One of the most common complaints among cat owners is occasional inappropriate urination – said more plainly, it’s when your cat pees outside the litter box. Inappropriate elimination in cats can occur for either behavioral or medical reasons, or even both. 

Cats are notorious for hiding their pain, so you have to be a really vigilant pet parent to observe abnormal signs from your cat when it comes to urinating. The process of releasing urine ideally should be absolutely painless, and the urine itself should be clear or light in color, and not especially offensive in terms of odor. If your cat’s experience is otherwise, you might be observing evidence of a urinary problem such as a UTI, FLUTD or something else that is leading your cat toward inappropriate urination. 

Urinary symptoms to watch for:

  • More frequent trips to the litter box
  • Less production of urine in the litter box, meaning that your cat may strain to pee 
  • Urinating outside the box. Bathtubs, bath mats, and dirty piles of laundry on the floor are frequent targets.
  • Pain when trying to urinate 
  • Blood in urine: check the litter box carefully as blood in the urine is always worrisome
  • Excessive grooming and licking around the urethral opening 

If your cat suddenly begins to urinate outside the box, it’s important to rule out medical causes first – consult with your veterinarian or Airvet to discuss the situation. It is usually necessary for your veterinarian to obtain and examine a sample of your cat’s urine to rule out medical causes of inappropriate urination. Often the urine is submitted to a laboratory for a bacterial culture. Sometimes, x-rays, ultrasound and other imaging of the urinary tract are necessary as well.

If your cat is straining to urinate but is producing little or no urine, this is a medical emergency. 

FLUTD: Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease 

FLUTD or Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease is a broad term for an array of urinary tract symptoms in cats that stem from inflammation of the bladder and/or urethra. Cats can have occasional bouts of inflammation of the urinary tract by itself or secondary to another problem leading to inappropriate urination.

What causes FLUTD?

  • Stones in the bladder called uroliths 
  • Crystals or other debris in the bladder or urethra
  • Injury to the bladder or urinary tract
  • Tumor in the urethra (uncommon)
  • Urinary tract infection (UTI)
  • Idiopathic cystitis ( Idiopathic means the disease is of unknown origin or cause. And the term “cystitis” refers to inflammation of the bladder.) 

If the cause of your cat’s inappropriate urination is a UTI, a stone, crystals, or a bladder mass, there are specific treatments for each of those problems. However, if this condition is idiopathic, then a cure may be elusive, as FLUTD can be chronic or intermittent. In many cats with idiopathic cystitis, there seems to be a correlation with stress and the symptoms. A cat might become stressed for many reasons, including things like moving locations, adding a new pet to the home, or the birth of a baby. 

Idiopathic cystitis in cats

Once other causes of inappropriate urination have been ruled out, treatment is usually for idiopathic cystitis. Treatment often includes an attempt at stress reduction in the cat. Some prescription foods have additives that are formulated to induce a calming state. Feline pheromone sprays and plug-ins (such as Feliway) may help some cats. Having as many litter boxes as possible in quiet areas of the home is another strategy. Providing play times and environmental enrichment may help your cat as well.

Even with treatment, your cat may have occasional flare ups, so it’s essential to keep a careful watch on your cat’s bathroom habits and report anything unusual or new bouts of inappropriate elimination. 

UTI’s in cats

Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) are not very common in cats, especially in males.

This condition is the result of a bacterial infection, often caused when fecal bacteria (such as E.coli) are introduced into the urethra. This happens occasionally in mammals, since the rectum and urethra are situated quite close together.

While E.coli are essential to healthy digestion and elimination, this organism is hostile to the bacterial flora of the urethra and other body systems.  Females and senior cats are more likely to develop a UTI than a young or male cat.

talk to an airvet veterinarian for medical care for your pet

Urinary crystals and stones in cats

Inflammation, stones, or crystals can suddenly block a cat’s urethra, making it impossible for them to urinate. Due to the male cat’s narrow urethra, this is much more common in male cats than in females. A blocked cat might pace, vomit, cry out, or hide. If the blockage continues for very long, the bladder can rupture, resulting in the death of the cat. If you think your cat is unable to urinate, please take them to a veterinarian immediately.

