If you have ever tried to convey a message across a barrier—whether language, distance, or a glass wall—you know the experience can be frustrating. We may try anything to be understood—exaggerated gestures, raising our voicesand raise more than a few eyebrows from those around us.

Twin Maples Veterinary Hospital wants you to consider this analogy when your cat urinates outside of the box—instead of becoming upset about what looks like misbehavior, understand  that your cat is struggling to tell you something important. Here is a cheat sheet to four feline cries for help.

#1: Your cat is ill or in pain

No owner wants to think that their pet is suffering, but this should be your first consideration when your cat starts to “think outside of the box.” Schedule an appointment at Twin Maples Veterinary Hospital if your cat shows any of the following signs:

  • Vocalizing 
  • Straining (i.e., posturing, but not expressing any urine)
  • Frequent attempts to urinate, or urinating small amounts multiple times
  • Bloody or brown-tinged urine   
  • Frequent licking of the genital area

Cats are prone to a group of urinary conditions known collectively as feline lower urinary tract disease that can range in severity from mild to an emergency, and include:

  • Urinary tract infections
  • Feline idiopathic cystitis (i.e., an inflammatory condition of unknown cause)
  • Urinary stones that are formed from mineral buildup in the bladder and/or the urethra
  • Urethral obstruction, which is an emergency that can cause bladder distention and rupture. If your cat is unable to pass urine, they may have a urethral blockage and must be brought to our Twin Maples Veterinary Hospital immediately.

Treating inappropriate urination as a behavior issue without first ruling out medical causes can result in your cat’s health becoming worse, or at the least, a lack of resolution to the problem. 

#2: Your cat is aging and needs extra help

Senior cats suffer from degenerative joint disease (i.e., arthritis) at higher rates than previously known. In one radiographic study, 90 percent of cats older than 12 years showed arthritic signs on X-rays. As your cat ages, they need special considerations for their aging joints.

  • Walk-in litter box Stepping up into the litter box may be painful for your aging pet. Cut a door in the side of your cat’s litter box so they can walk in without flexing their joints. Apply duct tape or foam to the cut edge to prevent abrasions.
  • Multiple boxes Increase the number of litter boxes. Ensure your cat does not have to take the stairs to reach them. Cats can have cognitive dysfunction similar to dementia in people, and may forget their box’s location, so multiple, easily accessible litter boxes may help reduce accidents.

#3: Your cat does not like their litter box arrangement

Cats have high standards for their toileting needs, so consider carefully whether you are making your cat’s litter box a safe, clean, pleasant place to visit.

  • Location, location, location Ensure your cat knows their litter box location. Do not move the box suddenly, or temporarily remove it. The litter box should be placed in an easily accessible, low traffic location. Keep a litter box on each floor of your home.
  • Plus one Always provide one litter box per cat, plus one, to prevent competitive stress. For example, you should provide three boxes for two cats.
  • Privacy, please A gate that allows feline access but prohibits nosy dogs or loud children may help your cat feel safer about box use.
  • Nothing cramped Cats don’t like a tiny bathroom. Your cat’s litter box should be one and a half times your cat’s length, with plenty of room for them to turn around, to ensure their comfort.
  • Open concept design Most cats prefer an open box with no cover, so they can access and escape the box from all sides. 
  • Beneath my feet Cat litter matters, but ignore the marketing and listen to your cat. 
    • Cats do not appreciate a cloud of perfume or fragrance when they dig, so skip the scented formulas, which may contribute to feline asthma. 
    • Cats prefer fine, soft clumping litter that is reminiscent of the sand and soil they would seek in nature. 

#4: Your cat is fearful or stressed by their environment

Cats are sensitive to their social surroundings. Scent marking, which can also include defecation and scratching, is a natural cat communication method where they apply their scent to claim territory, or respond to a perceived threat.

Household changes, such as absent family members, altered routines, new or newly departed pets, or rearranged furniture, may trigger stress in a cat, and lead to marking behavior. If an outdoor cat or stray has been hanging around your house, you may notice your cat marking near doorways or windows. This marking behavior can be reduced by minimizing your cat’s stress, introducing calming pheromones to the home, proper exercise, and using enzymatic cleaner to thoroughly clean any inappropriate urination area.

Understanding your cat can be easy when you learn how to listen to what they are trying to tell you. For more information on how to fix your cat’s litter box behavior, or to schedule an appointment, contact Twin Maples Veterinary Hospital.