The Mind of Your Cat: 07/03

Question: My six-year-old neutered male cat will no longer urinate in his litter box. The behavior began when we moved to our new house about five months ago. We put Seymours litter box in an upstairs closet. He did not seem to mind that location in our previous home. For the first two or three weeks after the move, he used his litter box like a champ. (And he still does defecate in the box.)  But there is no more urine in the box. Instead, we find urine on the cushion of a chair in our formal living room. We have never caught him in the act, but we have no other cats so we know that he is responsible. We have tried several medications to no avail.

Answer: The best way to help Seymour back to his litter box is to discover the basis for his new behavior. Urination outside a box is a clinical sign, not a diagnosis in and of itself. What are some of the most common reasons that a cat might begin to urinate outside his box?

1. Urinary tract infection or inflammation
2. Reduced level of comfort in new home
3. Barrier to litter box
4. Availability of a more convenient location or more desirable substrate

You May Need To Be a Detective
So which of these applies to Seymour? First, it is important to be sure that Seymour does not suffer from a urinary tract disorder. A urine sample should be checked in any litter-box trained cat that suddenly begins to urinate outside the box. When your veterinarian checks the urine sample, he or she will also be able to screen for other underlying medical conditions that could affect Seymour s urinary tract.

When cats are not comfortable in a situation, they may mark selected surfaces with their urine. Although we dont like the scent, the chemicals that are deposited apparently do provide comfort to cats. In a typical case of urine-marking, relatively small quantities of urine are deposited outside the litter box. Larger urine puddles continue to be found inside the litter box. Since Seymour uses the new location in lieu of his litter box, it is not likely that he is marking. Still, there are some points to consider before a single, final diagnosis can be confirmed with confidence.

First, are there any signs that Seymour is not comfortable in his new home? Has he changed his habits regarding eating, playing, or interacting with the family? A relocation in and of itself can create some insecurity for a cat, particularly if the new home is larger than the previous one. A cat may feel threatened by neighborhood cats hovering by a window. Sometimes, cats become anxious when left alone in an unfamiliar home. Most often, cats with separation-related anxiety urinate only when left alone, and continue to use their litter boxes at other times.

Should a cat find it difficult to access a litter box, he might begin to explore other elimination options. Since Seymour does travel to his litter box to defecate, it is not likely that he finds the box aversive. But we should not ignore the possibility of a litter box barrier. Many things can create litter box barriers. Even a middle-aged cat may experience arthritis-related pain that can contribute to a reluctance to climb stairs to reach a box. Since Seymour jumps onto a chair, pain is not a likely factor, but a physical examination is in order.

Some cats are easily frightened, particularly when faced with loud noises. If accessing a litter box means passing close to a loud appliance, a cat might seek an alternative toilet area. There can also be social barriers. Although you have no other cats, a dog or a young child may stand between a cat and his litter box.

Finally, some cats are repelled by dirty litter boxes. With the commotion of moving and redecorating, litter boxes often get neglected.

A cat may discover a new surface in the house that is quite suitable for elimination. In that case, we would say that the cat has developed a new substrate preference for urination. One would expect similar fabrics to be targeted. Seymour, on the other hand, has selected a single chair. When a cat returns to the same location repeatedly, with no evidence for marking behavior, a diagnosis of location preference is supported.

Dont despair. It is very likely that Seymour can be reconditioned to use a litter box in the location of your choice. First put a new litter box near the chair. When Seymour begins to use the box consistently, thoroughly clean the chair and very, very gradually move the box toward a location that you would find convenient. Once you have successfully moved the box several feet away from the chair, place a small dish of food close to the chair. Most cats do not view feeding stations as elimination areas.

If Seymour does not begin to use the box within two weeks, do consult a local certified behaviorist. An exact diagnosis would be determined and other interventions introduced as indicated.

Finally, do consider maintaining this new box someplace on the first floor. It need not be in the living room, of course. But Seymour may appreciate the convenience of having a second box.