cat chatter head


By Jean B. Townsend, VMD


This article is divided into three parts:

Part One -
Why cats miss the litter pan (this page)

Part Two -
Decision analysis for causes of housesoiling in cats
(click this link to go directly to part 2)

Part Three -
What to do about the problem

(click this link to go directly to part 3)


Part One

            After years of living with multiple cats and practicing as a house call veterinarian, I have learned some things about why cats house soil (the proper term for stool and/or urine outside the litter pan).  I have cemented this knowledge by reading and attending many seminars on feline behavior.  In fact, for this article, I have borrowed heavily from Cornell Feline Health Center’s pamphlet Feline Behavior Problems:  House Soiling cornell

            House soiling is the most common feline behavior problem reported and, in fact, is the most common complaint of cat-owners in general.  It also is the most common behavioral reason for surrender of cats at shelter.  In short, it is a life-threatening problem.  Cats, undeservedly, get the death penalty for this offense!

            Behavior experts say that we do NOT house train cats – we merely take advantage of their instinct to scratch and cover their waste.  If the most attractive place is the litter pan – great!  But keep in mind that the mere act of emptying the bladder or colon is self-reinforcing – the animal feels better or relieved afterwards!  So it behooves you to address the problem quickly.

Tackling this problem will be easier if you try to THINK LIKE A CAT. You need to see things from his perspective, at least for this one issue.

So, why do cats miss the litter pan?  There are three groups of reasons – medical issues, litter pan issues, and social issues.

Medical issues are a common reason why house soiling starts.  At the top of the list is FLUTD – feline lower urinary tract disease.  This is a disease mostly of younger cats two to five years or older.  This syndrome includes cystitis, urinary tract obstruction, and interstitial cystitis.  Signs include difficulty urinating, bloody urine, frequent urination, painful urination, and the hallmark -- crystals in the urine.  Cats will urinate out of the pan with this condition if they associate painful urination with the pan or if they have increased urgency to urinate.

Older cats or obese cats also can get diseases which affect litter pan usage.  These involve increased frequency of urination, trouble getting to the pan, or not enough room in the pan.  Cats with kidney disease, thyroid disease, or diabetes mellitus often produce more urine and can soak the pan more than they did a few years ago.  A cat with dementia may not remember where the pan is located if it is too far away.  The arthritic cat may not be able to get down the stairs too well, and once there, may have trouble getting into the pan.  This applies also to obese cats.  

Cats with inflammatory bowel disease may have chronic diarrhea, chronic constipation, or a combination of both.  Again, they may associate painful defecation with the litter pan and start using other areas, or there may be no clean spot left.

This second group of reasons cats miss the litter pan includes the pan, the litter, and location of the pan as well as how clean you keep the pan.  Remember, the cat wants to scratch and cover.  What would your cat use if he were in the outdoors? He would look for a soft, easy-to-dig material such as garden soil. He would have lots of room to find a spot, dig, squat, turn, and cover. And he would have a clean spot to use each time. THINK LIKE A CAT!

Probably the most common reason for cats to house soil is a dirty litter pan. The cat avoids using it because it is like a dirty, smelly restroom.  WeDirty litter pan all have had the experience of traveling and using a public restroom that was anything but clean.  All in all, you’d rather not go there!  It’s the same with your cat. Cats will use a fresh spot each time they eliminate.  If you are not keeping the pan clean, there may be no fresh spot left. This cat will leave stool and urine outside the pan. In other words, they think “outside the box”! The experts recommend scooping daily – at least. How would you like to use a toilet that only was flushed every few days? The pan itself holds odors if it is not washed regularly or if it is too old, so wash the pan itself weekly in mild detergent.  Do not use ammonia for this since it is an ingredient of urine.

Maybe the pan itself is unacceptable.  Put yourself in your cat’s place.  THINK LIKE A CAT!  Watch your cat use the pan.  Is he comfortable in the pan or does he do his thing and fire out of there?  Maybe the pan is too small.  I remember a call where the cat was using the hallway carpet.  The owner had gotten a small covered litter pan for the cat when she was a kitten and she now weighed 16 pounds!  Cats need room to eliminate, turn, and cover without soiling their feet. A covered or hooded pan can be aversive to the cat.  Too much odor can be trapped inside with the pet which creates an “outhouse” effect.  The covered pan may be too small to let the cat maneuver.  And the covered litter pan, because it has only one way out, has the potential for ambush by other cats or pets.  Think of that – having to fight your way out of or into the bathroom! “Oh, but I like the covered pan because it keeps more of the litter inside and less of it tracks,” you may say.  Yes, but you are not thinking like a cat! If this really bothers you, you can keep a dust pan and brush nearby.

Maybe the sides of the pan are too high for kittens or older, arthritic cats.  The pan may hold too little litter to stimulate digging.  Some cats like to perch on the edge of the pan and not get their feet into the pan at all.  These cats may prefer pans with a frame or rim. 

Some cats will squat to urinate, but will stand up as they go, sending urine over the edge of the pan.  I call these “high pee-airs.” Technically, these cats are in the pan!  For these cats, you need a shower stall type of pan.  There is no shower stall type of pan on the market, so you need to make one yourself out of an 18-gallon (or larger) storage tote.  Directions for this are in another article available at litter pan for stand up cats.

