How to Think Like Your Cat

Before we try to get into your cat's head, let's cover some basics.

 

Cat Urine is one of the worst substances to clean up. It's stinky and destructive and I'm sorry you're dealing with it. If you've had a vet give your cat a clean bill of health and you've made sure your litter box set-up complies with what's discussed in Litter box Basics, and your cat is still having accidents, then this is your next stop. We'll cover some information about cats that you might not know, and then we'll get down to it. But first, you've got to get yourself in the right frame of mind. I know you are frustrated. You're probably angry at your cat. You might be thinking that your cat hates you or is trying to get back at you for some transgression. Maybe you think your cat is broken. But she's not. Her behaviors are easily explained. Start trying to think of her more like a wild animal that you have brought into your home, and less like a dog. 

Meditation in Forest

Some things you may not know about cats

  • Cats are territorial in a very wild way

  • Cats are capable of experiencing extreme amounts of anxiety

  • Their scent, including the scent of their urine, calms them down. Yes, they like to be clean, but an anxious cat might not mind sleeping on a bed that they just urinated on. 

  • Urinating on someone or on their things (ie your new boyfriend's shoes) may indicate that they long for a closer bond with this person, and NOT that they are angry with them. 

Kitty Scratch

First question:

When did your cat begin to urinate outside of the box?

I would guess it started with the introduction of a stressor. My cat had three big break-ups with her litter box. 1. When we got a new puppy. 2. When we moved (even though it was to a much better house where she had outside access) 3. After my husband and I went on a month long trip which happened to happen right after her roommate cat died.

The stressor that started your cat down the wrong path could have been a number of things. Something as simple as moving the furniture around can set off a sensitive cat off. Check out the list of cat stressors below to see if any fit your situation. Remember, a cat's resiliency can change as they age. Also, stress can be cumulative. A 2 year old cat who was fine moving from apartment to apartment in the first decade of her life might become more sensitive to such change in the later decade of her life. 

List of Cat Stressors  

Girl and Cat
  • A move
  • A new family member (human, cat, dog or other)
  • Conflict with a resident cat
  • Litter change
  • Illness
  • Aging
  • Moving the furniture around
  • Recent vacation
  • Neighborhood cats (even if your cat is strictly indoors)
  • New scents 
  • Change in family's social habits
  • Change in family's work schedule
  • Change in diet
  • Change in your stress level
  • Any change
Stressed Woman

Second Question: 

What did you do when you realized your cat had stopped using the box? 

I started by expressing disappointment in my cat and showing my anger by gruffly dragging the second couch she ruined out to the back porch because I couldn't stand to look at it anymore. I threw the back door open and yelled, "Fine, no more curfew! You can go outside all night long if it means that you stop urinating anywhere you want!" I would yell, "No," in shock and horror when I saw the yellow stream trickle out of her body and onto the unprotected mattress while I was changing the sheets. I'd throw her off the bed. I would pick her up mid-crouch and firmly place her in the litter box.

 

I probably don't need to tell you that none of these things worked. In fact, I'm completely certain that they made the problem worse.  

What I needed, and what you may need, is a perspective shift. Think of your cat as more wild than domestic. More like a pet snake than a dog. Not to say that cats have any less capacity for emotion than dogs (and not to say that snakes don't have that either.) But, cats are very connected to their surroundings, and changes in their surroundings bring about great stress.

 

Cats are predators, are descendants of solitary creatures, are very concerned with their territory. You may think you have a cat who isn't territorial, and true, cats can bond very deeply with their feline housemates. But, if you have a cat who has started urinating outside the box, it's time to consider that their territorial nature may be expressing itself.  

So, taking this information into consideration, let's move on to the next question.

Cat Resting

Third Question: 

Why do you think your cat is choosing not to use their box?

Because he's vexed and seeking revenge?

No!!

Here are my ideas. Then you can try to answer this question for your own cat.

  • Because he's stressed out about his environment and he's an animal who's ancestors' survival depended on securing their territory, and who communicates their territory through spreading their scent, which comes from their facial pheromones, their feces and, of course, their urine. 

  • Because he experienced pain or discomfort when using his litter box, started urinating elsewhere, and now has decided it's easier to just urinate in his new preferred location(s). 

  • Because he's gotten older and his old litter box set up is too difficult to use. 

  • Because he's afraid to use his litter box bc a dog or a baby or another cat harasses him while he's in there.

  • Because he sees another neighbor cat skulking around the perimeter of his territory, and he needs to send her the right message (consider this one if the cat is urinating by doors or windows.)

  • Because new scents are coming in and they stress him out, and he needs to add his scent to the mix (consider this one if the cat urinates by the front door, where the shoes are kept or on guest's belongings.)

  • Because he's stressed out and the smell of his urine calms him down and he wants to surround his territory with his scent. 

Do you have an answer? I hope so! If not, please feel free to send me a note and we can work through it together. If so, you can move on to the Solutions page! But first, a note on spraying. 

Kitty

Lots of people like to talk about spraying, but I don't know how useful the label is for working on getting your cat back in their box. The main difference between spraying and urinating is the amount of urine that comes out. But, both spraying and urinating outside of the box help assert territory and to calm down the perpetrating cat. Keep in mind that any cat can spray or urinate inappropriately: male, female, spayed, neutered, or unaltered. If you are interested in learning more about spraying vs. urinating, I recommend The Cat Whisperer. It's a great book about cats. 

Now, let's begin to solve this!