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animal instincts

Outside the Box

Why cats spray, and what to do about it

It’s sad but true: the number one reason for surrendering cats to shelters is their failure to use the litterbox. The good news is that the problem is usually resolvable. That wasn’t always so. When I first became interested in animal behavior some 20 years ago, a colleague told me that, as a behaviorist, I would have to get used to failure when treating certain conditions. Feline “inappropriate elimination,” as it is euphemistically termed, was one such refractory condition. The challenge was like a red rag to a bull for me, so I narrowed my sights on this and other supposedly difficult-to-treat behavior problems.

The reasons cats don’t use their litterboxes tend to fall into four categories: hormonal, medical, alternative preference, and anxiety-related marking. Hormonal causes are usually addressed by neutering. Ninety percent of male cats and ninety-five percent of females stop spraying urine following this procedure. Holdouts usually fall into the fourth category.

Medical causes of inappropriate elimination involve either urinary tract infections or conditions that increase thirst and urine production, such as nephritis or diabetes. Veterinary help is required to address these problems.

Perhaps the most common reason for cats urinating or defecating outside the litterbox is what is termed a substrate preference—or, in plain English, they don’t appreciate the facilities that you have provided for them, so they find somewhere else, usually a nearby rug. The fact is, cats are picky, and they may prefer to relieve themselves elsewhere for any of the following reasons: too few boxes (there should be one more box than there are cats in the house); clustered boxes (equivalent in the cat’s mind to one large box); inconvenient location of boxes (for example, in a cold, damp cellar); using the wrong type of litter (cats appreciate the sandlike texture of scoopable litters, as anyone with a children’s sandbox already knows); insufficient depth of litter (three to four inches is optimal); a hooded box (these are too smelly and claustrophobic for most cats); scented litter (good for us but not for cats); chemical odors (do not clean boxes using chlorine or pine-scented products); or plastic liners or plastic underlays (often not appreciated by the cat). If all these issues are properly addressed and the odor of previous “accidents” has been purged, the problem will usually resolve in days, if not overnight.

That leaves anxiety-related urine marking (or, rarely, fecal marking) as the only unaddressed problem. Easily identified by the curious locations of the “accidents,” urine marking has been the most difficult behavior to resolve, until recently. If your cat eliminates on vertical surfaces, baseboards, window sills, heating registers, the stovetop, your desk, your shoes, your laundry, your bed, or even, in rare cases, on you, the problem is one of marking. If your cat is already neutered, then anxiety is likely the underlying cause.

The most common cause of feline anxiety is friction between cats in the home or unwelcome calls from outside cats. The marking cat’s reaction is one of insecurity, effectively labeling his territory or possessions with his own olfactory sign: “Kilroy is here.”

Ideally, treatment involves identifying and minimizing environmental stress, though this is not always successful or even possible. That leaves anti-anxiety medication as the only other option—and it works well. Here at Tufts, we pioneered the use of a harmless and often side-effect-free medication called buspirone (Buspar) to treat this condition. Ten years ago, it was hailed as the nearest thing to a magic bullet for the treatment of urine marking. It is still helpful today but has been upstaged by fluoxetine (Prozac), which reduces urine marking in virtually all cats by 90 to 100 percent.

The bottom line is that elimination outside the litterbox, if properly diagnosed and treated, can almost always be addressed. There is no reason to surrender offending cats to shelters, where the odds of survival are against them. With 90 million cats in the country, our current understanding and treatment strategies for behavior and elimination problems will go a long way toward preventing the unnecessary loss of feline life.

One of the world’s most noted animal behaviorists, Nicholas Dodman directs the Animal Behavior Program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts and is the author of four bestsellers in the field. His most recent book, If Only They Could Speak (W.W. Norton & Co.), was recently released as a trade paperback. He is a pet expert for Time Inc. and writes a monthly advice column for Life magazine.

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