A Wee Problem

kittens in litter tray


Depositing scent and sniffing are the feline version of writing and reading. This method of communication allows cats to leave and receive signals in the absence of the sender/receiver.  The feline’s primal desire to communicate in writing has led to inappropriate urination and urine spraying being the predominant behavioural concerns for cat households. Whether its urination or urine spraying, both are the cat’s efforts to use urine to deliver a message.

In suburban homes, cats use urine as a means of communication carefully distributing their scent to build up communal odour (‘home smell’).  Communal odour is comprised of scents left by all of the individuals living in the home. Sensitive feline individuals find any disruption to the ‘home smell’ very unsettling. As a consequence bringing home a new family member, furniture or changing cleaning products (just to name a few) can precipitate a urine spraying outburst in your home.  However, disturbances to the ‘home smell’ may not be the only contributing factor to inappropriate urination. Motivations to seek alternatives to the litter tray are numerous. This is why the first step in management is to obtain a comprehensive history and complete a thorough medical work up.

At least 1 in 3 cases of urine-based behavioural problems have an underlying physical disease as contributing factor. Therefore the initial work up for all cases should commence with a thorough clinical examination, urinalysis and blood work. During this process history taking should be thorough and including as a minimum the following categories of questions:

  1. What are the patient’s experiences and what it has learnt from them?
    1. Where and when was the cat acquired?
    2. How long has the urination/urine spraying been a problem?
    3. How frequently does urine spraying/ inappropriate urination occur?
    4. Where is the cat depositing urine? – vertical versus horizontal surfaces. What volume of urine is being found and what pattern is the urine deposited in (spray versus puddle)? What type of surface is the urine being deposited on?
    5. What time of day does it happen?
    6. What strategies have been tried?
  2. What is the cat’s environment?
    1. What other animals/people live in the house?
    2. What is the cat’s relationship with the other animals/people?
    3. What type of litter tray is being offered?
      1. Dimensions?
      2. Is the litter tray covered or open?
  1. Type of litter?
  2. Has the litter type been changed?
  3. Number of trays
  1. What is used to clean the trays?
  2. Do they use a liner?
  1. Is the cat indoors/outdoors or both?
  2. Diagram showing locations in the home of urine spraying and/or inappropriate urination.
  3. What is the daily household routine?

The diagnosis should focus on the location and size of the urine spot and possible stress triggers.

The treatment focus is on resolving underlying medical conditions, identifying and managing triggers and providing suitable, socially acceptable locations for urination to take place within the home. A successful behavioural strategy needs to be tailored to the individual.

Environmental Interventions

Environmental interventions play a key role in managing a urine problem. The aim is to establish the indoor environment as a safe place through provision of suitable eating, sleeping and play opportunities. Each cat in the household needs a toileting and eating station since neither are social behaviours for cats. Using the vertical space in a home can result in genius transformations that provide more opportunities for ‘goldilocks’ cats to find just the right place to feel safe and recuperate. Play opportunities should be offered throughout the life time of a cat to provide necessary outlets for predatory behaviour.

Addressing social anxiety triggered by neighbourhood cats is important. While cat flaps are lovely for accessing the very enriching outdoors they also provide an inlet point for intruders. Microchip activated cat flaps eliminate this issue. Sometimes it is not physical invasion but ‘peeping toms’ at windows and doors that can trigger and anxious response. This requires carefully addressing visual access to these areas as well as some strategical placed Sssscat outside the home.

Social driven anxiety between cats within the same household requires some additional measures. Individuals that fall within different developmental periods need their own spaces for eating and toileting.


Cats have an acute sense of smell and urine messages that have dried out and denatured will be topped up to maintain the strength of the signal. This habitual topping up is a major perpetuating factor in urine-based problems. Products to avoid are those that contain ammonia and chlorine because while they smell clean to us to cats they smell like urine which will lead to topping up. Products to use include biological washing powder (products containing enzymes). These products break down the protein in urine. Use a 10% warm solution of the powder, rinse and dry. Once the area is completely dry follow up with a brisk spray of surgical spirit, which will then remove the fat component of the urine mark. Once dry the cats can have access to the area again. Often urine sprays and urinations in the home can be missed. It’s important to use a LED u.v. light to identify all marked areas and clean them in the appropriate way.

What sort of toilet does the cat want? Effective use of the litter tray buffet

It is vital to make the litter tray the most desirable location to urinate in the home. Identifying which surfaces within the home have been urinated on can be a big clue to the cats preferred substrate. Likewise the location of house-soiling can sometimes provide a clue as to preferred toileting locations. Asking the cat what their preferred toilet looks like can be as simple as offering a buffet of different types of litter trays, substrates and locations (For example: for arthritic and senior cats be sure to consider access to the tray as a little ramp may be in order and for long hair cats choose litters that don’t stick to their fur). Once the tray is chosen be sure to offer one litter tray per cat plus an extra tray for good measure (some cats have a one use only policy when it comes to the litter tray!).

The role of punishment

Any negative experience is going to cause the cat to feel less safe which in turn increases the risk of further marking/toileting. Further there is an increased risk that the cat will mark more frequently but in places that are less detectable.


When indicated some cats with house-soiling problems need medical support in the form of anxiety-alleviating medication. When used it is vital that it is not used alone but in combination with a multimodal behavioural strategy.

Pheromones can be a useful to help ease mild anxieties and as a useful adjunct to multimodal therapy for more severe forms of behavioural disease.

Early detection and intervention are as always the key.


Dr Kate Lindsey

BSc(Hons), BVMS(Hons), MANCVS(Animal Behaviour)




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