The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists

Decoding Your Pet

Like Real-estate, Feline House Soiling Is All About Location

Dr. Horwitz shares a story about a cat who was urinating on the stove!

Posted Nov 26, 2014

Elimination outside of the litter box in unwanted locations is the most common cat owner complaint and a major reason that cats are taken to a shelter or rescue center.  Yet contrary to what some pet owners might believe, spite and anger are not the reasons a cat will no longer use their litter box.  Often the answer lies somewhere in their environment. 

Many years ago I saw a case that really brought home the need to look at every aspect of the home environment when evaluating a complaint of non-litter box use.  My patient Princess was a black and white cat who are often called  ”tuxedo Kitties." 

Princess was 8-year-old spayed female cat and had lived with this family her entire life.  However, for at least the past 5-6 years she had not regularly used a litter box for either urination or defecation.  Over the years she had eliminated on carpeted areas necessitating removal of the carpet, on wood floors, behind furniture etc. just about everywhere in the house.   When I read the history form my first question to myself was what prompted them to seek help now?  Further on down the page I saw the answer, Princess was now eliminating on the kitchen counters and the stove, the straw that broke the camels back!

With that information in mind I set about learning more about the environment where Princess lived.  Princess lived in a ranch home with two adults and 4 other cats, two neutered males and two spayed females.  They all had been together for a number of years and were close in age; the youngest female was 5 years old.  While the wife left the home daily to go to work, the husband worked at home so the cats did have human company during the day.  

Next we moved onto where the cats spent their time and how they interacted with each other.  The cats had access to the entire house, including the finished basement/family room.  All the cats could go outside into the fenced yard when the weather allowed, but Princess stayed inside.   Dry food was available all day in the kitchen and once each day cats got their own bowl of wet food, also in the kitchen.  Princess spent over 80% of her time in the living room. In fact she rarely left the couch.  At night the cats were free to roam indoors where ever they pleased.  All the cats seemed to get along except the wife said one of the male cats; Frenchy “intimidated” Princess on a regular basis.  My ears perked up!  “What does this intimidation look like” I asked?  She replied “Well, Frenchy will chase Princess around the house yowling at her and she runs and screams.  At times she may even lose control of her eliminations and soil while she runs.”  She also added that Frenchy will also spray urine on the walls and was being treated with medication for that problem by her veterinarian.

The owners had provided a map of the home so next I wanted to know where the litter boxes were placed in the home.  All litter boxes were in the lower level, the basement.  There were 5 boxes (one per cat as they had been told) and the door to the basement was always open.  In fact the family would go down there to watch television and all the cats except Princess would come down and join them.  They did not recall ever seeing Princess in the basement.  They did scoop out the litter box every week, but rarely emptied out the entire box, nor did they wash it and refill it with new litter on a regular basis.

Next I wanted to examine Princess so I removed her from her carrier.  She looked quite frowzy, her coat was not groomed, she was not clean and her pupils were very dilated.  I thought perhaps this was just a result of being transported to my office so I asked the owner if she always looked this way.   She replied, well yes, we call her “Princess the lump because she never leaves the couch or does anything.”  While they loved her they were not enjoying her not only because of the house soiling, but because she was very limited in her interaction with them.   They were at the end of their rope.

After gathering all the information I reached a diagnosis and we settled on a treatment plan.  Princess was terrified, anxious and unable or unwilling to move around the house, especially to access the litter box. I requested that initially the owner use one of the bedrooms as a place for Princess to live.  Although this might require the door to be closed to keep out Frenchy we agreed that would preferable to living on the couch. In her room she was provided with everything she needed, food, water, litter box, window perch, hiding and sleeping areas.  If the owners were home they could keep the door open as long as there was no fighting, but at night they were asked to close the door.  At the present time we were going to focus on Princess and come back to Frenchy’s urine marking later.

What happened you may ask?  Ten days later I spoke with the family. Princess had used the litter box every day since being in her own room, not one single accident.  The door was open during the day and she would primp, groom and rub her head on the doorway of her room.  She looked happy, sleek and beautiful.  Frenchy did not usually enter or bother her.  And as an added bonus, Frenchy no longer marked with urine! 

This harmony and good use of the litter box lasted for another 2 years until Frenchy unfortunately passed away due to illness.  Princess totally changed, was out in all parts of the house, loving and interactive with the other cats and her human family and never soiled outside the box again.

So what was the answer?  Princess and Frenchy did not get along; he did not wish to see her move about the house.   He would allow her to live on the couch, but go no further, if he caught her he chased her.  And all Princess needed was a toilet that she could reach without running into Frenchy. Once we gave her a space of her own out of the main traffic area, he respected that and she could use the litter box whenever she needed to.

In a multiple cat home be sure to spread the resources out all over the house.  That means multiple locations for food and water bowls, litter boxes, resting and hiding areas.  This allows all cats’ access to the things they need and privacy when they need it and not have to associate with cats that they do not like.   Like I said, sometimes it’s all about location.