Wally was a nine-year-old male Persian. His owner was dismayed because he had recently begun urinating in the house. He was destroying her carpeting. Wally had not only missed the litter box several times, but had urinated on the owner’s bedspread, her clean clothes in the laundry basket and the rug in front of the sofa. Wally was about to get a one-way ticket to dreamland.
House soiling is an unacceptable behavior. It is one of the most common reasons for owners seeking behavioral advice. So, what should we do? Confine him to a room with a vinyl floor and a litter box? Put him on meds for a marking behavior? Catch him in the act and squirt him with a spray bottle?
All of these things have been suggested for cats with inappropriate urination. Some of them might make a difference. The trouble here is that we do not yet have a diagnosis. A behavior is a sign, not a diagnosis. We cannot know what to recommend until we have more information.
A behavioral analysis would consist of asking questions to differentiate between a marking behavior and an elimination problem. What is the volume of the spots? Smaller spots could indicate a marking behavior. Larger puddles could mean he was voiding his bladder and thus indicate an elimination problem. We could go further and ask about time of day, litter box habits and whether he was declawed, but none of these questions would get us very far with Wally.
The key question we need to ask is whether this is a new behavior. Has he been using his litter box consistently until recently? The red flag for me is his age. He is an adult cat. And either this is a new behavior or the owner has put up with it for seven or eight years.
Any adult animal with a new behavior is a reason for a veterinary visit.
Shall I say that again? Any adult animal with a new behavior is a reason for a veterinary visit. All the behavior modification in the world won’t help a pet with a physical problem.
A visit to the vet was mandatory for Wally. The next step was to obtain a sample of his urine. But, “Here, Wally, pee in this cup” wasn’t going to work. How does one get a urine sample from a cat? It can be a tricky procedure to do at home. One way is to replace the litter in the box with something that will not absorb liquid.
Then, after the cat has used the box, pour the urine into a clean container and refrigerate it if you can’t get it to the vet immediately. This may be hard to do if the cat is not using the box. And the sample will not be sterile, so your veterinarian may want to have you bring the cat in to the clinic for a full exam and to obtain a sterile sample.
When we got a urine sample on Wally, it gave us all the information we needed. Wally had diabetes. Many signs of diabetes are easy to miss. Increases in appetite and water consumption are hard to gauge if there is food and water out all the time. Weight loss can be hard to see on a furry animal. But inappropriate urination is hard to ignore. And a simple urinalysis can let us know whether we are dealing with a medical cause of Ruined Carpet Syndrome.
That said, it is also important to remember that patterns of urination and defecation are based on learned habits. Even if a cat or dog is treated medically for inappropriate elimination, the pet may have learned that it is much nicer to pee inside where it is warm and dry than outside in the rain. Or he may have developed a preference for nice soft material rather than hard, prickly litter.
I learned this on a very personal level when I lived in a cabin in the woods for two years. We had an outhouse, which was decorated with pictures and even had a heart shaped seat. Not too bad. I liked communing with the birds in the morning.
I realized the power of habits when I visited my parent’s house. After dinner, I went to answer the call of nature and found myself heading not to the bathroom, but to the front door. Even though I had eighteen years of experience using that bathroom for that purpose, it only took a few months to alter the habits that led me to automatically head for the outdoors.
So once the medical problem is addressed, be aware that there may be some retraining needed to reestablish good litter box habits. Let me say here that sticking their nose in their mistake or squirting them with water teaches them nothing about where they are supposed to eliminate. Make sure their box is in a peasant place and is filled with something they like to dig in. Maybe even give them some pictures or a heart shaped seat.
If you neglect this, all I can say is “Urine Trouble”.
Thank you for the excellent and informative article, Dr Beal! I had an older male persian who started similar urinating away from his litter boxes when he was about 12 – 13 years old. Harry did try to pick “safe” places such as newspapers, bath mats, or the kitchen floor near the sink, etc.; the poor cat seemed to be embarrassed about it! It turned out he had a blocked urethra caused by uric acid crystallization (a common problem with male persians) and required surgery. Afterwards he was fine.
Christine Hibbard says
Whenever an animal’s behavior changes suddenly, a trip to the veterinarian is in order so you did exactly the right thing with your Persian. Thanks for sharing your experience and reading Behind the Behavior.