Inappropriate Urination In Cats: Oh No Kitty, Not Over There

By Elizabeth Racine, DVM December 02, 2018

Inappropriate urination is the number one reason cats are surrendered to shelters every year. Urinating outside the litter box is not only a messy problem to deal with, but also erodes the loving bond between owners and their pet. However, there are steps you can take to manage the problem and get your furry friend back on track. The process starts with identifying the underlying cause for the often sudden change in behavior.

Medical Causes

While many pet owners are quick to assume that their cat is simply misbehaving by urinating outside the litter box, inappropriate urination often has an underlying medical cause. In many cases, once the underlying disease has been addressed, the cat will return to using the litter box normally. Below are just a few examples of common medical problems that can lead to inappropriate urination.

  • Urinary Problems

It should come as no surprise that urinary tract disease can often result in a change in urinating habits. Urinary tract infections, crystals in the urine, and bladder stones can all cause pain, an increase in frequency of urination, and an increase in urgency to urinate. Pet owners will commonly notice frequent small volumes of urine, sometimes with a pink or red tinge due to blood in the urine. Cats with urinary problems may also vocalize, strain to urinate, or make frequent trips to the litter box. While these conditions are treatable, it is important to seek veterinary care right away if you notice these signs to ensure that there is no permanent damage. 

Some cats can be prone to developing urinary signs due to stress. This condition is known by many different names, such as Feline Idiopathic Cystitis, Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD), or Pandora’s Syndrome. Regardless of what you call it, this condition can cause cats to urinate outside the litter box due to inflammation of the bladder. Signs of this condition typically mimic those of other urinary diseases, which is why it is important for your veterinarian to perform a full diagnostic work up. The treatment for this condition involves controlling pain, decreasing inflammation, and preventing new flare-ups by minimizing stress. Environmental enrichment is especially important for these cats in order to prevent flare-ups.

Male cats are particularly prone to urethral obstruction, a blockage that makes it difficult or impossible for them to urinate. This is an emergency situation because it can lead to a backup of waste products into the blood stream or a rupture of the urinary bladder. This is why it is important to seek veterinary care immediately if your cat shows any signs of urinary problems.

  • Other Medical Conditions

Sometimes inappropriate urination stems not from the urinary tract, but from changes in hormones or metabolic processes in other areas of the body. A variety of diseases can cause polydipsia and polyuria, which are the medical terms for more frequent drinking and increased urination, respectively. Pet owners will often notice that their cats seem to be urinating more frequently and in much larger amounts than usual. Affected cats will make more frequent trips to the water bowl, and some may even choose to sleep closer to it. Some common diseases producing these symptoms include diabetes mellitus, hyperthyroidism, chronic kidney disease, and liver disease, among others. These cats may urinate outside the box due to the increased urgency to urinate or due to pain and discomfort from their disease. Diagnosing these conditions involves a trip to the veterinarian for testing such as blood tests, urinalysis, and ultrasound. In many cases, once the underlying condition is managed and the increased urination is controlled, the cat will return to using the litter box as usual.

  • Pain

As discussed above, bladder pain due to urinary tract disease can lead to urination outside the litter box. However, other types of pain can also be a factor. Arthritis pain in particular is a common cause of inappropriate urination in older cats. Cats with arthritis may find it difficult to access the litter box or may dislike the texture of the litter or the way it shifts under their feet. They may even have difficulty posturing to urinate, or may simply feel too poorly to make the trip to the litter box. Good pain control and a few adjustments to litter box location and substrate can often fix the problem.

Behavior Problems

Behavior problems are typically only diagnosed once all possible medical causes of inappropriate urination have been ruled out. If your veterinarian thinks your cat’s urinary problems may be behavioral, it can be helpful to keep a log of when and where your cat urinates to identify possible triggers for the behavior. Below are just a few common reasons why cats may develop urinary-related behavior problems.

  • Territorial Marking

Territorial marking is different from other types of inappropriate urination in that it usually involves spraying urine on vertical surfaces, such as walls or furniture. Often this occurs around high-traffic areas of the house. Cats may mark their territory to lay claim to important resources or to attract a mate. Typically cats displaying territorial marking will continue to use the litter box regularly in addition to their marking behavior. If there are sexually intact cats present in the household, spaying and neutering these individuals can often decrease or resolve the behavior.

  • Anxiety and Social Stressors

As discussed above, cats with conditions such as Feline Idiopathic Cystitis may have flare-ups of urinary signs due to stress. However, even cats without this condition may start to urinate outside the litter box if there are problems in the household. In a multi-cat household, conflict between cats can trigger all kinds of behavior problems. In some cases, one cat in particular may be a bully that is chasing the others away from the litter box. Some cats will also start to urinate inappropriately if they are able to see unfamiliar or feral cats outside the windows, which can be intimidating to them. It is also important to consider the journey that the cat makes to the litter box. Obstacles such as high-traffic areas of the house, noisy appliances, or a rambunctious dog can all play a role in discouraging a nervous kitty from seeking out the box. Keeping a record of the places and times that the affected cat urinates can help pinpoint the source of the problem.

Managing Inappropriate Urination

If your cat is urinating outside the litter box, the first step is to take him to a veterinarian. Your vet will perform a full physical exam and may recommend additional testing such as a urinalysis, blood test, or diagnostic imaging. If a medical cause for your pet’s problem is found, then appropriate treatment will be prescribed. In many cases, treating the underlying medical problem will eventually resolve the inappropriate urination.

If no underlying medical cause is found, then your vet may offer suggestions for managing your cat’s behavior. Often good litter box management and improving environmental enrichment can solve many behavior problems. Consider trying out different litters and litter boxes to see if your cat has a preference. Pheromone sprays and calming supplements can also help your cat feel more relaxed, especially in a multi-cat household. In some cases, behavioral medications or training protocols may be prescribed. If territorial spraying is the source of the problem then spaying or neutering may be recommended. If your cat’s behavior problems are severe, your veterinarian may refer you to a board certified veterinary behaviorist for further evaluation.

Regardless of the underlying cause of your cat’s inappropriate urination, remember to always clean any areas your cat urinates on with an enzymatic cleaner. Cats have a very sensitive sense of smell and will often continue to urinate in areas where they or other cats have urinated previously. Enzymatic cleaners break down the compounds in urine that cause odor, which are often detectable to your cat even after the mess has been thoroughly cleaned with conventional products. Using these enzymatic cleaners will prevent your cat from being tempted to return to the same spot to urinate. You can find these products at most pet stores.


Inappropriate urination can be a frustrating experience for everyone, including your cat. Identifying and addressing the underlying cause of the problem is critical to achieve success. Your veterinarian is the best resource to help you solve the problem and restore the bond between you and your feline friend.

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