by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
Feline House Soiling
Bathroom duties required for cats is one of the prime reasons some people favour them as pets over dogs. None of this housetraining business for a kitten that is necessary for a puppy. Just supply directions to the kitty litter box and you're off to the races. No walkies with a stoop and scoop apparatus that a dog needs. Your backyard will not require regular removal of accumulated fecal waste, nor will its appearance be spoiled with unsightly grass burns caused by dog urine. All you have to do for cats is provide a pan of litter material in some far off corner of the basement and remember to change it once in a while.
Yes, life can be good when things are going smoothly but feline house soiling is the most common behavioural problem of cats and the most annoying to cat owners. House soiling can be caused by medical problems, therefore a good physical examination and urinalysis is essential for all patients showing the problem. One study of cats affected with this condition found as many as sixty percent had previously had problems with urinary tract disorders. Inappropriate elimination can also be associated with other medical abnormalities such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, and liver disease.
Once a medical cause is ruled out, it usually requires the efforts of a diligent owner, along with help from their veterinarian, to successfully resolve the problem behaviour. A careful analysis of the problem will be necessary. How long has it been happening? What type of elimination is being deposited outside the litter - urine, stool or both? Has the cat had a consistent pattern of litter usage?
Information about the litter box will be needed. What is the litter box size? Is it a covered box or uncovered? What type of litter is used? How many litter boxes are used and how often are they cleaned? It is generally recommended there should be one more litter box than the number of cats in the house and there should be a litter box on each living level that the cat has access to in the house. Some studies suggest scented cat litter may adversely influence litter box use for some cats.
It is important to note where the house soiling is occurring. Is it on the floor or wall? Is it near windows or doors? What time of day does the problem most frequently occur? Are there other cats in the household and can outside or stray cats be seen, smelled or heard?
This collected data will help in diagnosing the problem. The major categories for feline inappropriate elimination include location preference, litter substrate preference, litter aversion, location aversion and marking behaviour.
Treatment will be based on several things. Efforts will need to be made to limit a cat's access to areas where they have previously soiled. This may include confinement to certain areas at least for part of the day. Confinement may also allow owners a better opportunity to study litter box usage patterns shown by their cat. When owners are home the cat may be out under strict supervision.
It will also be necessary to make the litter box user friendly. The litter should be totally changed every 3-4 days and the feces scooped out every day. A trial may be required to find the most preferable type of litter. Some cats prefer plain clay materials, some prefer clumping materials. Occasionally I recommend builder's sand as a near natural substance to try. The litter box should not be located near clothes dryers or other possibly noisy distractions. Litter boxes down long flights of stairs in a basement may not be a good idea especially for an older or arthritic cat.
Another component in treatment is to make sure areas that have been previously soiled are adequately cleaned. There are many good products available to do this. It may help to make areas where the cat has urinated or defecated aversive. Some techniques used to accomplish this would include placing food or water bowls there, covering the area with tin foil, potpourri, plastic, sticky tape or upside down carpet runners.
Finally, a number of different drugs have been used in treating cats with house soiling problems, especially if marking behaviours are involved. However, drug therapy alone is rarely curative and is best used in conjunction with behaviour therapy. Your veterinarian can best advise you about the use of such medications.
It is important to remember that the longer a cat has been eliminating outside the litter, the more difficult it is to get them back into the box on a regular permanent basis. Early treatment will be much more likely to result in success.