First, a checklist:
You are ready to solve this problem!
First, a checklist
Your vet says your cat is healthy and you believe her
Your litter box set-up is so so great and follows all the cat rules
You understand that cat time is much slower than human time and that improvement might not happen as quickly as you like, but that it will get better.
YEs? OK. Read on.
Step 1: Reduce your cat's stress
Here are four different categories of stress reduction
Does your cat have multiple high places they can jump to and hang out in? These high up safe spaces are vital for cats, especially stressed out cats. Cat trees are great. They can be hard for some older or less agile cats to access, so be mindful of that. For an older cat, access to beds and couches might suffice. But make sure there are some next level spaces that your cat(s) can easily access.
Your cat also needs places to scratch. Scratching calms down cats and is another way they mark their territory. Some cats are vertical scratchers and some are horizontal scratchers. Some are both! Try some different options if your cat hasn't found a preferred scratching material.
Does your cat have a kid & dog free space? If this is your whole house, then great! You can move on to the next item. If you have the space, gating off a spare bedroom or the office might give your cat the space that she needs to feel calm and at ease. Check out these gates that have a cat door. If you don't have any extra rooms, then pay special attention to your cat's high places, and throw a few cat shelves up or add an extra cat tree in your main living space.
This next one is going to sound weird and extreme, but bear with me. Your cat may be urinating by a window or a door because they can see/hear/smell an outdoor cat patrolling the perimeter of your house. You may need to block your cat's access to these spaces temporarily. This may involve closing the door to a bedroom, or it may involve gating off your foyer. It may even involve covering your windows for a bit (and not just with curtains that a cat can easily jump around.) This item generally only applies to cats who are urinating by windows or doors. For more information on this, check out The Cat Whisperer.
And then, in the same vein, if you are living in a home with carpet, and someone lived in this home before you, your carpet may still smell like the previous pet tenants to your cat. You might need to have your carpets professionally cleaned. Even if they were cleaned before, one time, unfortunately, might not be enough.
Spread your cat's scent
Your cat probably likes to sleep on blankets, towels, your clothes. After she's been sleeping on something for a week or two, move it too a different location in the house and replace it with a clean blanket. Let your cat grunge up a few blankets and put them in new spots in your space to increase your cat's "I smell me" feeling without having to urinate all over the place. Your cat's cheeks have extra scent in them, so to speed up this process you can also rub a towel on her cheeks and then rub the towel on your furniture etc. You could also install cat face scratchers on some of the corners in your home.
A (perhaps easier) way to increase your cat's scent in her space is to buy cat pheromones. These seem to help many but not all cats. They come in diffuser form, spray form, or as a disposable collar that you change every month. I've found the spray pheromones to help my cat Tiny when we move the furniture around.
Improve your relationship
Cats are wild, but they also need to feel content in their relationships with each adult human in the house. If you work on your bond with your cat, but your partner or roommate sends hateful, angry vibes their way, then they are adding to your cat's stress. Educate the adult housemates and family members about cat behavior and have them work towards having at least a neutral relationship with the cats in your home.
Another way to improve your relationship with your cat and to reduce their stress is to play with them for a good 15 to 20 minutes each day. Pretend the toy is an unsuspecting bird or mouse and make it behave as such. Then, at least sometimes, allow your cat to catch the prey. Even if your cat doesn't respond at first, keep trying! Just watching you try to play with them helps them feel more at ease.
Make sure your (and every other person's) relationship with your cats involves absolutely no punishment. No hitting, no yelling. No alpha/dominant craziness. No squirt bottles. No shock pads. This is outside the scope of this website, but punishment and dominance have no place in your relationship with your cat (or your dog. . .)
Sustenance for little Carnivores
Dry food is not great. If you were eating food that was that highly processed and had such a low water content, you would not feel healthy and vital, and your cat probably doesn't either. Sure, there are cats out there who do fine on dry food and live until 20, but, more often than not, your cat's dry food addiction is going to catch up with them. Dry food also exacerbates at least two health conditions associated with litter box avoidance (cystitis and blockages) and, quickens the deterioration of your cat's kidneys, which, among many other things, can cause more issues with the litter box. They just can't drink enough water to keep up.
Instead, try switching your cat to a high water content diet. After seeing how a raw food diet gave my first cat a good 6 extra years of life, I'm a big proponent of raw food. It's expensive, but my animal family does save money on vet bills because of their good health. If raw food isn't an option, look into canned food, or homemade diets. Save the dried crunchy stuff for treats (like for after they use their litter box.)
Encouraging hydration can help increase your cat's comfort while urinating. Wild cats have evolved to drink water that is not next to their food source. It has to do with not wanting their water to be contaminated with old meat. Make sure your cat's one water source is not next to her food. Instead place a few cups or dishes of water in new locations around the house so that your cat can discover them. Put at least one in a high up location so that drinking water feels safe and exciting.
Step 2: Deter your cat from urinating in their favorite bad spots
A note~ Some of these deterrents will be annoying for the resident humans. Remember, they are only temporary. It takes a cat time to break bad habits and build better ones. Every time a cat chooses to urinate in her litter box instead of in an illegal location, she is strengthening her relationship with the litter box. By choosing the most effective deterrents for your cat and keeping them in place for a few weeks or longer, you are helping your cat work her urinating-in-the-litter-box muscle, and thus investing in a urine free future for your furniture and floors.
And, another quick note: Make sure that you deter your cat from urinating in the illegal location AFTER you have perfected their litter box area and have made some attempts to reduce their stress. Your goal in deterring your cat from their favorite bad area is to get them back in their box, not to encourage them to urinate in another illegal location.
