Litter Box Avoidance Part 2
The Three Common Causes
We bring you Part 2, ‘Litter Box Avoidance: The Three Common Causes’, by Beverly Morgan, Animal Solutions Specialist. Beverly has two certifications in animal behavior and uses a method she created and calls Mother Nature’s Blueprint™ to evaluate and solve behavior issues in the cats and the people she works with!
In this article, Beverly discusses the three common causes that a cat might be urinating outside of the litter box. Beverly discusses the problem of litter box avoidance from a behavioral stand point, not medical, so as always, the first thing you should do is have your cat evaluated by your vet to rule out any underlying medical concerns that can be quite serious and life threatening!
“Welcome and thank you for joining me for part 2! Once again, as I am an animal behaviorist, the focus of my writing today will be on behavioral aspects of why and how cats use urine, and to provide examples. My favorite is by Albert Einstein who stated, ‘Look deeply into nature and you will understand everything better.’ In my experience studying cat behavior, as well as in my field work, that includes the observation of a well-established barn cat/mouser cat colony consisting of about 30 cats, and a full feral colony of approximately 12 cats living in an alley within a city setting, I have watched cats establish their status among one another. In both situation of the situations mentioned above I’ve seen cats rely on one another and have a strong desire to stay close to the colony and territory they live within.
Through this and other field work I’ve done, I have established what normal feline behavior is in a setting with very little human interference, as well as cats living in a domestic setting, and have discovered that cats use many different ways to communicate with one another, other animals, and with us. Communicating by using urine is a method is a way of using pheromones, and while we people can’t understand cat communication that involves these pheromones, they assume that we do, which is why your cat will still use it to try and communicate with you.
Within a domestic situation, urine is never a welcome communication and you need to stop the status struggles that may be the problem as soon as it appears, if not before. Pay attention to your cat’s behavior. If you notice a cat hiding more than usual or being the target of another one of the resident cats for bullying, this could be a sign of a possible urinating problem in the making and could end up in unwanted behaviors from your cat that impacts all members of the family, human and animals alike. Take the time to learn the language your cat speaks so that you can better understand what your cat is trying to tell you and avoid the unpleasant behavior they may resort to in order to get through to you.
Keep in mind that you, too, are part of your cat’s colony, and therefore the things that You do can affect your cat’s behavior and the way he/she communicates. Let’s take a closer look at the three uses your cat could be utilizing and what they may be trying to say. While cats use urine mainly as a way to communicate their ‘ownership’, I’ve come to learn that there are different scenarios involved with the why and how that a cat uses urine to communicate their said ownership of something.
The causes and solutions I’ll be discussing here are not to be considered all inclusive, but a general overview of some common behavioral reasons why a cat might use urine outside of the litter box. As always, be sure that you have eliminated all possibility of an underlying medical issue such as kidney disease, FLUTD (Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease) caused by crystals, bladder
stones, urinary tract infection or bacterial infection, or Cystitis to name a few. The medical issues for why a cat might be urinating outside of the litter box are quite serious and need immediate veterinary attention!
The following scenarios are the most common use for urine as a form of communication with cats:
+ First Common Behavioral Cause: Urine can be used as a fence or boundary line to establish territory which secures hunting resources and breeding rights for those cats allowed in. This type of urine use is the type where a cat will spray in order to mark their territory, either indoors or outdoors.
This method is used to let other cats and animals know that the area the cat has ‘marked’ is occupied. Just like we build fences around our yards to keep others out and let people know the yard is ours, cats use urine as a ‘keep out’ signal. It is worth noting that when a cat urinates outside on the ground, no matter what the weather brings, the scent can be detected by other animals for quite a long time!
Marking can also occur with indoor cats, especially if there are multiple cats in the household, or if you happen to have a non-resident cat that has been lurking around outside your house. When this happens, your indoor cat may decide he needs to assert his ownership by marking his territory or putting up his version of a fence around his house. You’ll be able to tell if this is happening because you’ll find urine marking around the perimeter of the house near or on the walls where the outdoor cat has been. When using urine to mark, a cat will back up to something with an erect tail and spray a small amount of urine, most often on a vertical surface. When a cat is marking, his erect tail usually does a bit of quivering, too. While this type of marking is seen more often in unaltered males, both altered male and female cats can mark this way, too.
In the wild, this marking was/is a survival mechanism to diminish competition for food resources available to them within their territory. By using urine marking to establish their territory and create ‘boundary lines’, cats living outdoors are minimizing the risk of physical conflict or injury over resources, food, and mating privileges for intact cats within the colony, keeping them safer from possible harm.
Marking in this way is a basic hardwired instinct in cats to warn off competition for food and other resources, and even though your indoor cat may be well fed and has plenty of his own things that the outdoor cat cannot disrupt the supply of, the inherent behavior of marking is still there within your cat. Not all cats will utilize the marking or spraying method, but it is there. It is often said that you can take the cat out of the wild, but you cannot take the wild out of the cat, and I must agree with this!