Inappropriate urination and urine pH

Some cats will develop crystals in their urine, usually due to a urinary pH that is too high (not acidic enough). These crystals cause pain when the cat urinates. Sometimes, the crystals can come together to form plugs or stones in the urinary tract.

Many cat food manufacturers are formulating their foods to try to make the cat produce a normal urinary pH. Some manufacturers (of very inexpensive cat food) have not gone this extra mile. Therefore, it’s important to strive to feed your cat a high quality diet.

Behavioral reasons your cat may not be using the litter box

Once your vet rules out any physical problems with your cat, you can start exploring your cat’s environment. Check the following areas to see if anything has changed.  Give your cat some choices to see if anything makes the inappropriate urination better. 

Dirty litter

Begin by looking at the litterbox. Cats are extraordinarily clean animals, and they like their litter box to be the same. If the litter box is dirty, some cats will let their displeasure be known and choose to urinate and defecate outside the box. Be fastidious about cleaning your cat’s litter box daily. Washing the box in soap and water a couple times a month can help as well.

Different litter

A change in the brand of litter may also trigger inappropriate urination. This is especially true if you have switched to a litter with a different scent or texture. Whenever possible, use the same brand of litter product consistently. Changes that you or I might think are trivial, can often be a big deal to your cat. Therefore, when you are considering changing anything related to your cat’s litter box, do it slowly. Always provide alternatives in case your cat is not happy with the change. She’ll let you know. 

Not enough litter boxes

If you’re a pet parent to multiple cats, provide one litter box per cat, plus a spare. If you have a single cat who’s appearing fussy, provide a second litter box, and keep both pristine. Keep the boxes in multiple areas of the home, preferably on different levels of the house. But once you choose locations make sure to maintain consistency of kitty’s potty spots. If one cat feels threatened by another cat in your home, she may not use the litter box. This is particularly true if she has to walk past the more aggressive cat to do so. Therefore provide a variety of options and locations to appeal to all of your cats. 

Unneutered male cats

Male cats, especially those which are unneutered and/or have been feral, stray, or outdoor cats, will often spray urine to mark their territory. Many cats will back up to a wall and vibrate the tail in an impressive wiggly display while they urinate. If other cats roam your property, your cat may spray as a clear warning: “Keep Away!” Sometimes even in an indoor cat, just seeing, smelling or sensing a feline rival through the window will trigger an episode of spraying and marking. Neuter young male cats before the age of 6 months to help prevent this. Once an adult cat has sprayed, the lingering, pungent aroma may trigger him to spray again and again, even if he has been neutered as a mature animal.

Horizontal vs. vertical marking

Take note of your male cat’s behavior and posture to enable you to better understand how to help him. Marking is how a cat uses his urine to send a message and is usually sprayed on vertical surfaces like walls and furniture. Urinary accidents due to other causes tend to be on horizontal surfaces, like the floor or a bed. 

How to prevent urinary problems in your cat: things to try 

  • Neuter male cats (ideally before 6 months of age).
  • Feed a high quality diet from a reputable manufacturer.
  • Don’t feed your cat dry kibble exclusively. Wet food helps keep cats hydrated. 
  • Cat doesn’t like wet cat food? Try soaking kibble in water for more hydration, or mixing a canned variety in with the dry cat food to add moisture.
  • Offer fresh water daily in multiple locations throughout your home.
  • Some cats love to drink from a trickling fountain — be sure to keep fountains clean!
  • Provide several clean litter boxes in quiet secluded spaces. 

As always, continue to observe your cat daily. Learn what is normal for them when they are feeling well, so that when your cat’s behavior deviates from normal, you’ll immediately realize there’s something wrong with your cat that requires a conversation with a vet. 

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