Urine marking is a problem behavior in cats. Because some pet owners find this behavior unacceptable, it can ultimately lead to cat relinquishment, and in some cases, euthanasia. However, with some understanding of this common behavior and efforts to address the underlying issue(s), many of these cats can be treated and succesfully managed.

What is urine marking?

Urine marking is a form of chemical communication in the cat world. When cats "mark," they typically back up towards a vertical surface and spray a small amount of urine onto that surface or object. The urine contains pheromones (chemicals) that can be sensed by other cats. 

Why do cats urinate outside of the box?

There are several myths as to why cats do this including spite, anger, or retribution. However, urine marking is actually considered a normal behavior in certain situations, as it is a means of communicating with others (through pheromones).

Certainly, medical issues, pain, and stress are known to increase the possibility of urine marking and house soiling in cats.

Aside from medical issues, triggers of urine marking behavior can include anything that the cat perceives as stress or "change." Typically, cats are not fond of change. Possible stressors can include: new people or animals in the household, moving, interloping animals or other cats on their property, and change of season (to name a few). And, certainly, litter box preferences or poor litter box management can contribute to the problem.

Urine marking is not the same as house soiling

It's important to differentiate urine marking behavior from house soiling. The approach to managing each of these is often different, and - in some situations - combinations of these scenarios may be identified in a single cat.

How urine marking differs from house soiling

  • Urine marking is a behavior that is more common in males than in female cats; house soiling can be a problem in males or females
  • Urine marking is more common in intact (non-neutered) animals
  • Cats typically urine mark several times a day; cats that urinate outside of the box (house soiling) may only do this a couple of times a day
  • When cats urine mark, they typically leave smaller amounts of urine (compared to cats that urinate outside of the box, as with house soiling)
  • Cats that eliminate outside of the box (house soiling) will often attempt to dig or cover, whereas cats that urine mark do not
  • Cats usually urine mark on vertical or "socially significant" items; house soiling often occurs on horizontal surfaces (carpet, bath tub, flooring)

Risk Factors for Urine Marking

Urine marking behavior is much more common in non-neutered animals and in cats that live in multi-cat households. Only 5-10% of neutered or spayed cats perform this behavior.

Medical Conditions Associated with Urine Marking Behavior

Up to 1/3 of cats (38%) with urine marking behavior can have a medical problem associated with the behavior. Any source of pain can serve as a trigger for this behavior. Medical conditions that should be considered include: Urinary tract infection (UTI), bladder or kidney stones, feline idiopathic cystitis, musculoskeletal (osteoarthritis) or neurological problems, diabetes, thyroid disorders, and extra gonadal tissue (retained testicular tissue) in males.

Therefore, at a minimum, cats that urinate outside of the litter box (urine marking or house soiling behavior) should always have a urinalysis and urine culture performed. Ideally, imaging (x-rays, ultrasound, or both) should also be performed to screen for bladder or kidney stones or other malformations. If thyroid disease or diabetes is suspected, blood testing should also be performed to screen cats for illness.

Treating Urine Marking

The underlying problem or combination of problems must be identified and addressed. A behavior analysis and keeping of logs about the marking behavior can help guide the management of these cats. Based on the information collected and triggers identified, treatment may include:

  • Treating any source of pain - osteoarthritis, etc.
  • Neutering / searching for any suspected retained reproductive (testicular) tissue
  • Good litter box management
  • Disuading interloping cats / animals from coming onto the property
  • Behavior modification and reward-based training
  • Management of the marking area or creating an alternate marking area for the cat
  • Pheromones - Feliway
  • Diet - Royal Canin Calm, Hill's c/d Feline Multicare Stress, Hill's j/d (for managing joint disease)
  • Environmental enrichment - providing adequate play, perching, privacy, food puzzles, scratching areas
  • Creating non-threatening and interesting change - rotate toys, boxes, paper bags, wrapping from toys (only when supervised)
  • Provide a portion of their food in food dispensing toys to provide mental stimulation
  • Thorough cleaning of soiled areas with enzymatic cleaners - Anti-Icky-Poo
  • Medications - there are many choices. They can be life saving, have little risks, and can be very effective!

Cats should be reassessed at regular intervals so that any medical problems can be monitored and treatment recommendations can be modified as needed.

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