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To Pee or Not to Pee...?

Despite many families citing “moving” as a major reason for relinquishing cats to rescue or shelter, it is hypothesized that this is just a nice way of indicating behavior problems may be present. Pet ownership and commitment to that relationship is based on the human-animal bond. If that bond is solid and set, moving would rarely be a barrier to keeping your beloved pet. Behavior problems, however, frequently drive a wedge between the pet and their person. Even if the relationship isn’t “bad,” it isn’t strong enough that the human feels motivated to keep their cat by their side, “come hell or high water.”

The second most common reason for relinquishment: behavior problems.

The most common behavior problem: house soiling issues.

House soiling is a broad umbrella term for any type of urinating or defecating outside of their litter box. It can further be divided into marking and inappropriate elimination.

Marking Behavior

Cats are extremely territorial, and they rely heavily on scents and pheromones to mark their boundaries. They mark by rubbing their faces on objects or people (“bunting”), scratching on horizontal or vertical surfaces, and (worst case scenario) urine or fecal marking. The cat will typically resort to that worst case scenario when they are in significant emotional distress. As we all know, excrement has a very potent odor plus feces act as a visual cue for “my space!” When marking, the cat will target locations or objects of social significance and is typically not related to a specific texture. We’ll explore further how to differentiate between marking and inappropriate elimination later in this article.

Inappropriate Elimination

In contrast to marking, inappropriate elimination (IE) is related to preferences for toileting habits. There are four subcategories of IE:

  • Location Aversion

    • Something about the location of their current litterbox causes them distress. This could be due to loud noises, difficulty accessing it, not enough space, etc. Due to their dislike of this location, they seek better areas in which they can eliminate.

  • Location Preference

    • While seeking a new place to eliminate, many cats will find spots in the house that are more to their liking. It’s on the main floor, easy to access, quiet, etc. Once they have decided they like this location, they stick with it.

  • Substrate Aversion

    • Substrate refers to not only the type of litter, but also the litterbox. Most cats prefer clumping, unscented, clay litter in an open litterbox that is 2-3 times the length of the cat. If the box gets too dirty, is too small, if the litter changes to a texture they don’t like, etc., then the cat works to find a better spot.

  • Substrate Preference

    • After deciding they dislike their litterbox, they will eventually find a texture that they really do like. The two most common substrate preferences are soft cloth or smooth, reflective surfaces.

Differentiating the Difference

IE and marking can look very similar. The underlying etiology, however, is completely different and, therefore, so is the approach to treatment. As always, start your behavior work up with a minimum database. The clinician should complete a CBC, Chemistry, and Urinalysis. If there are any abnormalities, pursue those to full diagnosis. If the results are normal, a tentative behavior diagnosis can be made. Now, the hard part starts.

Ask the family to draw a diagram of their home and indicate where food, water, litterboxes, and cat trees are located. In that same diagram, indicate where any urine or feces have been found outside the litterbox. From there, explore the relationships in the house. Intercat aggression is often a contributing factor – maybe the “bully” cat is blocking the “victim” cat’s access to the litterbox. If there is any history of conflict between household pets or people, fixing this will likely be part of your treatment plan.

Next, see if there are any commonalities between the locations of elimination. Do they seek out certain textures? Colors? Rooms? Objects? Horizontal or vertical? Covered or uncovered? There doesn’t have to be complete uniformity in their preferences, but finding trends will be important.

Here are a few examples:


New kitten enters the home. Owner sets up a large dog crate with all resources for when unsupervised. Litterbox is a shallow cardboard box. Cat digs and eliminates normally in the crate. When out of the crate, will urinate and defecate under the dining room table and behind the owner’s fish tank cabinet.

  • First, determine whether this is marking or inappropriate elimination. Kittens rarely mark as they are socially immature, but it cannot be ruled out on this trend alone. There is no conflict between the kitten and any other pets or people. The two preferred areas are on opposite sides of the main floor. Both urination and defecation in these areas.

    • Most likely an inappropriate elimination problem.

  • Preferences for toileting areas always start with an aversion to the one provided by humans. Something about the litter box in the crate is undesirable. The common denominators with the table and cabinet: cozy, covered, edges of the room.

    • Solution: make a litterbox that has the qualities the kitten wants but is still acceptable to the human household. The family purchased a small, covered litterbox and tucked it in the corner of the living room. Continued having good cleaning protocols in place.

  • Resolution was immediate and the cat no longer eliminated outside the litterbox.


Gus was one of four cats in this home. There was conflict between Gus and the older cat. Based on the diagram drawn by the family, this cat would most often deposit urine by the front door or windows by the front of the house. Some of it was vertical, some horizontal.

  • Given the location and analysis of the substrate, this is most likely marking. The door and windows are an area or social importance. It is very common to see this behavior when there are feral cats in the area. The presence of an outdoor cat was confirmed by the owners.

  • Now that marking has been identified as the problem, the clinician can start working on a solution. You can learn more about the different parts of treatment in our article on Aspects of Behavior Therapy.

  • Management – Implement motion activated, high pitched alarms and water sprinkler to scare of the outdoor cat. Use an enzymatic cleaner to thoroughly clean away the urine by the door and windows. Use a black light to check for any residue. Block access to this part of the house for a few days while getting everything set up.

  • roducts – Plug in a Feliway Optimum by the front door to disperse both “happy” and “territorial” pheromones near this door. It can take up to 3 days for the pheromone to diffuse throughout the area.

  • Behavior Modification – Basic training is great for cognitive and emotional stimulation, provide appropriate outlets for normal feline behaviors, and helps reduce general stress and anxiety. This makes it less likely that the cat will feel the need to express their stress in less human-approved ways.

  • Resolution: Within 2-3 weeks, 80% of the urine marking resolved. He would still occasionally have stressful days that resulted in marking by the door. To troubleshoot, the owners placed a “urine marking” station to protect the walls and give him an appropriate location to express this behavior. After another 2-3 weeks, the family decided to start low dose Prozac which further improved the marking. By 6 months, the family was only finding urine marking 1-2 times per month.


  • Marking and inappropriate elimination are very different problems.

  • Marking is associated with objects or locations of social significance.

  • Inappropriate elimination results from a combination of substrate aversions and preferences.

  • When treating behavior, identify the underlying cause.

  • Ensure the cat has all their biological needs met.

  • Use a combination of management and behavior modification before pursuing medical therapy.

If ever in doubt, there are a lot of local pet behavior specialists available to help coach veterinary professionals or animal trainers peel apart the layers of this problem. If caught early enough, these problems can be 100% resolved. The longer a house soiling problem continues, the more ingrained it becomes, and the harder it is to change.

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