Deterrent 1: Create a new association
There are several ways that you can redefine an area that your cat has inappropriately urinated in. Remember, your cat is trying to spread her scent either to re-establish her territory or to calm herself down, or both. So, once you've made your cat's litter box area as nice as your cat could desire, then you could try spreading your cat's scent in the illegal area either by spraying pheromones or putting a few blankets or towels that she's slept on in and around the illegal urination spot.
Another way to create a new association with a particular area and to make your cat feel comfortable about her territory is to place a scratching post or pad (whatever your cat prefers) in the illegal urination spot. Now, instead of calming herself down by urinating here, she can calm herself down by scratching her scratching post here.
You could sprinkle catnip in the illegal urination spot, and/or make this your cat's new stage for the hunting games you play with her each night.
Lastly, you could try feeding your cat in the illegal urination spot. This should be the ultimate redefinition of your cat's illegal urination spot (but, it might not be. This didn't work for Tiny.)
Deterrent 2: Put a new litter box in the bad spot
Yes, this spot might be in the middle of your bed, or in the center of the living room. If it's on your bed, I'm guessing your cat urinates here when you are not sleeping (unless she's related to Tiny.) If that's the case, you could put the box on the bed during the day. Don't worry--this doesn't have to be permanent. What you want to happen is for the cat to develop a habit of going in this new box instead of on your bed/carpet/etc. Once that has happened--say, at least 4 times, but the more the better here--then you can start slowly (we're talking an inch a day) move the new litter box to a location that's more preferable to you.
Deterrent 3: Make the illegal urination spot less desirable
If, after you've taken the above steps, your cat is still urinating in the spot, your next step is to either block your cat's access to this area (if possible) or to put something your cat doesn't want to step on in this spot--aluminum foil, double sided tape, or those plastic pads that have points on their backside. If couches are your cats thing, get something plastic, waterproof, and un-fun to step on like a shower curtain liner or a tarp, and drape it over the couch. Again, this won't be forever. You won't spend the rest your life curling up to watch a movie on your plastic wrapped couch. We are just trying to break bad habits and rebuild better ones. These placements aren't permanent, but could be the key to getting your cat back in her box and relearning some better habits.
Step 3: Weird solutions you may not have considered
Check out the About Tiny page to see how weird (but totally manageable) solutions can really get. But first, here are some other solutions that might work.
Have you tried any unconventional litter box set-ups? A cat who has spent some time outside might use a litter box filled with dirt. Tiny only used an empty litter box for one whole year. I have heard about cats who use pee pads. None of these solutions have to be permanent, but could start your cat out on the right path. For example, if you get your cat to successfully use a pee pad but don't want to keep buying and tossing pee pads, you could help your cat fully establish their habit of urinating on a pee pad, and then try moving the pee pad in a large, easy to access litter box (or even a throw-out-worthy baking sheet to start.) Then, add a tiny bit of litter on top of the pee pad each day until eventually your cat is using the box/pee pad combo when there's a good deal of litter in it. Once that happens, you can remove the pee pad and cross your claws.
Again, remember, any changes you make must happen over days or even weeks. Cats generally don't respond well to sudden changes.
If your cat is older, it might be hard for her to step into a litter box. You could instead try buying a baking sheet that sits very flat on the floor and filling that with litter. Or, maybe making your own low sided litter box with a large plastic container. Sometimes those sides are too high to step over comfortably.
Another thing you could do is to try getting a new litter box all together. Plastic tends to hang on to odors, especially once it has been scratched at and urinated on for years. Your litter box might just smell too bad to use, even when it's clean (remember, your cat's sense of smell is much better than yours.)
One thing that helps Tiny is giving her a treat after she uses the litter box. If you want to try this, keep your voice and actions calm during toilet time and treating time. Generally speaking, you don't want to behave in the same way you may when giving a dog a treat (loud, excited praise, dramatized movements, although you might not want to behave this way with a dog either.) Instead, you want to stay calm while she uses her box and then give her the treat, voicing praise in a calm whisper.
Have we talked about Cat Attract litter? It contains special herbs that really do bring cats back to their boxes. You can also just buy the herb mixture to sprinkle on top. In my experience, it does attract the cat back to the box, but it usually isn't the only solution for litter box avoiders.
Another way to attract your cat to her box is to sop up some of her urine with a paper towel and rub the wet paper towel on the litter in the box (sorry, gross.) This may be helpful for cats who aren't using their litter box at all. If they are using their litter box at least intermittently, though, it's probably not worth the effort as their box already smells at least a bit like their urine.
If you are living in a rented space and a move is in your future, moving might actually help reset your cat's litter box issues. Sometimes there are animal scents from previous tenants that just can't be completely removed, especially if you are in a space with carpet. If you have a choice, avoid carpet. It's just not ideal for a cat who is prone to urinating outside of the box, as it is extremely difficult to fully clean.
A note on last resorts
Please, whatever your solution involves, make sure it does not involve euthanasia. Euthanasia is meant to be performed on creatures who are dying, and is NEVER an appropriate last resort for a cat who is urinating outside of her box. Don't think that if you can't solve the problem, your cat is broken. Cats who are re-homed for inappropriate urination can and do form better habits with a new family. If you feel like you cannot commit yourself to the effort that it will take to get your cat back in her box, then contact a local rescue and find a no-kill shelter who will take your cat. I've fostered cats who have been surrendered to shelters for not using their litter box, and (as a vet tech) I've euthanized cats well before their time and I can say with 100% certainty that re-homing your cat is by far the more humane route.
Step 4: Litter box retraining
Sometimes all you need to do is spruce up your cat's litter box area, make some territory modifications, spread your cat's scent and deter her from her illegal urination spot. Sometimes that will be enough to solve your problem! But sometimes, your cat's inappropriate urination has become a habit, and you will need to perform at least some kind of litter box retraining. Saunter on over to the next page to find out how to do this.