Feline Inappropriate Elimination
Feline Inappropriate Elimination, or FIE, is probably the most common reason for cats to be turned out of their homes. When a cat stops using the litter box to urinate and/or defecate in, and chooses other places in the home to go, most owners don't take too well to that. However, in probably 90% or more cases, we can generally, through husbandry changes and pharmaceuticals, get your cat to go back to the litter box.
This is by far the most common in FIE, and the least tolerated. Urine soaks into the carpet and wood underneath, it smells, and is almost impossible to completely clean and eradicate. So, when cats start urinating outside of the litter box, owners lose patience very quickly.
The first thing to do is to determine if the problem is medical or behavioral. This can be done by bringing your cat into the vet to have their urine checked and to have an exam done. If the urine is normal, then most likely the FIE is behavioral. But just because you think the urine is behavioral doesn't mean that it is. There is a condition in cats called interstitial cystitis that is caused by stress. This condition can cause real pain in urination, so while you may think your cat is behaviorally urinating outside of the litter box, they could actually be in pain, which is why we will always want to check your cat and their urine first. There are also a variety of medical issues, such as diabetes, kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, hypertension, arthritis, and dementia that can also be a reason for your cat to stop using the litter box, which is why we will also want to examine your cat, and possibly do a few tests to rule these diseases in or out.
Once we have established that there is no disease present, and the FIE is purely behavioral, the next step is to examine their environment. Cats will stop using the litter box for many reasons.
These include but are not limited to:
- The introduction of another cat or other animal into the home, making your cat feel like they need to mark their territory.
- High levels as stress, such as people moving into or out of the home, you moving to a new home, or a significant change in your routine.
- An outdoor cat hanging around outside where your cat can see them, also making your cat feel like they need to mark their territory.
- Litter boxes that are not cleaned often enough (would you want to use a toilet that hadn't been flushed for several days?)
- Hooded litter boxes - some cats feel like they can't see potential threats when they are at their most vulnerable
- Too small litter boxes - your cat wantsto be able to get in and out comfortably, and be able to adequately bury their elimination.
- Litter boxes that are too far away from where your cat spends most of their time - would you want to have to walk a mile every time you needed to go?
- Litter boxes that are in "scary" areas. Cats tend to startle easily, and if they are in a litter box in the laundry room, and the washer gets off balance during the spin cycle, there are tennis shoes in the dryer, it buzzes loudly, or anything that could startle them can be enough to minimize their trips back.
- New litter that smells or feels different. In preference tests, cats have been shown to prefer non-scented clay clumping litter. Strong scented smells can repel a cat, and most cats prefer something soft under their feet, not lumpy.
- Areas where there are urine smells already soaked into the floor or furniture. If another cat has urinated in an area in the past, even though you may try valiantly to erase the smell, there is a good chance your cat will smell it and assume that it is an okay area to urinate in, even if it is your cat that has urinated there before.
- Too much going on by the litter box. If the litter box is in high traffic area of kids, other animals, or just plain too much activity, they may not want to use it. Most cats prefer a little privacy.
- Competition from other cats in the home. If the litter box smells like the other cat, or if your other cat or other pets tend to mess with your cat when they are in the box, they may stop using it.
- Boredom. Cats need daily stimulation, and if they are too bored, they will act out, just like children.
- Separation anxiety. Sometimes your cats just really miss you, and their way of showing you is to urinate on something that smells like you, like your bed or clothing.
- Not neutered. Cats that are full of reproductive hormones have a strong urge to mark their territory.
- Angry at you. There is a debate among veterinarians as to whether cats hold grudges and will 'get back at you' if they are upset with you. Most people who have had cats for any length of time tend to believe that cats do hold grudges, even if short lived, and do 'retaliate' in a passive aggressive form.
So, methods to counteract some of these issues.
- Feliway. This is a feline pheromone that tends to have a calming effect, and helps to equalize cat smells in the house. You can purchase this from most pet stores in a room deodorizer spray, in a plug-in that emits continuous scent, or in collars that your cats wear to keep the scent around them. By itself, this doesn't always fix the problem, but in conjunction with other methods, it can help.
