Doing business outside the litter box is the most common behavioral problem in cats. In some cases, it may be due to an underlying disease process, such as feline lower urinary tract disease, diabetes mellitus, arthritis or hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland).
Other times, the cat may avoid the box for a number of other reasons: for example, the box is not clean enough, it’s in a high traffic area or the litter contains too much perfume. In other cases, the cat may be marking with urine to make a statement.
Marking vs. other causes of inappropriate elimination
Cat urine marking differs from other causes of inappropriate elimination in that when marking, the cat typically (but not always) sprays urine on vertical surfaces such as walls, furniture and draperies. Cats will often back up to the object with the tail held high and quivering. Other types of inappropriate urination, on the other hand, tend to happen on horizontal surfaces such as the carpet.
Cats that mark generally expel only a small amount of urine rather than emptying the entire bladder and typically continue to use the litter box. Cats that are urinating inappropriately for other reasons tend to urinate comparatively larger amounts and may avoid the litter box altogether.
Cats that mark generally target socially significant items that are centrally located and visible, such as gym bags, shoes or dirty laundry. If the cat can see an animal that upsets them out a window or door, they may mark around that area.
Which cats tend to mark?
The majority of marking behavior happens with male cats that have not been neutered. For them, marking is a way to let female cats know they are available for mating or to designate their territory. About 10 percent of neutered male cats and 5 percent of spayed female cats will urine mark as adults.1
Urine marking can also be a sign of stress. Multi-cat households often experience urine marking if there is aggression or competition among the cats. A cat that can see another feline through the window wandering through the yard may feel threatened and mark.
Any sudden changes in the household such as someone moving in or out, the addition of another pet, remodeling, bringing home a new baby or a change in work hours may be unsettling to cats. Urine marking may be a source of comfort because it makes the strange environment more familiar.
Put an end to urine marking
If you suspect your cat is urine marking, do not punish them. This is more likely to cause anxiety and make the problem worse.
Start by scheduling a veterinary exam to rule out any underlying health conditions. If you have more than one cat and you’re not sure which one is the culprit, you may need to isolate your cats in separate rooms or set up a video camera focusing on the spot that is frequently marked so you can discover which cat has the problem.
If there’s no medical reason for urine marking, here are a few ways to help curb the behavior:
- Clean all areas that have been urine marked with an enzymatic cleaner designed to neutralize pet odors.
- Use a synthetic feline pheromone such as Feliway in the areas the cat has previously marked. Available in spray or plug-in diffuser form, pheromones can help promote a feeling of calm in cats.
- Consider closing access to the area that is being marked, or place food and water bowls there to change the cat’s perception of the area.
- If your cat has not been neutered or spayed, doing so can help significantly reduce or stop the problem.
- If there is a stray frequenting the yard, close curtains or doors so your cat can’t see it. Or connect a motion detector to your sprinkler to discourage the stranger from entering your yard.
- Stay on top of litter box hygiene. Make sure you have one box per cat, plus one more. Scoop litter daily, dispense of litter every week or two, and wash boxes with mild soap and water on a regular basis.
- To avoid conflict, boxes should be placed in low-traffic areas where the cat will have at least two routes of escape.
- To help minimize multi-cat conflicts, try pheromone plug-ins throughout the house and make sure there are plenty of toys, food and water bowls, beds, scratching posts and perches. Provide areas where more timid cats can escape for some quiet alone time, if needed.
- Carve out time each day for some one-on-one play, training or snuggling with the cat that’s having issues.
- In severe cases, your veterinarian may recommend medication. But behavior modification and environmental enrichment are the best ways to manage the problem long-term.
If urine marking continues, consult your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist for additional guidance.
- Hart BL, Cooper L. Factors relating to urine spraying and fighting in prepubertally gonadectomized cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1984;184:1255–1258.