Behavioral and environmental factors associated with elimination behavior problems in cats: a retrospective study

Behavioral and environmental factors associated with elimination behavior problems in cats: a retrospective study

APPLIED ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR SCIENCE EISEVIER Applied Animal Behaviour Science 52 (1997) 129- I37 Behavioral and environmental factors associated with ...

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Applied Animal Behaviour Science 52 (1997) 129- I37

Behavioral and environmental factors associated with elimination behavior problems in cats: a retrospective study Debra F. Horwitz Veterinq


Consultations, 12462 G. Natural Bridge Road, Bridgeton, MO 63044,


Accepted 1.5March 1996

Abstract Feline inappropriate elimination is a widespread behavioral complaint of pet owners. This study looked at data collected on 100 housesoiling cats from the referral behavioral practice of the author. These cats were referred for depositing urine, stool, urine and stool or spraying in the home. The information was contrasted and compared to similar information collected on 44 cats that did not have a history of persistent housesoiling. Litter type, litter pan type, household disruption, number of cats in the home, history of urinary tract disorders and elimination of covering behaviors were evaluated for both groups. Chi-squared analyses revealed that scented litter type (P < O.Ol>, history of urinary tract disorders (P < 0.0.9, and covering behaviors ( P < 0.01) differed significantly between housesoiling and non-housesoiling cats. 0 Elsevier Science B.V. Keyord.s:

Feline; Inappropriate elimination; Housesoiling; Elimination

1. Introduction Concurrent with the increase in the number of cats kept as household pets, has been an increase in the numbers of cats presented for behavior problems. One of the more common problem behaviors is that of inappropriate elimination. For example in a retrospective study of 179 cat cases, 64.25% had housesoiling as a primary complaint (Beaver, 1989). In a survey of over 800 cat owners Voith (1985) found that 47% of the owners indicated that their cat engaged in a problem behavior. Twenty-four percent who indicated a problem behavior, cited elimination behaviors as the problem (Voith, 1985). Although these owners were not surveyed specifically for the prevalence of problem behaviours, the numbers indicate that inappropriate elimination exists in the pet population. A study of abnormal behavior in 39 cats referred for behavioral problems to the 016%1591/97/$17.00 0 1997 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved. PII SO168-1591(96)01073-S


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Animal Behaoiour Science 52 (1997) 129-137

clinic at the University of Queensland in Australia, reported inappropriate marking in 15% and inappropriate defecation in 8% (Blackshaw, 1988). In that study, Blackshaw did not specifically define abnormal behavior but listed classes of behaviors for which owners had contacted the behavior clinic for behavioral assessment. A later study of feline elimination problems by Blackshaw (1992) found that inappropriate elimination comprised 33% of behavioral problems presented to the Companion Animal Practice, The University of Queensland, Australia. Given the prevalence of elimination behavor problems in cats questions arise as to what variables might be associated with inappropriate elimination in the cat. While not systematically evaluated or counted commonly reported variables seemed to be more prevalent in the histories of cats with inappropriate elimination problems collected by the author. These include scented litter, covered pans, household disruption, urinary tract disorders, poor litter maintenance, multiple cat homes and poor elimination covering behaviors. According to Hart et al., 1984 cats in homes with multiple cats are often implicated in spraying behaviors. Kruger and Osborne (1991) include pollakiuria as a clinical sign of LUTD (lower urinary tract disorder), and perhaps this could lead to deposition of urine outside of the litter box due to increase urinary frequency and urgency. Disruption of household routine has been cited as a possible cause of failure to use the litter box (Borchelt et al., 1986). The prevalence of certain variables in case histories was suggestive of the need for more careful analysis. Moreover, without a comparison with an otherwise similar sample of cats but without a history of persistent elimination outside of the litter box, it would be difficult to determine if these variables are correlated with elimination problems or not. There are not studies that address this question. Consequently, the following study is the first to have compared soiling with non-soiling cats with regard to variables suggested in the literature as well as in clinical behavior practice. Included are type of litter provided, elimination covering patterns, incidence of urinary tract disease, types of litter pans provided, method of litter maintenance and the household composition between two groups of cats, those presented with elimination problems and those presented without a history of elimination problems.