If you notice your cat urinating around the perimeter of your home on vertical surfaces like walls, windows, and/or doors, one reason for this might be a non-resident cat making an appearance outside. Keep an eye on what’s going on around the house to see if you notice another cat. You can also use your outdoor security camera’s or purchase one to monitor what’s going on outside while you’re not there.
If you already know there is a cat around, then you’ve found your cat’s motivation. To help your cat, see what you can do to deter the cat in a way that doesn’t harm the non-resident cat. You can use motion activated air sprayers, ultra-sonic deterrents and/or sprinklers, or plants that cats don’t like the smell of like rue or lavender along the perimeter of your yard can help and are a few options to consider. Obviously, you don’t want to use motion activated deterrents if your cat also goes outside, as you don’t want to scare your cat from his property!
+ Second Common Behavioral Cause: Urine can also be used as a flair, so to speak, to signal the location of the colony if a member of the group has gone for whatever reason. This is something I have observed in the cases where a cat might urinate on the clothes and/or bed of their owner when the owner has left the house for work or other reasons.
A cat that believes it has lost a member of his/her colony may worry terribly, and may use urine to communicate its concern. If you leave the house and come back to find that your cat has soiled your bed sheets yet again, it could be because your cat believes that you’re missing, or that you should be home. This is your cat’s way of telling you, in no uncertain terms, that your being gone is a concern. Your cat is calling out to you to let you know that he believes you should be home with him. It can also happen if you move to a new place. Your leaving can cause your cat to feel uncomfortable in his new surroundings and he may feel the need to call you back. While not all cats do this, those with separation anxiety due to a past experience (which may or may not involve you) may have this problem of trying to call you home, or if there is conflict within the home between cats or other animals, including the humans within the home, your cat may try to call you back to the home in order to feel more secure.
A cat who is worried about their person coming and going may have been given the signals by their owner (even if by accident) that the cat is responsible for that person’s comings and goings. They are asking their person to come back so that their person is not ‘lost in the world’ any longer. When you are asleep in bed,
for example, your cat knows you won’t be leaving, so your cat may be one that tries to call you back by urinating on your bed, as that is a place they know you’ll be for a long period of time and won’t be wandering off. This is a very purposeful means of communication directed toward you by your cat.
The solutions to this particular issue does vary, as it depends on the reason(s) why your cat is worried when you leave. While I’d love to be able to list ideas to help you resolve the situation, it is hard to do without knowing the specifics of your cat’s past and the circumstances your cat is now experiencing. This is where it helps to know your cats background. If there is a separation anxiety issue related to your cat’s past, that would need to be addressed according to what happened to him. If you’ve recently moved, was there any trauma or is it as simple as your cat adjusting to a new home? Giving general solution ideas for this type of urination can be problematic and cause the situation to become worse without being able to personally assess the cat, so the best advice I can give you for this scenario would be to take a look at all that has recently happened in your life and your cat’s. Keep in mind that some cats may react to something a month or so after the fact, so dig deep when assessing your life circumstances.
Be aware of changes within the house, as well as your mood and what’s going on in your life. There are many possibilities as to why your cat might be urinating outside the litter box, and accurately identifying the changes in circumstance in yours and your cat’s life will help a great deal in unraveling the toileting mystery you might be facing with your cat. This is why it’s so important that you’re aware of everything going on as well as understanding the motivational reasons for a cats’ toileting outside of the litter box.
Cats are extremely sensitive little creatures and much smarter than many people think, and they do know when something has changed, be it a new roommate, the loss or change of a roommate, a change in your mood, or a new critter in the house. Just about any change, even the smallest, can affect a cat and cause their behavior to change. Even old cats can have stressors that can cause behavior issues, so do take a hard look at everything in and around your life, along with any possible changes that have occurred if your cat’s behavior changes or if they start using non designated toileting spots to urinate!
If you need help with this type of problem when it comes to urinating outside of the litter box, the best suggestion I would have for you would be to contact a reliable Animal/Cat Behaviorist, and as always, I am more than happy to assist you if you’d like to reach out for a personal or virtual consultation. I’d more than happy to help you better understand what your cat is trying to say so that you can resolve the problem behavior you're experiencing with your cat and live happily together again!
+ Third Common Behavioral Cause: The final scenario I’d like to cover is that of a cat trying to establish status through claiming ownership of something by using urine to again ‘mark’ something as theirs. An example of this is when a cat might urinate on a pet bed, near a food dish or scratching post. They are using urine to communicate that the resources are theirs within what they consider to be their territory. This is different than the use of spraying to mark an area as their territory. This type of urination outside of the litter box is what I’ll call the top seat or the ‘throne’ to establish his/her status within a clowder, which does include you!
