Cat Spraying and Elimination Problems

Whoops! Is your cat doing ‘nasties’ everywhere in the house except in their litter tray? House-soiling behaviour, or inappropriate elimination, can have many causes. Thankfully, there are solutions to this wee problem.

Could there be medical reasons for elimination problems?

Many medical diseases can cause a cat to lose their normal fastidious toileting habits, so a veterinary exam is required to differentiate these problems from behavioural problems.

This involves a physical examination, often urine or faeces tests, and sometimes blood tests and X-rays. For example, it is common for cats with cystitis to urinate small amounts in many different areas of the house, also diseases that make cats drink more will mean they need to urinate more, and if the litter tray is already soiled, will seek other areas to urinate. Sometimes older cats with arthritis may find it difficult to get in and out of a tray with high sides, or to negotiate stairs to the litter tray.

What about stress?

Spraying is a normal marking behaviour of entire (non-desexed) male cats and also of female cats when they are in season.  It is a form of communication – stay off my turf! However, it also occurs in desexed cats, especially when the cat is anxious, upset or ‘territorially stressed’. This usually occurs when a roaming cat is present, even if the cat can only see it through a window. 

Separation anxiety is another cause of elimination problems. This is when the problem only occurs when the owner is away, and usually after a separation of more than 12 hours.

Stress and anxiety caused by a change in the household, or new cats in the area may require medical treatment to decrease anxiety, and this will make retraining the cat to use the litter tray much easier.

The act of spraying involves the cat backing up to a surface, raising and quivering its tail, and treading with its back feet as a small amount of urine is directed backwards. This needs to be differentiated from squatting or leaving puddles, which usually has a medical cause or litter tray aversion for some reason. 

The litter tray could be the problem

The type of box, the type of litter, its location, and how often and with what it is cleaned are all factors influencing the cat’s decision to urinate elsewhere.

  • Some prefer the privacy of covered boxes. If your cat prefers the bath or sink, use an empty litter tray (and put a few inches of water in your bath and sink.) If you find your cat prefers the pot plants, try adding some soil to the litter.
  • There are all types of litter available ranging from clay, to clumping litter, to wood chips, to recycled newspaper.
  • The location of the tray is important – it needs to be somewhere the cat feels safe and private, and easy to access (cover a window or see-through cat flap if nearby).
  • Don’t place the litter tray near your cat’s food and water – they don’t want to eat next to the toilet!
  • Most cats won’t use a soiled tray, so it needs to be cleaned frequently, without residual strong cleaning product odours. Soapy water is sufficient.
  • Most cats will use trays lined with newspaper with a handful of litter added – this allows the entire contents to be emptied and the tray cleaned each time.
  • If you are away during the day, add another litter tray. In multiple cat households, you need one tray per cat plus one extra.

Retraining your cat to use the litter tray

To retrain your cat there are several measures you can take:

  • If there is one particular area the cat is using, put the litter tray there and gradually move it to the location you want the tray to be. Move it about 5cm a day.
  • Change elements of your litter tray setup – the tray itself, the litter, frequency of cleaning, and cleaning agents.
  • Decrease the attractiveness of the area the cat is using by cleaning it with an odour neutraliser, by feeding your cat there, or by gluing several bits of dry food on an old saucer in the area. You can put their sleeping basket there, or place double-sided sticky tape or aluminium foil in the area.
  • Don’t allow access to the problem area.

If your cat finds new areas to soil, you will need to confine them to re-housetrain them. Use the laundry to put bedding, water, and a litter tray in and you may need to confine your cat for up to a month. Sometimes using a cage is necessary. You can then try to allow your cat out of confinement for the first few hours after they have used the litter tray; this reward and some food treats serve as positive reinforcement for using the litter tray. With good behaviour, your cat can be allowed more and more freedom and less supervision.

Dr Julia Adams BVSc

Share this article

Related articles