Why Do Cats Pee in the House? Part 1: The Pet Owner's Perspective

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Inappropriate elimination is a common reasons for cats to go to shelters

January 8, 2018 (published)

Phyllis DeGioia, editor of VetzInsight and Veterinary Partner

My house is a toilet.

I don't mean it has a toilet; it actually has two. I mean the entire house has been used as though it were a toilet by my cat, Dickens. Mr. Sensitive is about 11 years old, has more than a few medical issues, and sometimes he pees all over the house. Sometimes he poops wherever too, but mostly it's urine. Sometimes he pees on piles of clothing or he will just squat on the rug. He’s so sensitive to stress that I suspect he does it when you look at him cross-eyed.

Thankfully his favorite place to go outside the litter box is the same room where two of the three are located: the basement. That's his room. It is off-limits to the dog so he can do his Greta Garbo thing there when he "just wants to be alone." Thankfully I never remodeled the room into a finished basement; I don't think all the odor will ever come out of it. Sometimes it's so strong that the pee smell wafts up from the basement through the heating vents. Even a diluted odor of cat pee is enough to turn my stomach. In summer when it's hot and humid, it's really disgusting.

Dickens has some medical issues that predispose him to this behavioral nightmare. He's had crystals in his urine, so he connects bladder discomfort to using the litter box. Thanks, Dr. Pavlov! He also has an easily offended GI tract thanks to inflammatory bowel disease, for which he takes prednisone. At this point he has six teeth left (after one of the many extractions, the vet said "He's just got crappy teeth, that's all"). I get upset when I'm sick too, but I don't act out the way he does. Well, that's not actually true. I eat more than I normally do - sweets are my poison - so I guess we all have our behavioral quirks. Peeing outside the box is typical of his species, and eating a mountain of baked goods is common in mine.

Stress is a major contributor. While he doesn't seem to have any stress at the moment - and you never know what a cat will construe as stress - for years he lived with an English setter who liked to chase him once in a while, and after each interaction Dickens would be sporting fur sponged with saliva. I sometimes wonder if he has kitty PTSD.

I've heard that when cats engage in inappropriate elimination (a nice euphemism for "pees anywhere and everywhere") they are raging against the world. I guess if he pees on the dishwasher, he’s raging against the machine.

If you know anything about cats, you know cat pee is far more foul-smelling than dog pee, and a lot stronger. It could be used as a weapon of nasal destruction. Dog pee is just a mild yellow liquid that doesn’t want to hurt anyone; you just don’t want it around; it’s like that annoying friend you had as a kid who smelled like vegetable soup.

Cat pee, on the other hand, is that neighborhood bully your parents forced you to play with, the one who set fire to your Legos, stomped on your Barbie Playhouse, ripped the cape off your Batman action figure and flushed it, and used firecrackers to blow up your prize model airplanes that you spent hours building. (Scott Thurber, I’m looking right at you!)

Plus, cat pee is tenacious. It doesn't seem to wash out of things. I've thrown away a suitcase, towels, clothing, and some rugs because I couldn't get the odor out. I finally found some powdered laundry stain and odor remover that helps. Its label indicated it could be used on floors, so a while ago I tried that in the basement, with the best success of anything I have ever used. He's been great for the past few months.

What sets him off, or should I say, pisses him off? I’ll never know for sure as a cat’s mind is a dark, dank and mysterious place, much like my basement. But I have some ideas. He seems especially ticked when someone stays at the house.

I think the recent détente is because there hasn't been any company lately other than the house sitter he adores (finding him was a miracle). Dickens is particularly persnickety about out-of-town guests or remodeling; those bring out a total pee-fest. I understand the remodeling, and I guess the problem with out-of-town guests is the length of time they spend compared to having someone over for dinner.

Cleaning up the pee and eliminating that “Hey – pee here!” scent is important in managing this frustrating problem (more on this in part 2). I'm not foolish enough to think that he's never going to pee in the house again just because I once cleaned the basement floor with something that actually worked, but I'm certainly going to keep using that cleaner. While it cuts the smell for my weak human nose, his super-powered kitty nose can probably still smell it. Lingering pee scent tells him it's okay to go anywhere he smells it, even though I tell him it is totally not okay. His English is sketchy, and my meow is poor; I wonder if cats ever feel like tourists in a foreign country. Posting a sign in the living room that says ??????? ("Do not urinate here" in Chinese*) will not improve matters, and he responds quizzically when I speak Italian to him: Il mio gatto caro, ti adoro, ma non urini qui!

I love this cat with all my heart, but when he's using the house as a toilet, I’m tallying how many lives he’s already used up. Okay, totally kidding there, but my frustration is deep. Inappropriate elimination is one of the most common reasons for cats to be relinquished at the shelter, but many people don't try enough options to correct the situation. I'd much rather have him in my life with a stinky basement and a few dark spots on the hardwood floors than a clean basement without him.

In part 2 of this piece, Dr. Tony Johnson explains some of the medical causes for inappropriate urination and how veterinarians deal with it - and why they hate it too.

Author: Phyllis DeGioia, editor of VetzInsight and Veterinary Partner