2. Materials and methods For the purposes of this study, elimination was defined as spraying, urination only, defecation only or both urine and stool deposited outside of the litter box in the home. One hundred consecutive case histories of elimination problems in cats were reviewed by the author. All cases had been seen as a behavioral referral to the author for feline inappropriate elimination between 10 July 1984 and 25 January 1993. The author had practiced in Detroit MI until 1986 and then in St. Louis MO where the practice is still located. Cases had been referred by area veterinarians who ruled out medical etiologies for problem elimination behaviors using urinalysis as a medical screening. During a behavioral consultation the owners were questioned about the following variables: age and sex of cat, type of elimination, spraying (yes/no), covering of elimination in litter box, type of litter, scented versus unscented litters, covered litter pan, duration of the

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problem in months, frequency of litter cleaning (no. in days), number of other cats in the home, history of lower urinary tract disease (LUTD), recent household change (moving, new baby. new pet, remodeling, travel) and whether the animal was a stray or from a shelter. In the winter/spring of 1993, data were collected on 44 cats with no known history of persistent inappropriate elimination problems who were presented for routine examinations to the Cat Practice in Birmingham, MI. Information was obtained through a form compiled by the author, and self-administered by clients. Forty of these control cats used the litter box exclusively for elimination, and four had occasionally sprayed in the home, yet routinely used the litter box for elimination of urine and stool. The spraying cats were included because none were actively engaged in problem elimination behavior at the time and had not had a persistent history of spraying behavior. These data were compared to those of cats with elimination problems using percentages and Chi-square analyses.

3. Results The group of cats with elimination problems consisted of 44 castrated males, 51 ovariohysterectomized females and five intact females. The age range at time of presentation was four months to 12 years, with an average age of four years, two months. The control groups of cats from the Cat Practice consisted of 27 castrated males and 17 ovariohysterectomized females. The age range was six months to 16 years with the average age of seven years six months. Of the 100 cats with elimination problems, 52 presented for depositing urine outside of the litter box, 32 of which for urinating on horizontal surfaces, and 20 for spraying on vertical surfaces. Twenty cats were presented for defecating outside the litter box. The remaining 28 cats had deposited both urine and stool outside the litter box. The duration of the elimination problems ranged from l-48 months with an average of 13 months. Comparisons between cats with problem behaviors and control group are shown in (Table I). With regard to the type of litter material used, sixty-eight elimination problem cats used a litter material with an odor control product added, 19 used plain clay litter and 12 had a clumping type of litter material provided in their boxes (1 unknown). Information regarding type of litter when the problem behavior began was not available on all cases. The type of litter material provided to control cats was as follows: 10 (23%) with odor control clay litter, 17 (39%) were provided plain clay litter without odor control products, eight cats (18%) were provided a clumping type litter without odor control, one (2%) had an odor control clumping type litter, seven cats (16%) used a product that their owners called “sand” (no brand name given) and one owner did not respond to the question. Cats with elimination behavior problems in this study were more often provided with scented litter than cats in the control groups. There was a significant association (P < 0.01 X’ = 22.82, df = 1, N = 144) of odor control litter on elimination behavior problems, with 68% of elimination problem cases and only 25% of control cases having odor control litter provided in their boxes. Control cats were more likely to be provided with fine. or clumping litter.


