Cat urine is not all that different from other animals’ urine, but what gives cat urine such a bad smell is that the urine is usually left unnoticed until it becomes a problem. Cats have a propensity to mark their territory outside the litter box, be it on the carpet or in hidden corners. After a while, the bacterium in the urine decomposes and gives off an ammonia-like odor characteristic of stale old urine. The second stage of the decomposition process emits mercaptans, compounds that give skunk spray its characteristic bad smell. Older animals have kidneys that have lost some of their efficiency and, as a consequence, older animals tend to have the worst smelling urine.
Adding to the stench are the powerful hormones that cats eliminate when they pee. Unless male cats are neutered, their testosterone-spiked urine signals other males to stay away and lets females know they’re around.
Why Cats Urinate Outside of the Litter Box
“Despite popular belief, cats do not urinate outside the box to ‘get back’ at the owner for something,” said Laura George, DVM at Cats Exclusive Veterinary Center in Shoreline, Washington.
If your cat’s not using the litter box, it’s likely that he or she is trying to tell you something. The first thing you need to do is rule out a medical problem, said Bruce Kornreich, DVM, PhD, DACVIM and associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center. Medical issues related to inappropriate urination can include urinary tract infections, kidney disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism and feline lower urinary tract disease, and can cause a cat to urinate outside the litter box, particularly if he or she associates the litter box with pain. If you believe your cat is suffering from any of these conditions, or is exhibiting additional symptoms, bring them to your veterinarian immediately, as untreated conditions, like urinary tract infections, can become serious.
Another possible reason that an older cat may forego the litter box is arthritis. “As cats age, they can get arthritis, which makes it harder for them to get into the box,” Kornreich said. “Perhaps the sides are too tall or the box is located in a place that requires the cat to do some kind of arduous physical activity to get to, such as up or down a flight of stairs.”
Once you’ve ruled out any illness, determine if there’s a behavioral reason that your cat isn’t going in his usual spot. “You need to be a detective and take the time to figure out why the cat’s behavior has changed,” said Sandra DeFeo, executive director of the Humane Society of New York. According to DeFeo, not using the litter box is one of the most common reasons cats are relinquished to animal shelters. Fortunately, if you can pinpoint the reason behind the cat’s outside-the-litter box behavior, you can often deter your cat from staining your carpet or bed linens.
“If there is not a medical problem and the problem truly is behavioral, early intervention is key,” George said. “Behavioral issues can sometimes be resolved by adding additional litter boxes around the home, scooping frequently to remove waste or by moving a litter box from one space in the home to another.”
As a general rule, you should keep as many litter boxes as you have cats in the house, plus one. You can also try removing the cover of your cat’s litter box (if it has one) or changing the type of litter you use to encourage your cat to use his or her box.
Why Cats Spray
While some cats squat and urinate on bare floors, carpet, furniture and other horizontal surfaces, others will spray urine on vertical surfaces around the home. “Unfixed males spray to mark their territory, and unfixed females spray to let tomcats know they are ready [to mate]” DeFeo said. To avoid such behaviors, she suggests getting male cats neutered and female cats spayed at six months.
Although cats are often driven to spray by hormones, there are other reasons for it. Cats may spray out of stress, anxiety, or frustration with their circumstances, including such conditions as restrictive diets, insufficient playtime or territorial disputes with other cats. If your cat is spraying because of disputes with either other cats in the home or in the neighborhood, it’s important for you to identify and remove the stimuli. Separate feuding cats in your household and reintroduce them slowly, using food treats to reward and encourage peaceful behavior. To ease anxiety, try a plug-in diffuser that releases a synthetic cat pheromone developed to reassure your cat.
If your cat is spraying out of stress or anxiety, discuss these issues with your veterinarian and work with them to develop a solution to minimize your cat’s stress.