Summary

In cases of feline house soiling it is essential that medical causes are eliminated by appropriate investigations prior to making a diagnosis. House soiling can occur in response to a medical condition, such as feline lower urinary tract disease, and the consequences of misdiagnosis are potentially severe. The next step is differentiating between cases where urine and/or faeces are being used as olfactory and visual markers and those of inappropriate elimination.

Determining the type of problem

In the case of inappropriate urine deposition the posture of the cat can help in the differentiation process, since indoor urine spraying is usually associated with a characteristic stance. The sprayer backs up to a vertical surface and directs a small stream of urine towards it while quivering the tip of the erect tail, padding with the back feet and staring forwards with a fixed facial expression, whereas eliminative urination usually occurs in a squatting position and involves the deposition of larger quantities of urine onto horizontal surfaces. Although urine marking does normally occur in the form of spraying from a vertical stance it is not exclusively the case and urine marking can be performed from a squatting position. This fact must be borne in mind when attempting to differentiate between urine marking and indoor toileting as it is easy to dismiss squatting urination on horizontal surfaces as always being eliminative and yet there are occasions when the cat is actually using that sort of urination as a marking behaviour. Certain other pointers which differentiate marking problems from elimination problems will include the positioning of the urine or faeces and the cat’s reaction to the litter tray. In the case of marking the areas that the cat uses will often be of behavioural significance for example areas that smell of the owner or of a new cat in the household. Elimination on the other hand will usually take place in quiet secluded locations or on certain material surfaces such as carpet or linen. Indoor markers will often continue to use the litter tray while those cats with indoor elimination problems usually stop using the litter tray and will target areas of suitable textures. Signs of aversion to the litter tray are often the first thing that the owner notices and in many toileting cases both defaecation and urination are inappropriate. Comprehensive history taking is essential in order to identify potential triggers for inappropriate eliminative behaviour and house visits can be especially beneficial in cases of house-soiling cats.

Indoor Marking

This is a classic example of normal feline behaviour which is out of context and therefore inappropriate. Cats use urine to leave their own scent and not to cover odours from other cats. Although a cat will smell the urine mark of another cat there is no fearful or intimidative response and when another cat comes along it will sniff at the scented post and then walk on having noted the information. The odour of a scent mark changes with age due to a combination of differential evaporation of volatiles and the production of new smells by micro-organisms and this is very important in the perpetuation of an indoor spraying problem. As the mark decays and its odour changes so the cat is induced to go back to the mark and top it up and most owners will comment that the cat has regular places within the home where it sprays repeatedly. It would appear that there are two distinct motivations for urine marking. Firstly it is associated with sexual activity and it has been shown that male cats will sniff urine from in oestrus females for longer than urine of anoestrus females. In addition a female that is in oestrus will pay great attention to the sprayed urine of males especially if they are strangers. The second motivation for urine marking is social communication and cats will use urine deposits to facilitate their elaborate time share system and avoid unnecessary encounters with individuals outside of their social group. It is also used to increase security and to confirm residence within a particular territory. This form of urine marking can be performed by any cat, male or female, neutered or entire. When this second form of urine marking occurs in the domestic context the causes are many and varied but often represent some form of perceived threat to the security of the cat’s environment. Examples include alterations to the core territory both in terms of physical and social components, reorganisation of existing territory (including redecoration), and introduction to a new environment be that temporary or permanent.

Treatment of indoor marking

Break the habit!

Cleaning

There are plenty of products on the market, but beware of those that contain ammonia or chlorine as these can create confusing scent signals which may induce cats to remark. The most effective cleaning regime is to scrub the area with a 10% warm solution of a biological washing powder and, after rinsing it and leaving it to dry, spray the area with surgical spirit. It is then important to ensure that the area is completely dry before allowing the cat access once again.

Redefining the function of the location

Any deterrent which is aversive in nature runs the risk of increasing anxiety and hence increasing the problem behaviour. Marks in the feral situation are usually focused on the perimeters of a core territory and not in the centre of it. Hence it can help to redefine the soiled location as a safe core area, where eating, sleeping and playing take place.

Remove the need

Identify triggers and remove

In some cases triggers can be identified and removed but in many cases it is either not possible to identify the source of conflict or not possible to remove it.

Decrease size of territory

Where the source of stress is not identified and the cat is showing signs of severe lack of confidence the use of a small room to decrease the size of the cat’s defendable territory can help.

Use of drug support

It is important that drug support is seen as an adjunct to behavioural therapy and not a substitute for it. Drugs such as the tricyclic antidepressants, for example clomipramine, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, such as fluoxetine, can be used on a decreasing dose basis to give a more rapid cessation of the behaviour than can be achieved with behavioural therapy alone.