D.F. Horwirz/Applied Animul Behaviour Science 52 (1997) 129-137

Table 1 Percentage of control cats and cats with elimination problems for each variable (those variables where there is a significant difference between groups are shown)

Scented litter Plain clay Clumping type Sand Covered pans PUS/LUTD Covering urine/stool Noncovering urine/stool Household changes Multi-cat home FUS/LUTD,

Elimination problems, cats N= 100


68% 19% 12%

25% 39% 20% 16% 45% 14% 68% 14% 50% 59%

N/A 39% 38% 37% 33% 52% 65%

feline urologic syndrome/lower

N = 44


(1, N=144)=22.82

(1, N = 144) = 8.538 P < 0.05 (2, N = 144) = 12.239 P < 0.01

urinary tract disease.

The interval between changing of the litter material varied from 6-30 days with a mode of six days for elimination problem cats. The interval of litter cleaning range from daily to every 30 days for controls. Seventeen people owning controls scooped out the litter daily. Both groups were equally likely to have covered litter pans provided with 39% of the elimination problem cats having covered litter pans and 20 (45%) of the control cats. In the current study, there was no difference in the percentage of cats in the two groups who were in houses in which disruption had occurred in the past. For the elimination problem cats, 52 had some form of change in the home. This included a recent move, a new baby, a new roommate, a new pet, remodeling or travel by the owner. In 22 (50%) of the control households, the owners had recently moved, got a new job, traveled, remodeled, or had a new boyfriend. Recent travel accounted for 13 (30%) of the home distruption in control households. Medical causes of inappropriate elimination cornfounded behavioral diagnosis. The minimum required medical diagnostic test for behavioral referral was a urinalysis. In this study 38 of the elimination problem cats had a past history of LUTD or FUS (Feline Urologic Syndrome) whereas six (14%) of the control cats had a history of LUTD/FUS. FUS/LUTD showed a significant association (P < 0.05, X2 = 8.538, df = 1, N = 144) with elimination problem cats having a higher incidence of medical complications. Inappropriately eliminating cats with a history of LUTD showed the following problem behaviors: urination only outside the litter box (14), spraying outside of the litter box (9), defecation only outside of the litter box (7), and urination and defecation outside of the litter box (8). The differences between the groups in terms of covering behaviors are presented in (Table 2). Of the inappropriately eliminating cats, 7% buried their urine, 17% buried stool, 37% buried both, 33% buried none, and 4% buried occasionally (2% unknown). Elimination behavior of the control cats showed 30 (68%) of the cats covering both

D.E Hwwit:/Applied Table 2 Types of elimination Type of elimination


Anirnol Behuciour Scirncr 52 (19971 129-137

covered by cats in each group covered


problem cats (N = 100)

Urine only Stool onl; Urine and stool None Occasionally Unknown

Control cats (N = 44) 9% 9% 68% 13%

7% 17% 31% 33% 3% 28

urine and stool in the litter box. Six cats (14%) did not cover urine or stool, four (9%) covered stool only and four (9%) covered urine only. The covering behaviors differed between groups. Problem cats were less likely to cover their elimination. When comparing problem elimination cats to control cats, there was significant (P < 0.01, X ’ = 12.239, df = 2, N = 144) association between groups and covering behavior. Sixty eight percent of control cats covered their elimination, whereas only 39% of elimination problem cats covered their elimination. (Table 3) shows covering behaviors of the elimination problem cats by type of elimination outside of the litter box. Cats that defecated outside of the litter box commonly did not cover any elimination, while spraying cats were more likely to cover elimination that was deposited in the litter box. Cats that deposited urine outside of the box on horizontal surfaces also covered elimination in the litter box when they used the litter box provided. A multiple cat household was defined as a home with at least one other cat in addition to the problem cat. The totals given refer to number of cats in the home including the problem cat. Sixty five percent of the elimination problem cats lived in multiple cat households. Of these 6.5, 50 cats (77%) lilved in a home with only one other cat, 10 cats (15%) were in homes with three cats, two cats (3%) lived in homes with 4 cats, one cat (2%) in a house with five cats and two cats (3%) lived with six cats. In this study, 24 cats in the problem elimination group sprayed urine in the home. Ten lived in homes with only one additional cat, five lived in homes with two additional cats, one each lived in a home with three, four or five additional cats. Six of the cats that sprayed

