Advice about housesoiling cats

Here’s my first blog post on pet care!

It’s totally cheating because I just copied a handout I wrote a couple of years ago for my office.   I give this to anyone who brings me a cat who pees on stuff, and I’m happy to share it with you.  Standard disclaimer:  I don’t know your cat.  I’m not your vet (unless I am).  The advice I give in this blog is general advice and should not be construed as specific treatment advice.  Only your own vet is your own vet and my advice is just the result of my experience with eighteen years of seeing really a lot of cats.  Use it as you will.

Here we go.

There are many challenges associated with cats who do not always urinate in the litterbox. The following is advice based on many years of dealing with these cats and the messes they make. Always begin with a thorough medical workup because there are a variety of medical issues which can cause poor litterbox habits, and all the behavioral options in the world will not stop a cat with bladder stones from seeking a comfortable place to urinate. This is a very common problem, and there are many steps you can take to help improve your cat’s chances of returning to the litterbox.

Litterbox possibilities

Many cats who do not use their litterbox avoid it because of either an acquired aversion to it (fear of the location, ambush by other cats, soiled and unattractive litter) or because of an acquired preference for other locations to urinate.   To help avoid aversions, make sure that there are plenty of litterbox choices in your home. Experts suggest that in a problem household, there should be a litterbox per cat, plus one (5 boxes for 4 cats) so that there is always a clean choice. The litterboxes should ideally not be placed all together, but in different locations in the home (at least 2 locations) so that if one area is occupied or unavailable (or simply less desirable), they have a choice. Sometimes cats are fearful of the litter area because of another cat’s bullying; this is a location where a bully will sometimes set up an “ambush” of another cat, which makes it a frightening place to be. Litterboxes should not be near feeding stations. They should not be near “scary” things such as furnaces or water heaters which might “kick on” at alarming times. They should not be in locations where the cat feels exposed to danger (for example, where the new puppy can come running up, or grabby toddlers might lurk). Consider your cat’s health and fitness: if the only litterbox is in the basement and your cat has become arthritic, he may simply be too sore to manage the stairs as often as he has to urinate. Offer plenty of chances to “do the right thing.”

Most cats prefer uncovered litterboxes. The hoods tend to hold in the dust and odor, which is preferable to a human, but makes the litter area unpleasant. If you have a hooded box and notice that your cat prefers to urinate in the open air (such as the corner of a carpeted room), or that he uses the box but always does so with his head sticking out the door of the box, then you might improve the situation by simply removing the cover from the box. If this causes you to have to scoop the box more often to avoid house odors, that’s also a good thing.

Most cats prefer very soft litters (as evidence, most healthy cats who housesoil do so on carpet, preferring that soft feel under their feet). The modern scoopable litters are excellent in softness. Choose unscented varieties, as cats frequently do not like perfumes and additives. Experiment with different depths of litter; some like it deep to dig, others like it more shallow. If you see your cat perching on the edge of the box to go and then digging around the wall rather than in the litter itself, this is a sign that he does not want to touch the litter because something about it does not please him. Try another brand. My own cats prefer Scoop Away and Arm and Hammer brands, and try to avoid others if I buy them.   If you are using the old-fashioned clay litters and fear the boxed scoop litters due to cost, know that in the long run the scoopable litters are actually much cheaper since you only need to regularly scoop out the clumps of urine and feces, and refill the box as needed. You only need to completely dump the box and rinse it out (no detergents or chemicals) once a month or less, depending on your cats. I have 5 cats in my home and I buy a 14 lb box of litter every other week or so. Most cats hate the alternative litters such as the pine pellets or crystals, though there are a few easygoing cats who find them acceptable.

Larger boxes tend to be preferred by cats over smaller ones. Cats like room to move and dig. If you have a cat who does not squat down all the way to urinate but rather just stands in the box and pees out the side, do not use a regular litterbox at all, but cut a “door” into an open storage box (such as Rubbermaid), found at most stores (Home Depot, Meijer). I like to keep a big plastic tray designed for washing machine drips under each of my boxes to help with any spills or tracking. Most cats hate those prickly mats they sell for the box entry to catch litter.

Scoop each box daily.   Remember that a box might be completely unacceptable to a cat if there is any mess in it at all (from himself or from another cat).   Many people are quite pleased with the automatic boxes which do this for you, though they have their own challenges and I encourage you to do research on them before you purchase one. Remember that scooping out feces daily is essential to help prevent the spread of feces-borne diseases like toxoplasmosis.

To make regular scooping easier (more convenient, and therefore more likely to happen) in my busy house, each of my litterboxes has its own scoop kept with a sealing-top garbage can right next to the box. Any time I walk by, it’s easy to just scoop out any mess into the can, close the top and walk away (and wash hands). When the trash bag in the can is full, I can just take it out then. There’s also a product called “Litter Genie” that works on the same principle and has its own bag refills. I find this to be a lot easier than finding a scoop and a grocery bag each time I see a mess, and having to take it to the outside trash can no matter the weather.

Another option to make scooping more convenient and thereby encourage you to do it more often is to use a flushable cat litter and keep a box right next to your most commonly-used toilet. I love the “Better Way” flushable litter which I buy from Amazon.com (I haven’t found it locally, I just have it shipped right to my house). Every time I go into the bathroom it is easy to scoop the box right into the toilet, then flush the whole mess and wash my hands as usual. My cats love the Better Way litter as it is very soft under their feet. Not all septic systems can handle even flushable litter, so check your system before using to make sure you don’t end up with a clog. I am on city sewers and have used it for 6 years with no trouble, but a plumber would know better if your system will handle it properly.