The type of litter you use is critical.  You want to appeal to the cat’s desire to scratch and cover.  How it feels underfoot to the cat is important.  Cats have soft, sensitive feet.  THINK LIKE A CAT!  Most cats prefer a soft, fine-textured, unscented litter such as Ever Clean ES or Arm and Hammer clumping litter. Nine out of 10 cats in a shelter study preferred clumping litter. (BUT do NOT use clumping litter with young kittens under 12 weeks of age.  They tend to eat the litter at first and it can obstruct them.) Your cat is telling you he hates the litter if he perches on the edge of the pan, refuses to cover what he has done, vocalizes during elimination, uses a spot next to the pan, or flies out of the pan when he is done. These are the cats which are using the carpet or bedding.  Some cats, however, never cover their waste.  Longhaired cats like Persians are prone to this behavior.

Unfortunately, cats don’t get to select their litter – people do.  And people tend to think like people and not like cats.  How else can you explain the array of strange litter choices on the market?  Crystal types of litter are poor choices because they pop, fizz, and heat up when urine hits them.  They also have large, uncomfortable granules.  The pine nugget litters may have a strong pine smell when they get wet.  They also give off dust and are too large a granule.  The old clay litters have stood the test of time, but they also may be too uncomfortable underfoot.  They also get smelly in a day or two. There is a new product called Cat Attract which is a litter additive.  The idea is to add a bit of it to your good quality clumping litter as an even stronger inducement to the cat to use the pan.

Plastic liners may be repellent to your cat.  We don’t know why exactly, but they may hold too much moisture or too much odor.  Scent and other additives may also turn your cat off.  Baking soda, for example, may fizz when urine hits it. 

Be sure to use enough litter.  Most cats prefer 2 to 3 inches in the pan.  One rule of thumb is to have one pan per cat PLUS one.

Just as with real estate, location of the pan also is important.  The pan should be located not too far away from the cat’s favorite resting place.  This is especially important for kittens and geriatric cats.  I have been in homes where the kitten spends most of his time on the main living level, but his pan is in the basement.  He may be too small to negotiate the steps very well, or he may not have enough time to get there.  The geriatric cat may have a similar problem.  The cat also likfeares privacy when he is using the pan.  I was at a house call one time and the litter pan was in the center of a very large basement room with nothing else in sight.  I asked the owner if she would like to use a toilet in the same place.  Of course not!  THINK LIKE A CAT!  Or at least try to put yourself in the cat’s place.  The pan should be located away from confusion, interruptions, and unpleasant surprises – like not beside the shower or beside a noisy furnace blower.  Place pans away from a limited access point where the cat can be ambushed by other pets.  Ideally, you will have a pan per house level.

Third group of issues – social issues – occur more rarely than other causes, though everyone thinks this is why his cat house soils.  It is normal for cats to mark.  Cats do head and cheek rubbing, for example, on doorways and even on owners to show friendly associations.  Cats also mark territory by clawing. They are depositing their scent from glands in their cheeks and paws. A third way to mark is by urine spraying.  This is a normal behavior in cats but unpleasant for us.  It is their calling card to indicate that they were there, to mark boundaries, and to announce sexual availability.  Spraying involves leaving small amounts of urine on vertical surfaces.  The cat stands backed up to something, raises his tail, shakes it, and squirts a bit of urine straight back.  Usually this is done by unaltered males and even females, but 10% of altered males and 5% of altered females still spray.  One recent study, by the way, shows far less of this in males neutered at 5 months or younger, such as the early neutering done by shelters. Urine spraying often is seen in multi-cat houses with more than 6 cats in response to the stress of social conflict with the other cats.

Why do cats spray?  It is NOT spite!  It is anxiety!  What makes a cat anxious?  For unaltered cats their hormones can make them anxious to advertise themselves.  There can be territorial issues that make cats anxious.  Strange cats hanging around outside can upset your inside cats.  Inside your house, multiple cats can make each other anxious.  This usually involves the boldest and the most timid.  The bold cat wants to declare himself and the timid cat wants to reassure himself that he has a safe place to be, so he reassures himself with the scent of his own urine.  Experts say that the incidence of house soiling may approach 100% in houses with more than 10 cats.  New items or situations also can stimulate anxiety in cats.  A new sofa or carpeting, for example, can set off insecure cats, as can a new baby or a new pet. A new person in the house may stimulate the cat to urinate on that person’s belongings.  This often is interpreted mistakenly as “spite.” Even someone moving out of the house can prompt urine spraying.

Cats with social issues may not spray but simply house soil.  You’ll see large amounts of urine (and maybe even feces) on horizontal surfaces.  Cats may get even more fastidious with stress and have less tolerance for a dirty litter pan.

Cats may house soil because of a combination of issues.  The cat with urinary tract disease may also hate his litter or litter pan, for example.  Or a cat living in a multi-cat house may develop urinary tract disease secondary to the stress he is experiencing.  These combination situations are fairly common.


blue boy

Part One
House soiling is the most common feline behavior problem
The dirty litter pan
The unacceptable litter pan
This pan is too small!
"high pee-airs”
What kind of litter do you use?
Where is the litter pan located?
Click Here to go to page 2



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