House soiling is an extremely common problem and is unfortunately one of the most frequently used reasons for re-homing a cat to a rescue centre.
House soiling can be a problem for any cat- male or female, neutered or entire.
It is important to determine whether your cat is showing signs of elimination behaviour or marking behaviour. It can be difficult to differentiate between the two and it is important for us to collect a full clinical history. A video of your cat may also be extremely helpful.
Normal toileting has no visual ‘display’ element (unlike marking). Cats dig with their forepaws in loose substrate (litter), then squat and deposit relatively large volumes of urine or faeces in the pit they have made. They then cover over again using the substrate. The material used shouldn’t be too fine as your cat will have difficulty making a pit area. Cat’s don’t like dirty trays as they end up digging up their toilet. Cats generally favour quiet locations where there is some privacy for normal toileting.
It is important to rule out any medical factors causing house soiling issues and a full veterinary examination should be done to rule out any problems.
Older cats may suffer from a loss of control as they may find the litter tray too far away to get to in time. Multiple trays should be provided if this is the case. Osteoarthritis can also cause difficulties for cats getting in and out of the tray and trays are available with the front scooped out so your cat can just walk straight in . Other medical issues may also cause soiling issues for example kidney problems, diabetes, FLUTD and dementia.
Marking using urine or faeces is completely different to normal toileting.
Scent marking is perfectly normal and is commonly seen when your cat rubs their cheeks against things in their environment when they are feeling relaxed.When they feel threatened they will tend to scent mark using deposits of urine or faeces to communicate a message that it is part of their territory. The waste products are leaving a specific scent or ‘message’. This can be to another cat or to the owner trying to communicate there is a problem.
Comparison between marking and toileting behaviour
Deposits out in the open/places of behavioural significance Deposits in secluded locations
Usually vertical for urine deposits (nose height for cats) Horizontal
Variable frequency which can be high Frequency in keeping with normal toilet
Small amounts in variable number of locations Larger amounts in small number of locations
Standing position for urine Squatting associated with digging/burying behaviour
When the cat thinks the smell begins to fade they will top it up again. This obviously becomes a problem if your cat starts to exhibit these behavioural signs indoors. It is important to remember not to punish your cat as this just makes your cat more anxious and therefore more likely to mark.
Marking is seen when your cat has lost its perception of its core territory- a secure area where they eat, sleep and play. The perception of a threat may come from inside or outside the home.
Your cat will investigate the area, reverse up to the site and spray. Their tail will twitch and vibrate and your cat may have a glazed and vacant look on its face. Small to medium volumes may be passed with a strong odour. Usually highly visible locations are selected where the marks will be easily noticed and often vertical surfaces are chosen as this is just the correct height for another cat to sniff at to ‘read the message’.
Objects that heat up and cool down often attract marking behaviour for example TV, audio equipment and toasters.
Bags, shoes and other objects which bring foreign odours into the home may also be targeted.
Possible reasons for marking
It can be difficult to determine the exact reason for scent marking but some possible reasons are:
- Change in environment-addition of a new cat to the household
- New cat in the neighbourhood
- A new baby
- Decorating, changing furniture or moving house removes the familiar smells which comfort your cat
Immediate action should be taken regarding cleaning the areas. See our information sheet ‘Cleaning Urine and Faeces Marks In The Home’. Areas should be cleaned with a biological cleaner that contains no amnonia compounds, strong odours or bleach. Biological washing powder removes the protein compound and the alcohol removes the fat component. You will always need to clean an area at least 3 times larger than the actual soiled area.
The following information would be helpful to your veterinary surgeon and veterinary nurse:
- age the problem started
- were they previously well house trained?
- pattern of deposits-location, frequency and volume
- behaviour towards present litter facilities
- where is the tray
- orientation of deposits-vertical or horizontal surfaces
- posture of cat during toileting
- relationship between all the animals in the household
- presence of owner/animals when soiling occurs (any other animals seen outside)
- how you (the owner) react to the deposits
- any household or neighbourhood events coinciding with onset?
- how does the cat generally react to changes in environment/strangers?
A house plan is extremely useful to gauge an idea of the layout including the position of the windows, doors, major furniture, cat’s eating and sleeping arrangements and locations and locations of deposits. Marking on the plan the frequency of deposits at a particular site is also helpful as well as the location of the very first deposit and the most recent.
Picture courtesy of Behaviour Problems In Small Animals by
Jon Bowen and Sarah Heath
Indoor elimination behaviour is usually more straight forward to treat than marking although many of the solutions are the same for both issues.
Possible reasons for Inappropriate Elimination
- Lack of privacy
- Unsuitable litter in tray
- Competition for litter tray
- Negative association with litter tray-pain or being interrupted by another cat
- Medical illness-Incontinence or FLUTD (pain with FLUTD may cause the cat to associate the tray with the pain and they will look elsewhere for a toileting area next time)
Treatment for inappropriate elimination and marking
It is important to ask for advice during the early stages. Many pet owners wait until the problem becomes unbearable before coming to us for help.
Treatment for these behavioural issues can be cured for many cats following veterinary advice but it can be a lengthy process. In some cases the underlying problems can be complex, with a number of factors contributing to the problem and your veterinary surgeon may recommend referral to a qualified feline behaviourist.
- Stop any punishment
- Increase the number of litter trays available and locate them for easy access by the cats in the household. As a general rule for a multi cat household there should be one tray per cat and one spare. As a cat owner a litter tray should always be available somewhere in the house for your cat to use should they need to regardless of whether there is a problem with soiling.
- Cats depositing faeces outside the tray may have too small a tray or the wrong litter type.Cats have muscle contractions in their back legs when defecating and the wrong type of litter may hurt.
- Use pheromone therapy to enhance your cat’s sense of security in their core territory.
- Install a microchip cat flap-especially useful if another cat is entering the house. If your cat can see other cats through the windows it may be helpful to cover them so it increases their feeling of security.
- More resting, hiding, toileting, eating and drinking locations. Unless a multicat household is related, cats don’t necessarily like to share
- Move litter trays to quiet areas. If the tray is under the stairs people will be thundering down them, in the conservatory other cats may be watching and if the tray is near the food your cat will tend to move where it toilets if they cannot move where they eat.
- Make sure litter trays are deep filled-do not use scented litter as cats are sensitive to the smell
- Try a mixture of open and covered trays
- Try using a Feliway diffuser near the litter tray site
- Consider using anti anxiety medications for example Zylkene or Nutracalm
Moving house- It helps to introduce them to a new environment gradually. Confining your cat to one room with their familiar belongings will help decrease their anxiety, gradually allowing further access when they seem relaxed.