Table 3 Covering

of elimination

by elimination

Problem behavior

type and problem behavior

Cover Urine only

Spraying cats (N = 24) Defecation only (N = 20) Urine only (N = 32) Both outside (N = 24) Nonproblem (N = 44)

20% 3% 11% 9%

Feces onlv




55% 3% 53% 25% 68%

15% 60% 19% 43% 14%

19% 18% 9%


D.F. Horwitz/Applied Animal Behaviour Science 52 (1997) 129-137

urine in the home lived alone. Both control and problem elimination cats were equally likely to live in multiple cat households. The number of litter boxes per multiple cat household (elimination problem cats) had the following distribution: In the 50 homes with two cats, 50% (25) had two boxes, 44% (22) had one box, two had three boxes and one had five boxes. In the 10 homes with three cats, one home had one box, three homes had two boxes, and six homes (60%) had 3 boxes. With four cats per home, one home had one box, and the other home had four. In the five cat home, only two litter boxes were provided, and the homes with six cats each provided three litter boxes. Twenty-six control cats (59%) were in multiple cat households. Twelve controls (46%) lived in a home with one other cat, of those eight (67%) had two litter boxes provided and four (33%) had only one litter box. Seven controls (27%) lived in a three cat home in which three homes provided three boxes and four homes provided two boxes. Five (19%) control cats lived in home with four cats total in residence. Four of those homes had four boxes provided to the cats, and one home only had two boxes available for use. One cat lived in a home totaling five cats with five litter boxes provided. One respondent said yes to a multiple cat home, provided two boxes but did not specify the number of cats.

4. Discussion A few factors have been cited as possible problems in inappropriate elimination in cats such as household disruption (Borchelt et al., 1986) and additional cats in homes with cats that spray urine (Hart et al., 1984). However, no studies have compared elimination problem cats and non problem cats in terms of these variables or any others. This study looked at five areas in elimination problem cats that have not been examined in this matter in previous studies. Scented litter, poor elimination covering behaviors and disease of the urinary tract were significantly associated with elimination problems in cats when compared to cats without a history of persistent inappropriate elimination. Additionally, this study augments available literature on feline inappropriate elimination because cats with inappropriate elimination problems were compared to those without inappropriate elimination problems. Previous studies have examined other variables such as diagnosis and location of elimination (Borchelt and Voith, 1981: Borchelt et al., 1982), but did not compare elimination problem cats to controls. An important component in evaluation of inappropriate elimination is adequate medical screening in order to eliminate medical causes for the failure to use the litter box. The present data show a prevalence (38%) of history of urinary tract disease among cats who did not consistently use a litter box for elimination. Osborne et al. (1994) and Buffington et al. (1994) discuss the components of LUTD and interstitial cystitis in cats. Osborne, 1995 suggests that a urinalysis is not necessarily the best means for ruling out all potential urinary tract disease, especially cystic uroliths. Currently, the most frequent way to rule out medical disease in cats eliminating outside of the litter box is through urinalysis. Future studies should address medical diagnostics when dealing with cats

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Animul Behal,iour Science 52 (1997) 129-137