Use of pheromonotherapy

The product Feliway, which is a synthetic analogue of the F3 fraction of the feline facial “pheromone”, has given very promising results in the treatment of spraying cats. Its availability as a diffuser device has increased the level of success and made it a very important tool in the treatment of indoor marking problems in cats.

Cease all Punishment

It is important to cease all direct punishment since, even if the cat is caught in the act, the chances are that startling the cat will create more problems than it cures. At worst punishment can result in a cat that sprays more frequently, but in less detectable places, and it can totally destroy the cat owner partnership and remove any trust.

House-training Problems

These problems are essentially related to the depositing of faeces and or urine in an inappropriate or unacceptable place. Breakdowns in hygiene are extremely distressing for both cat and owner and there are a number of possible causes.

Possible Causes

Initial learning failure

Lack of facilities near to the nest will result in kittens that fail to learn about using a litter tray and sometimes, even though there is a litter tray provided, the kittens fail to bond to he substrate provided.

Post Trauma Breakdown in House Training

Medical conditions can also cause a breakdown in house-training and problems such as diabetes and cystitis can result in the cat being caught short and then continuing to eliminate in that place after the original medical problem is cured. Retraining to use the litter tray should therefore also be considered when treating medical problems especially in the indoor cat. Cats that suffer from feline lower urinary tract disease can also develop toileting problems since they come to associate the pain of their condition with the litter tray and subsequently chose alternative sites in which to eliminate.

Type of litter

Cats naturally select a fine rakeable latrine substrate and when surveys have been conducted into litter preferences it has been found that even those cats that use wooden pellet type litters at home will select a finer grain litter if presented with the option. Finer grain litters give more chance of bonding and indeed regular household sand is a very popular substrate.

The litter tray

The threshold for cleaning trays will vary enormously between cats with some wanting the tray cleaned each time they use it and others tolerating less frequent cleaning. The number of cats that are expected to share a tray is also a very individual decision and will depend on the number of social groups within the household. Where there is a toileting problem in a multi-cat household the answer may be a simple as providing more trays in a variety of latrine locations.

The positioning of the tray

The outdoor cat will choose a well sheltered place in which to toilet and therefore a cat is unlikely to appreciate a tray put in a busy passageway or situated right next to the dog bed! Ideally the tray should be placed in a protected area and some cats will like the tray to be covered. Covering the tray can add to the cats feeling of security and make the tray more attractive to use. However in multi-cat household covered trays can sometimes contribute to problems of inter-cat aggression and every case must be considered on an individual basis.

Security problems

Approximately 5% of cases may involve nervous cats and in these cases it is essential to aim treatment not at the presenting problem directly, but rather at increasing the cat’s security.

Old age

It is important to ensure that trays are readily available to older cats and geriatric cat management should include attention to litter facilities, for example putting the tray a little closer to the resting places and perhaps providing more trays.

Treatment of indoor toileting

Cleaning

The need to break the habit applies equally to these problems of indoor toileting as it does to problems of indoor marking.

Redefine the function of the location

It is necessary to redefine the area so that it becomes associated with a function that is incompatible with elimination. This can be achieved by using food bowls to identify the area as a feeding lair or bedding to define its role as a sleeping area.

Remove the need

Identify initial cause and rectify if possible In many cases of indoor toileting the initial cause was relatively short lived and has already been rectified. For example: forced confinement or concomitant medical condition, and therefore treatment is focused on improving facilities and reforming suitable latrine associations.

Improve the facilities

Factors such as litter type, tray size and tray position should be considered in the light of normal feline toileting behaviour and provision of clean, private and accessible facilities with suitable rakeable substrates should be a priority.

Treat nervousness

Treatment for nervous indoor toileters needs to be aimed at teaching the cat to accept challenging stimuli by using a programme of desensitisation and counter-conditioning. Dealing with the nervousness will enable the cat to develop the ability to cope and the secondary elimination problem will be treated in the process.

Re-establish associations

Limit the chance to get it wrong, maximise the chance to get it right. Improving the facilities that are available is an easy step towards treatment and when cats do not respond to the simple changes in facilities it can help to restrict the opportunity for the cat to get it wrong and offer it the chance to get it right. Where a substrate preference is at the root of the problem it is possible to put a portion of the preferred substrate in the litter tray and then once the cat is using the tray the preferred substrate can gradually be overlaid with a suitable litter.

Cease all punishment

Urination and defaecation are normal activities and punishing a cat for relieving itself in the wrong location is likely to be counterproductive. House-soiling problems often cause owners a great deal of embarrassment and it is important for practice staff to tackle the issue with sensitivity and understanding. The presence of urine and/or faeces in the house is only a symptom and it is essential therefore to determine a cause. It is important to remember that house soiling is often a fatal condition and veterinary practice staff are in an ideal position to offer help and advice to clients and prevent these unnecessary deaths.