Peeing outside the litter tray.

"My cat pees outside the litter tray... It is malicious, it can do it in front of me.... I have tried everything and it persists in avoiding the litter tray!" Our cats are not malicious. They communicate that something in their world is not working as it should. Avoiding the litter tray is one of such messages.

The vast majority of cases of peeing outside the litter tray are health-related. Cats with inflammatory conditions of urinary tract feel strong pain, which increases when trying to urinate, which makes them afraid of using the litter tray since it becomes associated with pain. A soft blanket warming the cat's bottom seems then to be a much friendlier place for the cat to empty the bladder. Therefore, the first thing to do in case of urinating outside the litter tray is to visit the vet, examine the cat's urine (chemical and microscopic examination), do an ultrasound of the whole abdominal cavity (pain which is the reason for peeing outside the litter tray doesn't have to come from the urinary tract!), bladder and kidneys in particular. As abdominal pain can also be of another origin, to rule out a health cause it is advisable to do a full blood test, not only morphology but also detailed biochemistry. Another health clue to be checked by the owner to find out the reason of urination outside the litter tray, especially in the case of old cats, is pain caused by diseases of the motor system. Arthritis, pelvic abnormalities, dysplasia, all these can cause pain when trying to enter the litter tray. Diagnosis in this case, however, cannot be limited to checking the cat through palpation, as cats are excellent at masking pain. The only objective tool to assess the musculoskeletal system will be an X-ray.

Only after these basic steps have been taken do we look for help of a behaviourist, in fact it is ideal to act simultaneously because very many somatic diseases have a psychological and emotional basis, so it is necessary, in addition to treating the disease itself, to remove the root cause of a sometimes very complex problem in which peeing outside the litter tray is only the tip of the iceberg. The behaviour of our cats is the only way to communicate, it is the only way they can tell us that something is bothering them and we should read it in these terms, as communication and not as "bad, malicious behaviour".

You cannot imagine how often the reason for peeing outside the litter tray turns out to be completely trivial, and that is the size of the tray. Most of the litter boxes in the houses I visit are too small, they were perfect when a small cat was adopted, but have become very uncomfortable for an adult cat. More often than not, we don't notice the moment when our cat babies "grow out" of their first litter boxes. Any litter box smaller than 60 cm in length and 45 cm in width will be too small an average cat. I know that there are quite a lot of people who have smaller litter trays and the urine lands in them perfectly, but this is just a matter of time that the cat will say “No”. It is worthwhile to arrange the litter tray so that the cat really likes it, otherwise any turmoil in its environment can cause it to openly disagree to put up with something that has actually been bothering it for a long time.

The shape of the litter tray, the fact whether it is covered or uncovered, the place where it is placed, all these are also factors of great importance, but in fact it is the cat who decides and shows us what and where is important for it, and since urination is in the case of cats not only elimination, we should never, even with one cat, have only one litter tray to offer. The possibility of choice is very important for cats, it giges them the sense of control over their surroundings.

Litter is also very important, interestingly cats can give up a certain type of litter after a long time of tolerating it. Tolerating does not mean “liking”! Sometimes all it takes is a really small setback, either health or stress related, and the cat says “Not any more!” That is why it is really very important to arrange the cats toilet so that it comes into it with pleasure.

The most common message encrypted in peeing outside the litter tray is that of a life under chronic stress. There are many reasons for cat stress in our homes, although we humans think that there aren’t any, we feed our cat perfectly, we try to play with it as often as possible, we take care of it in the best way from our point of view. However, the cat is an extremely delicate creature so it is very easy to put it into a state of anxiety. Anxiety, especially when it becomes a constant state felt by the cat, will very quickly be reflected in a variety of improper behaviours from which urinating outside the litter tray is definitely at the top of the list. This is a message that becomes evident when you have more than one cat or a dog in the household, a child can also be a source of stress. The most common reasons for chronic stress, the one that leave no way out in the cat's mind, are environmental deficiencies. No matter how many square metres our home measures, a cat will not be happy in it without the opportunity to "get off the ground", it must be able to establish its piece of territory above the floor. It will not feel happy without the possibility of climbing a "tree", without the possibility of patrolling its "territory" from above. Not being able to satisfy such basic needs means a huge deprivation, immediately followed by chronic stress, tension and sense of insecurity. All these lead to frustration which the cat has to relieve, for example by finding an alternative place to pee, somewhere nice and safe. Because the dog is peeing in the litter tray. Because the other cat looks in the litter box while I’m peeing. Because it's the only place I can hide, so I'll just lie in the litter box and pee somewhere else.

Cats are wonderful but extremely delicate creatures. Since they do not like to admit their weaknesses, prepared in the course of evolution to always have to rely only on themselves, signs and signals indicating that something is bothering them are very discreet. We ourselves very often interpret these signals in a completely inadequate way, applying our human measure to them, which has nothing to do with the cat's perception of the world. So let's listen to our cats, let's try to learn their language, because they are constantly talking to us.

Dorota Szadurska, Cat Counsellor and Therapist

Graduate of Animal Psychology of The Polish Academy of Sciences

Member of The International Association of Animal Professionals