House soiling: it’s a dirty business, but someone has to talk about it. Vets will often be the first point of contact for an owner with a cat displaying house-soiling behaviours. House soiling is noted to be one of the most common behavioural issues that owners will seek professional support for (Neilson, 2009). It can often be complex and multifaceted, requiring cat owners to gather a lot of information and potentially try a lot of different strategies. Compliance and frustration can feature in these cases. However, there are a number of simple steps which can be taken to resolve house-soiling behaviours.
What is house soiling?
“House soiling” is a blanket term referring to any scenario whereby a cat deposits urine or faeces outside of the litter tray in the home. This can also be referred to as inappropriate toileting. One issue that crops up when discussing such behaviours is that there is no one singular accepted diagnostic terminology to describe these behaviours (Neilson, 2009). For example, although widely used, the term “inappropriate toileting” could be considered a misnomer due to human connotations of the word “toileting”. In the human context, “toileting” exclusively refers to the release of urine or faeces for the purpose of getting rid of waste but with cats, not all behaviours displayed involving urine or faeces are explicitly linked to voiding waste.
When a cat sprays it is primarily a communication tool: in unneutered cats it can be a sexually motivated behaviour, while in neutered cats it is often a result of the cat encountering a stressor or feeling stressed
Commonly, the term house soiling covers urination and defecation outside of the litter tray as well as urine marking/spraying and middening. The latter two behaviours differ from the first two due to their function.
Spraying, much like urination, involves the release of urine, but not with the purpose of voiding the bladder. When a cat sprays it is primarily a communication tool: in unneutered cats it can be a sexually motivated behaviour, while in neutered cats it is often a result of the cat encountering a stressor or feeling stressed.
Middening is the least common house-soiling behaviour. It involves the cat defecating in an open area and leaving it exposed, rather than covered up or out of the way. Similar to spraying, this is a communication tool, primarily in response to the presence of other cats (Bowen and Heath, 2005).
It is important for owners to understand the difference between the behaviours under the house-soiling umbrella, and which behaviour or combination of behaviours they are specifically having issues with
It is important for owners to understand the difference between the behaviours under the house-soiling umbrella, and which behaviour or combination of behaviours they are specifically having issues with. This differentiation will affect how to work with the cat going forward.
There are often simple signs for owners to look out for to differentiate between urination and spraying. Cats which are urinating will typically squat with their back end very close to the ground and release a large pool of urine onto a horizontal surface. Spraying, by contrast, usually involves the cat shooting a small jet of urine onto a vertical surface, accompanied by the cat standing upright with a raised tail and sometimes lifting their back legs alternately (“paddling”).
Urinating and defecating outside of the litter tray
Urination and defecation typically occur outside of the litter tray as a result of an underlying medical issue, an issue with the cat’s latrine site(s), stress or a combination of these three factors (Halls and Heath, 2015). When an owner brings a cat to the clinic for house-soiling behaviours, it is important to rule out any and all underlying medical issues first (Ramos et al., 2018). Ideally, for cats urinating outside of the litter tray, a urine sample should be collected and analysed, even if there are no other indicators of potential urinary tract issues. Cats that are older and have mobility issues such as arthritis may also find it difficult to climb into the tray or toilet on certain litter substrates, which may lead them to toileting outside of the tray. Therefore, it is important to rule out all potential medical issues before moving on to exploring other causes.
When an owner brings a cat to the clinic for house-soiling behaviours, it is important to rule out any and all underlying medical issues first
Optimising the latrine site
If the cat is medically cleared, it is important to encourage the owner to consider the latrine site(s) provided for the cat(s) in the home. There should be one tray per cat in the home plus one additional tray – so a two-cat household should have three trays (Carney et al., 2014). Additionally, the finer the litter substrate, the better: gravel or corn-based litters can often work well. Most importantly though, owners should use a clumping litter where possible.
As well as type of litter, the depth of the litter is important. Generally, it is better for litter to be approximately 2 to 3cm deep as cats like to be able to dig and cover their deposits. If the litter is not deep and/or absorbent enough, urine can pool at the bottom of the tray which the cat may find unpleasant.
With a cat displaying urination or defecation issues, trays should ideally be checked and scooped three times a day, twice minimum. Trays should not be placed near entrances/exits or other areas of high foot traffic. Placing trays in front of large glass doors or windows may cause the cat to feel vulnerable due to exposure to the outside world. Owners should avoid using litter tray liners, or anything with a strong scent in – or near – the litter tray.
If a cat begins to feel more vulnerable outside, either through getting older or due to the presence of other cats nearby, they may be reluctant to toilet outdoors
Refusal to have a litter tray in the home can be detrimental to the cat. If a cat begins to feel more vulnerable outside, either through getting older or due to the presence of other cats nearby, they may be reluctant to toilet outdoors. Inclement weather can be another common deterrent to cats toileting outside. While many cats do prefer to toilet outside, cats should always have the opportunity to use a litter tray in the home.
Stress and soiling
Stress can play a pivotal role in affecting a cat’s toileting habits (Bowen and Heath, 2005). It is important to ensure that clients with cats displaying house-soiling issues are following good general practice around stress reduction in the home, including:
- Use of a pheromone diffuser
- Providing a number of hides in different rooms in the home
- Increasing access to vertical space in the home
- Increasing enrichment such as puzzle feeders and toy play
If the client can identify a specific stressor for their cat, they should aim to resolve this. Owners may find it beneficial to employ the services of a suitably qualified behaviourist to work on reducing stress around particular triggers. In multi-cat households, often living with other non-socially bonded cats can affect toileting behaviours, so it is important for owners to work on inter-cat relations (Cummings, 2019). Neighbourhood cats or cats outside the property can also affect a cat’s behaviour in the home. Other common stressors which can affect house-soiling behaviours include children, moving house and DIY work.
Spraying and middening
If a cat is showing house-soiling behaviours related to communication (ie spraying and middening), it is unlikely that making changes to the latrine site will improve these behaviours. As with all behaviour problems, underlying medical issues should always be ruled out first. The next step after this would be to establish the behavioural reason for the spraying or middening (Bowen and Heath, 2005). If the stressor(s) causing the spraying or middening behaviour is resolved, and the cat is confident in their environment, these communication behaviours should abate.
If the stressor(s) causing the spraying or middening behaviour is resolved, and the cat is confident in their environment, these communication behaviours should abate
House soiling can be a difficult behaviour to resolve, given that it requires a lot of information gathering and identifying the specific issue that is causing the behaviour. This may not be feasible during a short consult time. However, if owners are advised to think along the lines of medical issues, latrine site and stress, and are signposted to a qualified behaviourist, it should guide them in the right direction to resolving the issue.