Cats will usually figure out how to use a litter box without any training from their people. That's because of their natural instincts to bury waste in sand or earth, hiding their scent as a protective behavior. But when a cat goes potty outside of the litter box—or even avoids it entirely to relieve themselves wherever they are at any given moment—it poses a health and safety risk to the rest of the household. So, why does this happen and how can we prevent it? We asked veterinary experts for their weigh-in and here's what they had to say.
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If accidents are not the norm for your cat, have the vet rule out a medical condition. Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs), Feline Interstitial Cystitis, kidney stones or blockage, and diabetes are just some of the possible conditions as they affect the body's processing and disposal of waste. Take your cat to the veterinarian for an examination, bringing a fecal or urine sample if possible for analysis, then your vet can diagnose them and discuss treatment options with you.
When cats urinate in strategic locations, it usually indicates underlying anxiety—and the location of the marks can other clues as to what's causing the stress. For instance, if "he urinates in your hallway (presumably near the front door) and on window drapes, it tells me that his issues relate to something or someone outside the house," says Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS, DACVB, DACVAA, a veterinary behaviorist. "The fact that he does this only in your absence suggests a case of separation anxiety." In this case, teach him to be more independent. "For example, don't let him sleep in your room at night," he continues. "Before you leave, provide an array of things to occupy him, such as 'food puzzles' (treat-filled hollow toys) and climbing frames that permit an outside view. A compatible feline buddy might help curb lonely feelings, too."
Litter Box Type, Location, or Design
Sometimes, the issue is the litter box itself. Cats may eschew a litter box that is dirty, is cleaned with a harsh cleanser, has a liner or litter they dislike, or is in an inconvenient spot—all easy to fix. Katie Watts, senior feline behavior counselor at the ASPCA's Adoption Center, suggests outfitting your house with more than one box and setting aside a kitty-friendly room to encourage it to stay indoors and to pick the obvious, easy place to eliminate. Gradually, restrict the cat's access to the outdoors as it acclimates to the box; as a last resort, confine the cat in the room if it does not. To make the transition easier, you can even set out more than one kind of litter at a time to discern the cat's preference. In a multi-cat household, there should be enough litter boxes for each of them.
How to Prevent Accidents
For cleanup, "if you don't completely remove an accident's odor, your pet may return there to eliminate," says Katherine Miller, director of applied science and research for the ASPCA. If a cat has an accident, use an enzymatic cleaning spray that breaks down waste proteins and eliminates odors, such as Nature's Miracle Stain & Odor Remover ($10.15, amazon.com), rather than a product containing ammonia. Feline urine contains ammonia, so when a cat smells that kind of cleaner, the cat could mistake it for its own scent and relieve itself there again. And if scrubbing doesn't prevent repeat accidents, introduce a deterrent that makes the area unpleasant to stand on, such as double-sided tape or foil. Or make the area your pet's dinner spot or bed. "Pets don't like to potty where they eat and sleep," adds Miller.