Owning a cat is like hosting visiting royalty.

The sleeping arrangements must be of utmost softness and warmth, the food must be freshly minced and served exactly so, and heaven forbid the toilette have any lingering aromas.

In exchange for being excellent butlers and handmaids, we are gifted the presence of these exquisite little beings.   

But what happens if our little prince or princess is not being an ideal guest? I’m sure many of you have experienced the realization that your cat has used your bathmat as a litterbox.

Or even worse, a couch, or your bed. The horror! That smell! The terrifying thought that this may become a common occurrence!

Why do cats urinate (or less commonly, defecate) outside of the litterbox? This really is every cat-owner’s nightmare.

Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t because your cat is angry with you, or because he is trying to teach you some kind of lesson. Cats urinate outside the litterbox for many reasons, but the first question that needs to be answered is whether this is a medical or a behavioral issue.

Medical reasons for inappropriate urination usually relate to the urinary tract itself. Perhaps the cat is experiencing a urinary tract infection (UTI) wherein bacteria has ascended up the urethra and colonized the bladder.

This leads to urinary tract discomfort, as well as frequent, urgent and sometimes bloody urination. The cat may not make it to the box in time, or perhaps has associated the painful experience of urination with the litterbox and is choosing to urinate elsewhere as a response.

Cats can also develop something called Feline Idiopathic Cystitis (FIC), with symptoms that are identical to that of a UTI. Cats will experience frequent and painful urination, straining to urinate, sometimes even crying out.

The difference is that no bacteria is involved in this process. The syndrome of FIC is not completely understood, but stress is thought to be a predisposing cause, as well as a dry-food-only diet.   

With FIC, the bladder wall can become very inflamed, thickened and painful. Crystals can be present in the urine, as well as mucus, and a large amount of blood.  A dangerous sequelae of this disease is when those crystals/mucus/debris form a clot that lodges in the urethra.

This causes a blockage of the urinary tract, which can quickly become life threatening.

This is most common in male cats (often young, otherwise healthy ones) although it happens in females and older cats as well. If you notice your cat straining to urinate and not passing urine, this is a medical emergency, so please seek veterinary attention.

Other medical causes of inappropriate urination may include bladder stones, bladder masses/cancer, or an increased volume of urine due to kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, etc.

Your veterinarian will want to run some basic tests such as a blood panel to check kidney values, and the blood sugar levels. She will also want to run a urinalysis (to assess the concentration of the urine, and whether any bacteria, crystals, blood, or white blood cells are present.

She will also recommend a urine culture to definitively determine if there any bacteria present, and if so, which antibiotics will be effective against it.

Lastly, she may recommend a bladder ultrasound to assess the bladder walls, and look for bladder stones or bladder wall tumors.

Sometimes these tests will be normal, which may indicate that the inappropriate urination is, in fact, behavioral.

This is one of the most frustrating and difficult behavioral issues veterinarians (and veterinary behaviorists) face in our practice. Owners want an instant fix (and who wouldn’t?) and the solution is anything but instant, or guaranteed for that matter.

Start by looking at your house from your cat’s perspective. Is this a stress-free environment? Are there plenty of places for your cat to be a cat? He needs to be able to run, to leap, to scratch, to hide.

They love vertical hiding spots, which is why carpeted cat trees are so wonderful (if not hideous).

They need ample sanctioned places to urinate. You should have one more litterbox than there are cats in the household — i.e. two cats = three litterboxes.  Try different types of litter, a clay-clumping, a recycled paper litter.

Perhaps your cat has developed a “substrate preference” of urinating on cloth type material. You could experiment with placing towel in one box that gets washed every day.

Evaluate your litterbox placement – they should be easy to access and in a quiet location.

Plug in some pheromone diffusers around the house to improve the feline mood. Feliway-brand pheromone diffusers are excellent for this purpose.

They mimic the facial pheromone that cats emit when they perform their classic happy cat head-butting.

Consider switching to an all wet-food diet. Cats are very inefficient (and unmotivated) drinkers, as their ancestors got most of their moisture through food.

You can also use a cat water fountain, which can be cheap and chic. By increasing their water intake, cats will flush out their urinary tract effectively and have better bladder health.

If all else fails, your veterinarian can prescribe medications to reduce anxiety, and hopefully promote better litterbox habits.

These are safe, and often effective, and a definitely worth a try before resorting to more drastic measures such as re-homing your cat.

After all, they are our honored guests, and we must do everything we can to cater to their every feline fancy.

Dr. Hilary Quinn is a small animal veterinarian in Santa Barbara. She owns and operates Wilder Animal Hospital, and shares her own home with three humans (her husband and two kids) as well as two rowdy dogs, a very calm kitty, two fish, and six chickens. Contact her at news@noozhawk.com.

Dr. Hilary Quinn is a small animal veterinarian in Santa Barbara. She owns and operates Wilder Animal Hospital, and shares her own home with three humans (her husband and two kids) as well as two rowdy dogs, a very calm kitty, two fish, and six chickens. Contact her at news@noozhawk.com.