How to identify inappropriate feline elimination

How to identify inappropriate feline elimination

Part one of a two-part series on dealing effectively with clients' concerns
May 01, 2011

The most common concern expressed by clients about their cats' behavior involves inappropriate elimination. In fact, it's the single biggest reason cats are relinquished or euthanized. But the cause of litter box problems can usually be identified, prevented and treated successfully.

Simple observation

At each veterinary visit, encourage clients to observe their cats' behaviors at home. Using a history checklist not only enables you to assess behavior in a consistent manner at each visit and note potentially worrisome changes, but it also teaches clients which behaviors to monitor. (Download a short questionnaire clients can complete when they arrive at the clinic at

Litter box issues: Taking the time to work through factors contributing to inappropriate elimination is a critical part of diagnosis and treatment.(GK HART/VIKKI HART/GETTY IMAGES)
Also encourage clients to take short videos of their cats' basic behaviors so when something changes, they can show the veterinarian videos of the cat and environment before and after the change. Remember, in veterinary behavioral medicine, behaviors are the data. Once we can see them, we're best able to understand what they mean.

To help facilitate this client discussion, here are a few sample questions:

  • Does the cat leave urine or feces outside the litter box? If yes, where?
  • Does the cat spray? If yes, where?
  • Do you have concerns, complaints or problems with urination or defecation in the house? If yes, what location? How frequent is the inappropriate urination or defecation? What is the approximate time of day the event(s) occur (i.e., are you at home or away)?
  • Does the cat exhibit vocalization about which you're concerned? If yes, what types of vocalization (e.g., yowling, growling, meowing, hissing), and when does the vocalization typically occur?
  • Is the cat aggressive to people or other cats?

Feline welfare issues

The key to resolving elimination concerns is to identify a pattern in the choices the cat makes. Unfortunately, before relinquishing or euthanizing a cat with inappropriate elimination problems, few people ask if the cat's behavior is reasonable or if its elimination and litter-box-related behaviors are true behavior problems for this particular cat. Given the risk factors for not using the litter box and for marking, we should be prepared to discern the well-being of a cat as part of any assessment of elimination complaints.

Complaints about feline elimination patterns can involve those associated with litter boxes and with marking. Concerns about litter box use generally involve one or more of the following—specifically, the cat:

  • Doesn't use the box at all
  • Uses the box for either urine or feces, but not both
  • Eliminates right next to or on the box, but not in it
  • Uses the box, but doesn't cover urine or feces.