My Cat Won’t Pee In the Box!

long-haired black cat in an orange bucket

As a pet parent, I’m not sure there’s a more frustrating scenario than a cat who has decided it wants to pee anywhere but in the litter box. In fact, feline inappropriate urination (the medical term) is the number one reason for cat euthanasia. Nothing shortens the lifespan of a cat more than peeing in the house…

Often, there are medical causes that lead to the situation. The obvious is a urinary tract infection or inflammation (UTI). UTI’s cause pain and urgency. That urgency can trick the cat into thinking that it needs to go NOW and if they’re closer to the laundry pile than the litter box, then you can figure out what happens next. Another main medical cause is an increased volume of urine produced. The bladder simply becomes so full that the cat can’t make it to the box in time. Diabetes, kidney disease, thyroid conditions are just a few of the things that cause an increase in urine output.

So, a visit to your vet is absolutely necessary for addressing feline inappropriate urination. However, even if the medical cause can be corrected, the problem can still persist. Some cats will discover that the act of going outside the box was somehow “better” and continue with the behavior.

Generally speaking, feline inappropriate urination can be separated into two broad classifications: litter box aversion or substrate/location preference. Basically, your cat either is unhappy with something about the litter box (aversion) or it likes to go somewhere else more (preference). We all know how incredibly opinionated cats can be and the litter box is certainly a topic they care a lot about (but to be fair, I’m also pretty picky about the toilets I use). There are several things that can cause a cat to be averse to their commodes:

Location, location, location! Is the box somewhere noisy, scary, or hard to get to? Is it next to a rumbling washing machine? Is it downstairs in the basement where an older cat with achy joints struggles to get to? Is it accessible to the family dog that likes to eat cat poop and every time the cat tries to do its business it gets accosted? The litter box needs to be in a spot that is quiet, private (have MORE boxes than you do cats) and easy to get to. Hmmm, kind of sounds like criteria I have for a bathroom…
Sniff, sniff—what’s that smell? Remember, a cat’s ability to smell is ridiculously better than yours. If you can detect an offensive odor when near the litter box, then imagine what it’s like for the cat. AND IF THERE’S A COVER ON THE LITTER BOX, THEN IT MAKES IT EXPONENTIALLY WORSE! Think about it, what’s the most repulsive thing about using a port-a-potty, especially one that hundreds of tailgating college kids have been using for six hours? The punch-you-in-the-gut smell! Putting a cover on the litter box immediately turns it into the repulsive parking lot outhouse. So, try your absolute hardest to keep that box as clean and fresh as humanly possible and don’t use scented litters. Those perfumes are for people, not the cats. CAT’S HATE FLORAL SCENTS (there are actual studies on this). Don’t invest in anything that will cover-up an odor for your nose. It’s not fooling the cat. If it stinks, change it!
Like a Dateline story, did something bad happen there? Was there ever some sort of traumatic event that happened in the box? Examples could include an invader (that obnoxious dog mentioned above), a bully (a dominant cat that has claimed the box as her turf), or excruciating pain (like a urinary tract infection or urethral obstruction). Pain is a very common reason that cats begin experiencing inappropriate urination. If it hurts when they pee in the box, they will often associate the pain with their location and not their anatomy. So they start seeking out places that don’t hurt…
It’s all in the touch—texture is BIG deal to cats when it comes to elimination. Most every cat will opt to dig and cover their waste, but not all like the same type of litter. Some will prefer traditional clay-type litter, others like the sandy feel of a clumping litter, and some will prefer one for peeing and a different one for pooping.
Size matters!—be sure the box is big enough to allow your cat to get all the way in and move around. Who likes to be cramped and crowded while trying to do their thing? If you have a big cat, maybe you need to be a little more creative than a traditional litter box. An under-the-bed storage container can be a good alternative for those kitties that need a little more room to maneuver.

Substrate or location preference is often the sequelae to litter box aversion. If any of the reasons listed above caused the cat to avoid using the box and they discovered that it was a happier experience peeing in your shoes, in the clean laundry, on the bed/couch/carpet, then they may develop a preference for one of those things or places. It didn’t smell or hurt when they urinated on the bathroom towel, so why not keep going there?

cat hiding under a blanket

The trick to breaking these habits is to try to make the preferred locations unavailable or “unpleasant”. Pick up all laundry and bedding that the cat seems to be drawn to. Keep bedroom doors shut so they can’t access beds, etc. Place aluminum foil in carpeted areas (another tip: place a plastic mat that goes under desk chairs and put it upside down so that the little cleats are facing up, making it uncomfortable to step on).

Correcting the problem of feline inappropriate urination will not happen quickly. It will require experimenting with different types of boxes, litters and locations. You may even have to isolate the cat into a small, uncarpeted room with a few different box options until it becomes re-trained to use one. There is no easy or simple solution.

Also, a quick note about cleaning urine stains—find a product that is labeled as “enzymatic”. You’ll need something that breaks down the uric acid of the urine. Uric acid is the main substance that attracts pets to urinate repeatedly in the same spot. DON’T USE VINEGAR! Vinegar is a weak acid and will have no effect on uric acid. Enzymatic cleaners contain “ureases” which, by chemical nature, break the bonds in uric acid. You’ll also have to get to the deepest layers of the upholstery (carpet padding, floorboards, and cushions). Just cleaning the top surface won’t be effective.

Feline inappropriate urination is a monumental challenge because, ultimately, it requires getting into the psyche of the cat in question. While often triggered by medical causes, it can quickly turn into a behavioral dilemma. The first step is to have your cat evaluated by a veterinarian—preferably one who is well-trained in cat psychology and hypnotherapy. Then get an estimate for new carpets!

Pawfully yours,

Lissa Lynn, DVM

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