who persistently do not eliminate in the litter box. Medical etiologies could result in pollikiuria and contribute to failure to use the litter box. The behavioral history should include locations of inappropriate elimination, elimination problem (spraying, urination, defecation, or both urine and stool outside of the litter box), frequency and duration of non litter usage. This information is useful in making a behavioral diagnosis and treatment plan. Factors often cited as influential in inappropriate elimination include litter aversion, surface preferences, location preferences and location aversions (Borchelt et al., 1982, Borchelt, 1991). This information was not evaluated in this study. Instead, cats with elimination problems were only classified by elimination deposited in the home. Diagnostic categories can differ between clinicians, and at the present time standardized diagnostic categories do not exist for behavioral diagnosis. Therefore, the use of elimination type avoided misinterpretation of diagnostic categories. This is a weakness in this study if funtionally, cats with letter aversions differ from those that are marking or those that show location or surface preferences. Treatment modalities for inappropriate elimination have been discussed in numerous sources. These include pharmacological treatment, surgical treatment. increasing litter cleanliness, changing iitter texture, changing litter location, adding more litter boxes, controlling odor and confinement of the cat (Borchelt et al., 1982; Houpt, 1991). Detailed discussions of these treatment options is beyond the scope of this article. However, it may be of some importance to highlight litter cleanliness since so many of the control cats had their litter cleaned daily (16) and eleven of those had covered litter pans. There were noteworthy differences as well as similarities between the two groups in this study. Cats with elimination problems were significantly more likely to be provided with scented litter material in their boxes, yet equally as likely as control cats to be provided a covered litter pan. These findings may be partially explained by the high percentage of control cats who had their litter boxes cleaned daily. Problem elimination cats with covered litter pans had an average cleaning time of five days. Control cats were more likely to have fine or clumping litter provided in their boxes and have the boxes scooped daily, covered or not. Borchelt (1991) compared groups of cats allowed to choose litter type randomly and found only EverleanR, a scoopable litter, to be chosen more ferquently than expected. This may account for difference between elimination cats and controls, since control cats were more likely to have scoopable type litters provided for them. Twelve cats in the problem elimination group had scoopable litters provided. Although scoopable litters were not widely available throughout this study, a breakdown of cases by year showed that 76 of the 100 cases were from 1990-1993. at which time scoopable litters were prevalent. When only cases from 1990-l 993 were used in the chi square analysis, there still was a significant association (P < 0.01, X’ = 26.80, df = 1, N = 120) between scented litter and the problem. FUS or LUTD were significantly more common in the history of elimination problem cats (38%) than control cats (14%). In addition, cats with elimination problems were significantly less likely (38%) to cover their elimination when compared to control cats (68%). Disruptions in the home life of both groups differed only slightly. Fifty-two percent of the elimination problem cats had a recent move, a new baby or new roommate, whereas only 16% of control cats had that change. Yet in the control cats, 30% had their


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Behauiour Science 52 (1997) 129-137

owners recently tavel. Travel has been implicated in elimination behavior problems by Borchelt and Voith (1981) but was not seen to be significantly associated with elimination problems in this study. When combined, 50% of control cats had household changes comparable to the problem group. The groups were very similar in the number of cats in multiple cat households. For elimination problem cats, 65% of the cats lived in multiple cat households, as did 59% of the control cats. Other studies have only addressed number of cats in the home in where the objectionable behavior was marking behavior (Borchelt et al., 1982; Hart et al., 1984). Spraying cats in this study did not always live in homes with large numbers of cats. Most spraying cats lived with just one other cat and 25% lived alone. The majority of cats in multiple cat households only lived with one other cat, both in elimination problem cats and in controls. Further study of number of cats in the home and the relationship to diagnostic categories may provide additional information about any relationship between number of cats in the home and elimination behavior problems. Because of the retrospective nature of this study, the elimination problem cases were not randomly selected. The control cases were obtained from a practice in a city with a similar economic base and litter product availability as that of the problem cats. Because of the limited scope of the author’s practice, i.e. behavioral referral only, it was not possible to obtain information about control cats without using another practice source. The difference in time of collection of cases without a history of inappropriate elimination, i.e. in 1993, must also be taken into consideration when discussing the differences between groups. However, 76% of the elimination problem cases were from 1990-1993. The control cats were collectedby requesting that clients visiting the Cat Practice for routine examination fill out the survey form. No attempt was made to obtain the information from persons who did not comply with the request, only six refused or did not return the form. Therefore, the information may have a volunteer effect if only those persons who wished to fill out the survey complied. Future studies could consider a case control method, however, this is hard to provide in a referral practice environment.The importance of comparison of problem cats with controls makes this study different and provides additional information to augment current literature. Prior work has highlighted factors in problem cats, but has not addressed whether any of these factors also occur in samples of cats that do not have a history of elimination problems, or are unique to cats with inappropriate elimination. 5. Conclusion This study showed that certain factors were significant distinguished between groups of cats with elimination problems and nonproblem control cats. Elimination problem cats more often had scented litter provided for them, were more likely to have had urinary tract disease and were not as likely to cover their elimination. Continued study and evaluation of these factors may help determine if these factors are causative or merely correlated in elimination problems in cats.A prospective-type study that evaluated litter type, urinary disease ruled out by additional diagnostic methods such a radiography, covering behaviors, diagnosis of elimination problem and outcome may provide additional answers to this prevalent feline behavioral problem.

