When Your Cat Is Peeing Everywhere

Inappropriate Elimination in Cats

Kittens can quickly learn to use a litter box
Jaspurr and Joey check out their new litter box. Franny Syufy

"Inappropriate Elimination" is the term we use to politely discuss the problem of cats peeing everywhere but in their litter boxes. This is an unusual behavior, but it is the largest single cause of concern among cat owners, right up there alongside clawing furniture and drapes. Indeed, shelters cite the largest reason given by people surrendering cats is "He pees all over the house."

In many cases, these cats are only peeing everywhere because they are in physical pain, and peeing outside the box is not "bad behavior," but an effort to urinate without pain.

Eliminate Serious Medical Causes First

If your cat's behavior is new and is accompanied by other physical symptoms -- lethargy, lack of appetite, weakness, sneezing, diarrhea -- there is almost certainly a medical explanation. What's more, the medical issue could be serious, so don't wait before visiting the vet.

One of the more serious reasons for cats urinating outside the litter box is a urinary tract dysfunction, known as FLUTD (Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease), formerly known as FUS (Feline Urinary Syndrome.) FLUTD causes painful urination, which the cat may associate with the litter box, thereby avoiding it. Therefore, inappropriate elimination may be your first clue that your cat needs medical care. If you ignore it, or, worse yet, choose to punish your cat, the disease can quickly become life-threatening.

When my Bubba started peeing on the floor a few years ago, we attributed it to jealousy of another cat and disregarded it.

A few days later my husband came home to find Bubba "sleeping" on our bed and discovered a lethargic, weak, close-to-death cat. We rushed him to our veterinary clinic 10 miles away, and he remained there for ten days undergoing treatment for a serious urinary blockage.

Eliminate Other Likely Causes

Your cat has a clean bill of health -- but is still peeing on the floor.

Now, you'll have to become a detective. Cats are fussy little critters who like to have everything orderly in their home. The slightest change which you may accommodate or even enjoy may upset your cat, and he will let you know loud and clear, by peeing where he darn well pleases, even though he ordinarily would prefer his litter box. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Has your cat been declawed? Declawing is a painful, mutilating surgery, and phantom limb pain can linger for years. A rough substrate in the litter box will cause severe pain to the nerve endings in a declawed paw, and the cat will associate pain with the litter box. Always use "gentle" litter for declawed cats, such as one of the newspaper-based litters (PaPurr or Yesterday's News are both good).
  • Have you recently moved? If so, your cat will feel very insecure in new surroundings and it will take some time for his comfort level to return to normal.
  • Is there a new baby in the house? Cats are very jealous of their attention and he will need lots of extra love and cuddling so he knows that he is still first in your heart. (You may feel a little differently, but humor him, okay?)
  • Is there a new cat in your home? A new dog? The above applies equally to these situations, and in the case of another cat, make sure it has its own litter box. Cats hate to share, particularly if they've never had to before. The general rule of thumb is one litter box per cat plus one extra. 
  • Is his litter box meticulously clean? Have you ever had to relieve yourself in one of those portable facilities at a fair, when the deodorizer has failed its job? Cats are every bit as disgusted as you were and their sense of smell is better, by far.
  • Have you changed your brand of litter? Cats tend to be creatures of habit, and any changes should be done gradually. In the case of litter changes, just sprinkle a bit of the new litter on top of the formerly used brand. Then gradually add more until the cat has accepted the change.
  • Have you moved the litter box? Likewise, cats are used to their normal routines.
  • Has another cat in the household recently had surgery or been ill? The odor of anesthesia and medication can linger and create fear in your other cats.and medication can linger and create fear in your other cats.
  • Is it possible any form of trauma has occurred when your cat was using the box? An attack or intimidation by another cat? Again, a cat will avoid any source of discomfort, whether it be physical or emotional. His mind will link the location with the trauma.

Territorial Marking 

If you've eliminated all of the above potential causes, and your kitty is still peeing in all the wrong places, it could be that he is not urinating "normally," but spraying, or marking his territory. This is common, particularly among whole (un-neutered) mature male cats, and in some male cats that were neutered after reaching sexual maturity. Cats may mark a wide range of surfaces, particularly those that smell like you, the owner.

Spraying or marking territory involves a distinct posture not found in normal urination. A cat will back up to a vertical surface, stand with his tail quivering, and direct a spray of urine on the wall or another vertical surface. Often he will make little mincing steps in place while marking. He will then leave the area without sniffing. This behavior is not limited to male cats, as females will also sometimes spray, but for different reasons.

Marking could be the result of seeing a strange new cat outside the window. It would be a secondary instinct similar to redirected aggression. Also, one of the most common causes of territorial marking is when a strange cat is marking the outside doors, and the inside cat marks the other side to identify his property.

Treatments for this type of behavior needs to be individualized to the cat and its particular circumstances. Usually, the treatment revolves around modifying the stresses in the environment or trying to modify the cat's response to them. In some cases, anti-anxiety drugs may be prescribed to help the process. As with all therapies for behavior problems, the treatment plan may evolve as the therapy progresses.

Train Your Cat to Use the Litter Box

Washington State University, College of Veterinary Medicine suggests a two-step program for retraining a cat that is urinating inappropriately.

It's a pretty simple concept: make his litter box more attractive to him while making his current spot as unattractive as possible.

Make His Litter Box Irresistible. First, give him a new litter box with clean litter. Cats usually prefer a fine-grained litter and are not particularly fond of scented litter. Once you've found the brand of litter your cat prefers, don't change brands.  

Put the litter box in a quiet place--cats are very private about their elimination and don't care to be observed. Make sure it's not next to noisy appliances, as that will distract and disturb him. There are a number of new litter box products on the market that feature privacy in one way or another. Just be sure the box is placed in an area where other cats can't sneak up and intimidate the cat who is using it.

If the box sits on a hard, cold surface, you should consider putting a carpet remnant or washable rug under it, as cats like to scratch around the box. It should be in an easily-accessible location. Young kittens and senior cats may not be able to climb stairs easily.

Multi-cat households should ideally have one litter box per cat plus one extra. Scoop the solid particles out at least daily, and change the litter completely every week or two, washing the pan thoroughly with plain detergent and water or a mild bleach solution (rinse well).

Make The Inappropriate Area Unattractive. Next, remove every bit of evidence of his urine from the place he's been using. There are a number of cleaning products marketed for this purpose, but you can start with plain dish soap and water on a hard-surface floor, and a regular carpet cleaning solution on carpets, provided the urine is fresh. Caution: don't use a cleaning product containing ammonia. The cat will smell it as urine and attempt to cover it with his own scent by peeing again. Plain soda or seltzer water can be effective in neutralizing fresh urine odor, but for badly soiled carpeting, you'll need an enzyme-based product. There are a number of products on the market for removing the scent of urine. We've reviewed what we consider to be the best in this  Top Urine Odor Eliminators article. For more information on removing the odor and stain of urine, also read Cleaning Kitty Accidents.

You can finish by temporarily putting aluminum foil over the area where the cat has peed. Cats don't like the noise and feel of aluminum foil, and as long as they have a new, clean litter box, the switch should be successful.

Once you've set your plan into action, watch your cat and praise him every time he uses his box. This retraining can take time, but with dedication and patience, you and your cat can once again live in peace.