If you have a determined carpet-peeing cat, this is a difficult habit to break. One solution (after cleaning the soiled carpet, discussed later) is to simply accept that the cat feels the need to urinate wherever he has chosen to go. Until a permanent solution is found, it is sometimes easier to simply place a litterbox in that area (corner of the dining room, wherever). Many cats will happily use an uncovered scoopable box placed in their chosen area. This is unpleasant to have in a frequently used room, but many people find it preferable to have a cleanable box which they can remove when company comes over, rather than a dirty carpet that stinks no matter what you do.

Another solution which can be very helpful is to provide the soiler an acceptable soft place to pee. If he has told you clearly that he likes to pee on soft things (by continuing to urinate on carpet, laundry, etc.), then giving him an empty litterbox with an old towel in it (no litter, just the towel) provides him a way to pee on something soft while sparing your carpet and clothing. I keep a “towel box” in my litterbox room and my house-soiler is quite content as long as the towels are washed regularly. Again, this is not an ideal solution in that stinky towels are not loved in many homes, but I prefer a stinky towel I can wash rather than stinky carpet I am stuck with.  NOTE: I have recently transitioned his towel box to doggie pee-pads, and that works great. No more nasty towels to wash.

How to clean soiled carpeting

Begin with the knowledge that cleaning up cat urine on carpet is only a temporary measure. There is no way to clean peed-on carpet so that a cat can’t smell it; you are only trying to make it so that you can’t smell it. Cleaning is a stopgap measure to help you correct the problem cat’s behavior, but simply cleaning a mess will not change a determined cat’s activity.

Begin by locating all the urinated-on spots. Buy a blacklight, available at home repair stores and party stores. Cat urine fluoresces under blacklight which makes finding urine spots much easier. Dog urine, snot, and vomit fluoresce as well, but it is a slightly different intensity (you’ll get good at figuring out what’s what). Find each spot and note where they are. If you are fortunate, they will be along the walls, which allows you to pull the edge of the carpet up from the tackstrip so you can clean not only the top of the carpet, but the padding and subfloor as well. Pull up the edge and clean around the baseboard, wall, subfloor and tackstrip (be careful…sharp, rusty nails!) with a non-bleach cleanser. Remember that cat urine is primarily ammonia, and that bleach and ammonia mix together to form a very toxic gas. Bleach on cat urine is a very dangerous combination. I prefer either Pine-sol (many cats do not like the smell of pine) or a cleanser I found at Home Depot by Zep, a citrus-scented odor eliminator. Scrub the hard surfaces and use a sponge to soak and wash the carpet pad, which is just a big sponge itself. You may have to do this several times. The Zep cleanser can be used on the backing of the carpet itself as well; I have not tried this with Pine-sol. Prop the lifted edge of the carpet up and aim a fan on the area to make sure each layer is dry.   For the top of the carpet, many cleansers exist. I am fond of the Simple Green cleanser sold specifically for use in the Spot-Bot automatic carpet scrubber (a must for anyone with pets or children).   I also like products by Resolve. Experiment with different cleansers to find the one you like best. Make sure everything is dry before you lay it all back down and if possible, cover the area with something physically large so that the cat cannot get to the area again (furniture is best). Remember that all this cleaning work will NOT make it so that your cat can’t smell the urine anymore; you’re just trying to make it acceptable for humans. If your cat can get back there, he might use the area again. Covering with plastic or foil can help, but many cats will urinate right on the plastic or foil (which does conveniently give you a urine sample you can bring to your vet for testing).

The only way to truly make a soiled are completely undetectable to a cat is to remove and throw away all soiled carpeting and pad.   Do this yourself several days before the new carpet (or preferably hard surface flooring such as Pergo or hardwood) is installed. The scent of urine IS in your subfloor (wood or concrete), even if you can’t smell it. While the floor is bare, remove all soiled tackstrip. Scrub the baseboards and all soiled areas with Pine-sol again. After that is dry, you must seal the floor before anything else is laid down. Home repair stores sell products specifically for this purpose; they will be labeled as “vapor barrier” products and found in the paint section. Bullseye and Killz are two good brands. Paint the subfloor with a roller until opaque over every soiled area of subfloor using good ventilation. Allow to dry fully before installing any new flooring. Do NOT neglect this step when replacing carpet or you will not improve the problem at all and your cat will very likely return to the same spot on the new carpet. I am a huge fan of solid surface flooring; most cats will not elect to urinate on Pergo, and if they do, you can simply wipe it up and be done.

Please consult with your vet for further information on any of this advice, and do not give up. Remember that your cat is not being “bad” on purpose; this is a compulsion no different from a person with a compulsive disorder.

Cats have no concept of “bad” or “good” and they do not urinate on things out of anger or spite, only out of stress or anxiety.

Punishing a cat for soiling a carpet or personal items does NOT help and only makes the problem worse. Try to spend quality time with your cat doing things he likes to do (petting, playing with toys) knowing that reducing his stress level is key to reducing the frequency of house soiling. Try to reduce any known stressors (dogs that chase, children who grab) and make the home as happy as possible so that the cat knows he doesn’t have to worry about his safety, food supply, cleanliness, or comfort. A product called Feliway is a potent pheromone which can help some cats lower anxiety through scent. There are also medications which can help with stress and anxiety in cats who cannot be helped in other ways. Litterbox issues are the number one reason why cats are surrendered to shelters and euthanized, so please consider all these suggestions to try to help your cat stay in your home.

Good luck!

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