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References Beaver, B., 1989. Feline behavior problems other than housesoiling. J. Am. Anim. Hosp. Assoc.. 25: 465-469. Blackshaw, J.K., 1988. Abnormal behaviour in cats. Aust. Vet. J., 65: 395-396. Blackshaw, J.K.. 1992. Feline elimination problems. Anthroaoos. I: 52-56. Borchelt, P.L., 1991. Cat elimination behavior problems. In: A.R. Marder. V.L. Voith (Editors), Advances in Companion Animal Behavior, The Vet. Clin. North Am. Small Anim. Pratt., 21(2), W.B. Saunders, Philadelphia, pp X7-264. Borchelt. P.L. and Voith. V.L.. 1982. Elimination problems in cats. Compend. Contin. Educ.. X8): 730. Borchelt. P.L. and Voith. V.L., 1981. Diagnosis and treatment of elimination behavior problems in cats. In: V.L. Voith. P.L. Borchelt (Editors). Symposium on Animal Behavior. The Vet. Clin. North Am. Small Anim. Pratt., 12(4). W.B. Saunders, Philadelphia, pp 673-682. Borchelt. P.L. and Voith. V.L.. 1986. Elimination behavior problem% in cats. Compend. Contin. Educ.. 8(3): 197-207. Buffington. C. A., Chew, D. 1994. Research shows diet usually not linked to lower urinary tract disease in cats. DVM Msg.. 21(2): 28-43. Hart, B.L. and Cooper, L., 1984. Factors relating to urine spraying and fighting in prepubertally gonadectomized cats. JAVMA. 184(10: 125% 1258. Houpt. K.A.. 1991. Housesoiling: treatment of a common feline problem. Vet. Med., 86(10): 1000-1006. Kruger. J.M. and Osborne, C.A. 1991. The Role of uropathogens in feline lower urinary tract disease. In: J.D. Hoskins, A.S. Loar (Editors). Feline Infectious Diseases, The Vet. Clin. of North Am. Small Anim. Prac.. 2X1 ). W.B. Saunders, Philadelphia, pp. IOI- 121. Osborne, CA.. 1995. Clinical and experimental observations related to diagnosis and treatment. Oklahoma Vet. Med. Ass. Speakers Syllabus, pp. 120-129. Osborne. CA.. Kruger, J.M.. Lulich. J.P.. Beauclair. K.D., Lund. E.M.. Thumchai. R.. Barteges. J.W., Unger. L.K., Koeffier, L.A. and Bird, K.A.. 1994. Feline urologic signs: hypothesis of heterogeneous causes. In: C.A. Osborne (Editor). Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease. Veterinary Previews. Vol. I. Ralston Purina Company, pp. 2- 18. Voith, V.L., 1985. Attachment of people to companion animals. In: J. Quackenbush, V.L. Voith (Editors), The Human-Companion Animal Bond. The Vet. Clin. North Am. Small Anim. Pratt., 15(2), W.B. Saunders. Philadelphia. pp. 289-295.