Most people get their cat(s) to look after and take care of, not the other way around. If you're able to establish this understanding
with your cat, it alleviates the push and shove for the throne when it comes to other animals your cat lives with, as well as you. Do not forget, your cat views you as a member of the colony, too, and a cat that understands and is comfortable with the fact that you are the head of the house and are in charge is a relaxed, happy cat that is free to live the life of leisure. I teach the four areas where owners can demonstrate their leadership successfully to their cats through my virtual or in-home sessions, and when you learn how to show your cat using his language, that he can leave all the responsibility and decisions to you, it will help you and your cat have the best life you can have together! Domestic cats live in a human world, a world they cannot and do not always understand.
Some suggestions to help your cat better understand that you are in charge, if this is your cat’s issue, would be some behavior training, which is about earning your cat’s respect first which can be done in several ways. How long this takes and how easy or difficult it is to accomplish varies and depends mostly on the personality of your cat. If you’ve already established trust with your cat, great! If not, you’ll need to work on that first, as with trust comes respect. To gain your cat’s trust avoid sudden movements and loud noises and always approach your cat calmly and quietly. Establish a routine with your cat and avoid direct eye contact, as some cats may take this as a challenge. Use a soft voice and keep your hands quiet, as some people tend to talk with their hands and never corner your cat or force them to do anything. Always allow your cat to sniff your hand or fingers before touching and use toys or treats to encourage them to come to you and go slowly with your attempts.
Once you’ve established trust, which could take anywhere from a day or two, or a month or longer, depending on your cat and his/her circumstance, you can begin to work on the respect aspect that will help you in solving your cat’s problem behavior issues. It’s important to show your cat the right way and use positive reinforcement at the right time. For example, this could be accomplished by the use of petting your cat only when they have earned it and by using it as positive reinforcement any time they show the correct behavior you wish to encourage, and not just when they demand it. You can also use treats, praise or petting after they’ve used their litter box. Make sure your cat has exited the litter box, though, before petting or treats. You can, however, praise them while they are in the box, just keep your distance so that you don’t disturb them and cause a negative association.
The biggest thing to remember is to always be as consistent as possible! While you can’t necessarily reward your cat every single time your cat uses the litter box, you can establish status using the petting method where you might encourage your cat to come to you for pets by using a toy, but not petting your cat every time they come to you and demand it. You can also use treats, petting or praise for all other behaviors you consider acceptable, such as scratching on the cat post or playing with his toys, as this will reinforce the idea that you are in charge, too. Feeding time is also something that should be used as a positive way of establishing that you are in charge and are there to take care of your cat, not the other way around, so make sure you have a set schedule for feeding, which should include several appropriately sized meals for your cat throughout the day. You’ll be amazed at how quickly your cat learns to tell time!
If you do happen to catch your cat in the act of what you would consider inappropriate behavior, try calmly and quietly picking your cat up and putting him/her in a room by himself and closing the door for 10 minutes. This can help establish with your cat that when they do something you don’t approve of, they are separated from you. Whatever you do, Do Not yell at your cat or physically reprimand them in any way, other than to gently and quietly pick them up to put them in a ‘time-out’! Yelling or any physical punishment like hitting or shaking your cat can set your attempts at establishing trust and respect back, causing additional problems or an increase in inappropriate urinating. Keep in mind that when using this method, you MUST catch them in the act of doing... Putting them in a room away from you even 5 minutes after the
fact is very confusing to them.They will have no idea what they’ve done and may associate what they were doing at the time you put them in a time out as bad, even if they were being perfect little angels!
Once your cat learns that you are in charge and that he/she doesn’t have to take care of you, you should notice a change or shift in problem behaviors, including inappropriate urination.
One final thing I’d like to touch on has to do with ‘habit’. While some might think that their cat is urinating outside of the litter box because it’s a habit, I tend to disagree with this presumption in most cases. I feel it’s important to note that you should also determine whether your cat is urinating outside the litter box or marking. The difference between urinating and urine marking is that marking is usually a much smaller amount of urine that is found primarily on vertical surfaces, while urinating is an emptying of the bladder which usually creates a rather larger puddle. When a cat marks, they tend to back up to a vertical surface and while standing with their tail erect ‘spray’ a small amount of urine. When a cat urinates, they will ‘squat’ to go to the bathroom and a much larger amount is deposited.
I feel the need to make sure readers understand how important it is to know that your cat isn’t doing these things to be bad or act out or because he’s being spiteful. You cat is just being a cat and doing things that cats naturally do by communicating the way cats do. It’s usually people that aren’t understanding what their cats are saying or trying to tell them. This is why having a working knowledge and understanding of how cats behave and communicate is so valuable when it comes to living happily and peacefully with your cat!
Readers are welcome to set a consult with Beverly and learn about solutions for their cat’s unwanted behavior using her method, Mother Nature’s Blueprint. For more information, or if you have a cat behavior concern you need help with, please contact Beverly. She would be more than happy to help! Meow!
Beverly Morgan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please remember: If you see changes in your cat’s urine or urination habits please consult a licensed veterinarian right away to rule out any medical conditions before trying to resolve using a behavior method or technique!