- Block access to windows or doors where your cat might be seeing another cat outside.
- Clean the litter box daily, or if that is not feasible for you, consider purchasing a self-cleaning litter box.
- For however many cats you have, have that many litter boxes plus one, and don't keep them all in the same spot. Disperse them throughout the home so your cat doesn't have to go far. If you are concerned about how they look in your living areas, put them in a closet but keep the door open enough for your cat to easily enter and exit. You can always close the closet temporarily for guests, but be sure to reopen them when the guests leave. Be sure not to put them in high traffic or 'scary' areas.
- Get rid of the hoods on the litter boxes. If you are concerned about your cat kicking litter or urinating over the side of the box, get a box with high sides, or even better, get a large storage tub and cut an opening in one side for your cat to enter and exit. The high sides keep litter and urine it, but your cat can still see over the edge for potential threats, and the large size gives your cat plenty of room. If you are concerned about visitors having to see your cat's eliminations, then put the lid on just while you have visitors over, and remove it as soon as they leave.
- If you find a litter that your cat likes, stick with it. Don't keep changing litters.
- Try using a litter additive that is designed to make cats be more likely to use their litter box. These work for quite a fair number of cats.
- If you have an area that has been urinated on, and your cat keeps going back to it, clean it thoroughly, and then try to cover it with a sweet scent. For example, if there is a carpeted area that your cat keeps going back to, first clean it with an enzymatic cleaner designed for cat urine. You can find these at most pet stores. Scrub it into the carpet, and then cover it with plastic for 24 hours to let it soak all the way down. You may want to test a small area of carpet somewhere first, some cleaners can have a bleaching effect. Once the area has been soaked with the cleaner for 24 hours, let it dry, then repeat with a strong sweet smelling substance. Things we have used - mint mouthwash, Odo-Ban, peppermint or vanilla extract, or anything that is going to be safe to use on your carpet that has a very strong sweet smell to it. Soak it in for 24 hours with plastic on top, then let it dry. This is one of the more effective ways that we have found. If the area is on hard floor such as linoleum or cement, even better. Bleach is extremely effective at eliminating cat urine odor - use bleach diluted with water at a 50/50 concentration. Just make sure to have good ventilation - you don't really want to breathe the fumes that will result.
- Increase your cat's stimulation. Give them more toys, boxes, tunnels, bird houses outside a window perch, anything to give them something more to do. Cats in the wild have a plethora of things to do each day. There is not a lot to do in a home, especially when you may be gone all day, and cats do get bored. When you are home, interact with your cats in a positive manner.
- If your cat isn't neutered, neuter them.
- If you have tried all of these things and are still tearing out your hair, don't despair, that is what we have drugs for. For your cat, not you. There are several different anti-anxiety medications that we commonly use in cats to help decrease their stress levels. These have been shown to have anywhere from a 70% to 90% effectiveness over time for FIE. If you feel that you have tried everything, talk to your veterinarian about medication for your cat.
This is much less common, although usually a bit easier to clean, assuming the stool is normal. Again, there are a few medial issues that can cause your cat to defecate outside of the litter box. These can include anything that makes defecation uncomfortable such as intestinal parasites, inflammatory bowel disease, constipation, impacted anal sacs, large intestinal tumors, or diarrhea. And, all of the disease processes listed for urine can also cause a cat to defecate outside of the litter box. So, to begin with, we will want to do a thorough exam on you cat, and also to examine the stool itself. If we cannot find a disease process, then the next step is to treat for behavior issues. All of the reasons that cats will urinate outside of the box can also cause cats to defecate outside of the box, so the methods to counteract are pretty much the same. The important thing is to address the problem when it first starts. All too often we will see a cat that has been defecating outside of the litter box for several years, and now the owner finally wants to do something about it. At this point, it is an ingrained habit, and there is a higher chance that we will not be able to fix the problem.