Very few problems have simple answers and most require the recording of a complete problem history, relevant medical history, life style and relationship data within the cat’s family. Initially it is important to rule out ill health. Your veterinarian may test your cat’s urine for various conditions such as bladder problems, kidney disease and diabetes. The nature of the home environment is crucial both to the course of many problems and, through modification of access, in the treatment of most. Many cases may require supportive drug therapy from your veterinarian. In all cases, drug support of any kind is offered as a short-term vehicle to facilitate the application of husbandry or behavioural modifications.
INDOOR MARKING (Scratching, Spraying & Middening)
Chin, head and flank rubbing are forms of marking and social communication encouraged by most owners from their cats. Head rubbing in particular has been identified as a social gesture, which facilitates odour exchange and the development of group odour or communal smell between feral cats, so it is not surprising that pet cats use similar behaviour to denote friendship with their owners. Scratching has a dual purpose in territory identification, giving a visual signal and allowing the deposition of scent from glands on the pads of the paws; however, this behaviour may not be well tolerated indoors.
Scratching to strop claws can usually be transferred from furniture to an acceptable carpet-wrapped post. Scratching as a marking behaviour is usually more widespread in the home and is often performed as a dominance gesture in the presence of other house cats. It should be treated more as other forms of marking such as urine spraying, associative urination and middening (defecation away from the litter tray or outdoors without covering). The latter two actions are usually performed on beds or chairs, where the owner’s smell is most concentrated and from which the cat presumably perceives the benefit of associating its smell with that of a protecting influence against challenges, real or imagined.
Associative marking can also occur on doormats, where challenging smells may be brought in on the owner’s shoes from the outside. In contrast, urine spraying is a more normal and frequent act of marking practised by most cats outdoors, male and female, entire and neutered. Spraying occurs from a standing position and usually a small volume of urine is directed backwards against vertical posts such as chair legs, curtains etc. Cats usually have no need to spray indoors because their lair is already perceived as secure and requires no further endorsement.
When such marking occurs indoors it is usually a sign that the cat’s lair is under some challenge. The challenge may be obvious in the shape of a recent arrival of a cat or dog, or a new baby. An increased challenge from a cat outdoors, or it may result from moving or changing furniture, redecorating, family bereavement, having guests to stay, bringing outdoor objects anointed by other cats into the house, bringing in novel objects (especially plastic bags) and, most commonly of all, following the installation of a cat flap. This can totally destroy indoor security even without the obvious challenge of a rival entering the inner sanctum of the home. Spraying by at least one cat is more likely where increasing numbers are expected to share a home base up to some variable threshold beyond which spraying and other attention-drawing behaviour is often suppressed.
Almost certainly all marking is designed to help the perpetrator feel more confident by surrounding him or herself with his or her own familiar smell. Hence, cats which spray indoors, are often trying to repair “holes” in their own protective surroundings caused by change. The home, therefore, needs to be re-anointed in similar manner to the outdoors to identify occupancy and ensure that the resident encounters his or her own smell frequently. The cat should never be punished either at the time, or worse, after the event, as this furthers insecurity indoors and increases the need to mark. However, confining a cat to one room when unsupervised can create a new safe ‘core’ which need to further identification by spraying and this can be expanded gradually by one cleaned, baited room at a time, initially under the supervision of the owner.
Inappropriate urination and defecation, as acts of normal elimination, or as a result of nervousness, should first be distinguished from deliberate acts or marking by urine spraying described earlier. Most cats associate loose substrate such as cat litter as their latrine when first venturing from the maternal nest and learn by experimentation and observation of their mother that litter is the surface on, and in which, to excrete. Prior to this they are unable to excrete without physical stimulation from the mother. Initially this is carried out in the nest and the action enables the mother to clean all waste and prevent the kittens from soiling the nest. This process is developed when the kittens wander out, or the mother carries them out, of the nest and licks them to stimulate excretion, with the result that the majority of cats are taught early never to soil their own bed. The house if often seen as an extension of the bed and a feeding lair in adulthood. Excretion, therefore, normally takes place away from it or it remains specifically targeted into a litter tray.
Poor maternal care can disrupt this latrine-association learning process and occasionally kittens are weaned without being house-trained. For others, medical or emotional trauma, especially during the cat’s adolescence, decreases the security of home and an initial breakdown in hygiene may then continue long after the source of the problem has disappeared or been treated. Cats that are generally nervous or incompetent may deliberately excrete repeatedly indoors rather than venture outside, and the siting and nature of the litter tray and type of litter offered can all affect toileting behaviour. Being offered food too close to the tray will deter many cats from using it, and positioning of the tray in a site that is too busy, open, or otherwise vulnerable, may also cause cats to seek safer places. Some cats that are normally fastidious in their personal hygiene are reluctant to use soiled or damp trays, or to share with other cats. Trays may need to be cleaned more frequently or more may need to be provided.
It is often worth trying a finer grade commercial litter or fine sterile sand which cats seem to find more attractive to use. The position of the tray should be checked, especially relative to the position of food bowls, and for security. Placing the tray in a corner or offering a covered tray. The tray should be cleaned less frequently to allow the smell of the cat’s urine to accumulate. Once per day cleansing per cat is usually adequate. For outdoors cats, up to 50% soil from the garden can be added to the litter or sand. Transfer of the use of the litter tray completely outdoors over a period of two to three weeks can be achieved by moving the tray progressively nearer the door and then out onto the step and finally into the garden.
For serious cases, confinement in a small room for a few days may help to reduce the opportunity for mistakes. The cat can gradually be allowed more freedom indoors, one room at a time, when able to target excretion into the tray. Previously soiled areas in the house must be thoroughly cleaned, but never with an agent that contains ammonia, as this is a constituent of urine and may endorse the idea of a cleaned area being a latrine. Many proprietary agents/cleansers may only mask the smell to the human nose and not be effective for the cat. Instead, a warm solution of a biological detergent may be followed by a wipe of scrub down with surgical spirits or other alcohol. Cleaned areas should be thoroughly dry before allowing the cat supervised access. Bowls of dry cat food (with food glued to the bottom if necessary to prevent consumption) may act as a deterrent to toileting at cleaned sites for a few days
The cat should never be punished, even if ‘caught in the act”. This makes cats more nervous and more likely to excrete in the house and even in the presence of the owner. Instead, the cat should be calmly placed on its tray or outside the house and accompanied for reassurance. Timing of feeding can help to make faecal passage time more predictable in kittens and young cats and enable the cat to be put in the right place at the right time.
Your veterinarian may commonly prescribe medication to assist in the control of inappropriate urination. There are a variety of these psychotropic medications and your veterinarian will assess the most suitable one to prescribe, depending upon the individual situation.
In addition, “Feliway”, a synthetic pheromone, is available in both pump spray bottle for strategic use, or now in a diffuser which can be plugged into the wall and run constantly. This product can have a significant impact in the control of inappropriate elimination in some situations.
© Forrest Hill Vets (2000) Ltd