Inappropriate Urination / Defecation
Cats are generally very easy to housetrain. Putting them in a room without rugs or carpet with a litter box for a day or so is usually enough to get them to use their box. Cats like to dig to bury their feces or urine, and cat litter provides an excellent way to do so. However, if your housetrained cat stops using their litter box, that can be an emergency situation - both medically and behaviorally. Medically, not using the litter box is generally the first sign of urinary tract inflammation. Urinary tract inflammation in cats can lead to urinary blockage, which can kill a cat quickly. Behaviorally, if a cat decides they don't want to use their litter box, and like the carpet instead, this can be next to impossible to correct if we don't address it EARLY.
Urinary Tract Inflammation
This is the #1 reason (by far) that cats urinate (or defecate) outside their litter box. They go to urinate in their box and it hurts, so they associate that box with causing their pain and stop using it. Urinating outside the box is the only way that your cat has to tell you something is wrong. You will generally not see blood in the urine until the problem is extremely advanced. Causes of urinary tract inflammation include infection, stones, crystals, and stress.
If you see your cat straining to urinate, frequently going to the box with no urine coming out, or crying when they urinate, this is an EMERGENCY! Urinary blockage is a life-threatening problem that can result from a urinary tract infection. This happens when crystals, stones, or pus block up the end of the urethra, and urine is trapped in the bladder. This condition can kill a cat within a day or two. If treatment is not initiated promptly, pressure and toxins from the trapped urine can also create permanent damage in the kidneys.
Some cats have chronic urinary tract inflammation (feline lower urinary tract disease - FLUTD) that requires constant monitoring, and could even require surgery (perineal urethrostomy) to redirect the urethra and prevent blockage. These cats are treated medically in a variety of different ways including prescription diets and medicines to decrease inflammation in the bladder.
Other medical conditions
There are many diseases that cause cats to drink and urinate much more than normal, so they may not make it to the litter box in time. These include diabetes, kidney failure, and hyperthyroidism.
A cause that is important to think about in older cats is arthritis. Arthritis in the back and hips can make it painful to posture for urinating and cause the cat to try urinating in other places.
Urinating outside the litter box may be the only way your cat has to tell you they feel bad, so a multitude of other diseases that just make them feel bad may be enough to cause this problem. This is why it is very important for your veterinarian to examine your cat and evaluate them for other problems.
Physical problems can be a big deal - and can be VERY cat specific. You may need to try a variety of things to see what works best for your cat, including different litters, different locations of boxes, and different numbers of boxes.
Dirty Litter Box
Cats are finicky, picky creatures, and a litter box that is not up to their standards can be enough for them to try a cleaner place - like a carpet or rug. Because they have such a sensitive sense of smell, the strong odor of a dirty box can be especially noxious.
To prevent this, clean the litter box often. Scoop used litter once or twice daily, and thoroughly cleaning using a mild soap every 2-3 weeks. Cats are very sensitive to smells, so harsh cleaners such as bleach may cause further problems.
Litter Box Placement
Cats like secluded quiet areas. Most cats prefer a covered litter box. In addition, they do not usually like to eat and drink near to where they eliminate. A box that is not very accessible can cause problems. At least one litter box per floor of the house is recommended.
Types of Litter & Boxes
Cats often develop a preference to a specific type of litter or litter box. Once you find something that works, DON'T CHANGE IT! Cats do not respond well to change, and usually prefer a certain substrate. If problems occur, give your cat a choice of litters: i.e. clay, clumping, paper-based. Also give them a choice of brands. Some brands are finer or dustier than others, which can cause a preference.
For cats that were formerly outdoor cats, start using clean dirt or sand, and gradually replace it with litter. This allows them to use what they were used to during the transition.
Some cats dislike litter box liners. If you notice your cat pulling at the liner, or claw marks in the liner, remove it.
Size, shape & depth of the litter box can cause preferences as well. Cats need room to move around in the box, so large cats need larger boxes. Older cats with arthritis may have problems getting into a litter box with high sides. You may need to buy a ramp for them to get into the litter box as well. I have had some cats reject electric litter boxes because the litter was not deep enough to bury things well and because the machine scared them.
Cats are creatures of habits. Small changes that may not seem like a big deal to us can really cause major stress and anxiety to your cat. New people entering or leaving a household, moving, changes in routine, or a new pet can all trigger inappropriate elimination. Some cats are prescribed anti-anxiety medications to help control this stress response, but the hope is to be able to wean them off these medications as they adjust.
Territorial Disputes / Overcrowding
Cats can be very territorial. A cat that leaves their feces uncovered is usually trying to mark their territory. A cat farther down in the societal hierarchy may be reluctant to use that litter box if this occurs. Many cats do not like to share their litter box. Multiple cats mean you need multiple litter boxes. You should have one box for each cat plus one extra. This helps avoid disputes and clashes. If the main box is being used, the other cat should always have another choice.
Overcrowding, especially in indoor-only multi-cat households often cause territorial disputes and lead to inappropriate elimination. You should provide facilities for each of your cats. You can expand their habitat by including cat trees, cat condos, window perches, and screened patios. In addition, each cat needs love and attention as well.
Spraying is a behavior used to mark territory. It is most common in unneutered males, but can occur in females as well. It's easy to tell the difference between spraying and urinating. During spraying, the cat backs up to a vertical surface, raises his tail (which often quivers), treads, and sprays urine onto the vertical surface. This is as opposed to squatting to urinate.
Generally, spaying and neutering ends this behavior, but if this is delayed past sexual maturity, there is a chance that it may continue even after spaying & neutering. Cats can mark territory to warn other cats including cats they only see out the window. They will also spray as a sign of stress or anxiety. However, they can do either urinating or spraying to show this. They may spray on new clothes, in suitcases, in heat registers or on the belongings of one particular person in the household.
Treatment for inappropriate urination usually takes a multifocal approach, and unfortunately you do much of the work at home.
Urinary tract infections or other medical problems, including arthritis, diabetes, and kidney disease each have their own treatment of inappropriate urinating depends on the specific cause.
Initially, while waiting for medications to start working, you may want to confine your cat to a room without carpet with their litter box (a bathroom or laundry room works well). Also, try the methods mentioned earlier including adding litter boxes, trying different litters, and changing litter box locations.
Cleaning the areas where your cat has urinated is essential to management and prevention of further marking. Use enzyme cleaners to clean. (Nature's Miracle is one I like and is available at Petsmart). If possible, cover the area so your cat does not have access to it until the enzyme cleaners can work (usually 1-2 weeks). Be careful to follow the label directions.
If there is just one or two spots your cat uses inappropriately, try feeding them in that spot. Because cats do not like eliminating where they eat, they may not go back to that spot to mark.
Anti-anxiety drugs can be a very important part of treatment for some cats. Again, if these are used, we try to wean them off the drugs eventually, but this is not always possible.
Pheromone sprays (Feliway) can help stop some cats from spraying or urine marking specific spots. They must be used daily, but are often weaned down over a period of months.
Common mistakes people make:
I can't even count how many times people have come to me with a cat that has been urinating inappropriately for a long period of time. It can be next to impossible to change their behavior after months and months of letting it set it.
I also see time & time again people coming in with cats that they assume their cat is just "mad" at them, when in reality, the cat has a horrible urinary tract infection, pain on urination and is doing everything they can to tell them what is wrong. A cat peeing right in front of you is a cat trying to tell you something!
You have to treat all aspects of the problem - a cat with a urinary tract infection still needs to be treated behaviorally, because they have "learned" to like another place to urinate better. You HAVE to clean the area appropriately. You have to treat the behavioral aspects. Just giving pills is usually not enough.