House Soiling

“Doc, my cat is peeing out of the box”. A Brief Discussion of Housesoiling Problems

I hesitate to dive into this subject as the issue is very complicated, but this is such a common problem that even a brief discussion may help some owners to understand their cat(s) a little better. Since regular housesoiling is a common reason for some owners to give up their cat or even consider euthanasia, I feel that approaching this behavior as a life threatening medical problem is in order.
On average, about half the cats that we see for housesoiling have medical problems as the cause. Medical problems are an issue with both young and old cats. Common medical causes are sterile cystitis, bladder stones, urinary tract infections, sugar diabetes, chronic kidney disease, constipation, arthritis and senility. I could keep going, but you probably get the point. If your cat is not using the litterbox regularly, get your cat checked out with an exam and urinalysis as the starting point. Many of these diseases are chronic in nature and early diagnosis and treatment will spare your cat a lot of misery and improve your quality of life as well.
Behavioral causes of housesoiling are also very common, and this is where things get complicated. There are two patterns of urinating out of the box. First is spraying, which is defined as urinating on vertical surfaces, such as walls and doors. Second is horizontal urinating, usually on floors, but often on throw rugs, clothes or in laundry baskets.
Spraying is commonly thought to be a territorial behavior exhibited by unneutered male cats, but it frequently seen in both spayed female and neutered male cats. With indoor cats, spraying is usually caused by social stress with other cats or anxiety from stressful situations. As you would expect, spraying is also highly correlated with cat density. It is fairly uncommon in single cat households and the incidence rises to almost 100% with ten or more cats. My experience is that if you have three or more cats, you are likely to see this occur. Remedies for spraying can get involved, such as segregating cats into groups that do well together, using pheromones or medications. A thorough understanding of the factors causing the behavior is essential to resolving the problem and the longer it goes on, the more difficult it is to resolve.
Horizontal urinating frequently has behavioral as well as medical causes. In general, cats pee out of the box because there is something about the box that they don’t like. Common causes: box not clean, unacceptable litter, lack of privacy, box too close to food bowl, litterbox size (most are too small) or too few boxes. Although hooded litterboxes are very popular, cats often find them cramped and stinky and go pee on the bath mat instead. The approach to this type of problem is again, look at the problem closely, establish the cause and institute treatment by giving the cat what it wants. Most cats want a big, clean box with soft, fine grained litter in a quiet, secluded place away from their dining area. Come to think of it, I like a large, clean bathroom in a quiet part of the house too. A good website to check out for help in giving a cat what it wants in the way of a bathroom is There is a lot of other great information on this website, too.
So, some basic guidelines are, 1) See your vet. Chances are 50:50 that it’s a medical problem and so may be treatable. The single most common mistake that we see is that owners assume a housesoiling problem is behavioral in origin and waste a lot of time and effort in a fruitless attempt to manage it as such. Be aware that peeing outside of the box may be your cat’s way of telling you he has a medical problem. 2) If it turns out to be a behavioral problem, talk to your vet about it and be prepared to answer some questions about when, where, duration, litterbox type, numbers and location, type of litter etc. We handle these issues very frequently and often can help resolve the problem by recommending changes in litterbox management 3) Don’t punish your cat. Cats DO NOT do this out of spite. Anxiety is a root cause of many housesoiling problems and punishment just makes things worse. Cats don’t really understand the concept of punishment anyway. 4) Address the problem immediately. Longstanding pee problems can be all but incurable.
The bottom line is that with some effort and a little teamwork, the vast majority of these frustrating “pee problems” can be resolved. You and your cat will be much happier.