There’s a popular misconception that cats urinate on their owners’ beds or other inappropriate places as an act of revenge or spite, but urinating or defecating outside the litter box is actually caused by illness, anxiety, or problems with the litter box or litter.
The bed (or clothing) is often chosen by an anxious or ill cat because it’s a safe, soft place that has the comforting scent of a beloved human companion. The cat may also choose places where the urine is sure to be noticed because he’s trying to communicate his distress about a psychological or physical problem.
A cat that has started peeing on the bed should be taken for a veterinary check-up to rule out urinary tract infections, kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, and other medical problems that can make urination urgent or painful. If the cat is given a clean bill of health, the problem is likely one of the following:
- Dirty litter box: Boxes should be scooped daily and washed weekly.
- Chemical smells: Use a mild detergent to clean the box and don’t use perfumed litter.
- Dislike of a covered box: Remove the lid.
- Too much or not enough litter: Try different depths – most cats prefer a couple of inches.
- Preference for a softer surface: Try a finer-grained litter.
- Recently changed box location or litter: Put things back the way they were and make changes gradually (move the box a few inches per day; mix the new litter in a little at a time with the old).
- Bad litter box location: Move the box to a quieter, low-traffic area of the home, away from food and water dishes.
- Territorial competition: Each cat should have his own box, and cats should be neutered or spayed to prevent territorial marking.
- Other pets bother the cat while he uses the box: Place the box somewhere where the cat will have a 360-degree view so that he won’t be ambushed.
- Mobility issues: For elderly, very young, or mobility-challenged cats, switch to a box with lower sides, and make sure it’s easily accessible (i.e., not up a flight of stairs).
- Litter box is too small: If the cat spends a lot of time scratching outside the box (floor, wall, etc.), he probably needs a bigger box; the box should be at least 1.5 times the length of the cat, not counting his tail.
- Cat is scared by animals seen through a window: If a bedroom window is at or near ground level, close the curtains to prevent the cat seeing other animals, as this can trigger territorial marking or fear-induced urination.
- Cat has been declawed: Digging in kitty litter is excruciatingly painful for newly declawed cats, so only soft paper-based litters should be used; anxiety over the surgery may also cause the cat to seek a comforting place to eliminate (declawing is a bad idea, as it is horribly painful for the cat and significantly increases the likelihood of litter box issues and other behavioural problems).
- Stressful changes such as moving house, new baby or pet, restricted diet, less attention from a favourite person, or the death of a loved person or animal: Provide extra attention and spend time playing with the cat; in extreme cases, anti-anxiety medication may be prescribed by a veterinarian.
- Anxiety due to inter-cat aggression: See “Why Cats Fight” in Chapter 3 for tips on dealing with inter-cat aggression.
Don’t hit the cat, yell at him, or rub his nose in the urine. He won’t associate the punishment with the act, so it will just increase his anxiety and make the problem worse.
How to stop a cat from urinating in inappropriate places
In addition to fixing the problem that triggered the behaviour, the targeted spot must be cleaned thoroughly, not just with regular washing products, but also with an enzymatic cleaner such as Nature’s Miracle or The Equalizer that removes all traces. Otherwise the scent will keep luring the cat back to do it again.
If it’s too inconvenient to keep the door to the targeted room closed, it may be necessary to use a deterrent until the habit is broken. Safe cat deterrents that can be placed on the targeted spot include:
- Plastic carpet runner, pointy side up
- Sticky Paws tape
- Motion-sensing devices that emit a burst of startling air when the cat comes near, such as the SSSCat
- Calming cat pheromone products such as Feliway
Because cats won’t normally urinate or defecate where they eat, you can also try feeding the cat on the targeted spot to break the habit. Food dishes can be gradually moved back to their original location after a few weeks, once the association between the target and urination is broken.
You could also try one of the herbal-scented litters that make the litter box more appealing to cats, such as Dr. Elsey’s Cat Attract.
If all else fails, it may be necessary to confine the cat to a single room with food and water dishes at one end and the litter box at the other until the bad habit is broken. The cat can gradually be given access to other rooms once he’s using his box regularly. Owners should spend plenty of quality time with the cat during this reconditioning period.
For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. (2006). “Feline Behavior Problems: House Soiling.”
- Cats International. (2007). “The Unabridged Guide to Litterbox Problems.”
- Mar Vista Animal Medical Center. (2009). “Feline House Soiling.”
- Nash, H., DVM, Drs. Foster & Smith. (2010). “Inappropriate Elimination (Urination, Defecation, Spraying) in Cats.”