Cat’s accidents’ may begin with physical problem

Dear Dr. Spiegel,

We have recently taken in a stray cat – a beautiful orange Tiger who is extremely friendly and was someone’s pet.

Before taking him “in” we noticed he sprayed outside and assumed he had never been neutered. Our vet says that he has been and estimates the cat to be one-two years old. He was given the necessary shots and was tested for worms. He was positive and has been treated.

One evening (he is now a house cat along with our other one) – he sprayed three times in a matter of minutes. The vet tested him and discovered a very serious bladder infection which he thought might cause the spraying. He has been taking 2 tablets of Clavamox twice a day for seven days and has a few days left.

Twice since starting the medicine he has sprayed in the house. He does use the litter box for his bowel movements but we note he does not cover his waste as does the other cat.

We have put another litter box thinking he might feel territorial.

Do you have any thoughts on this problem? We don’t want to loose Sandy, but cannot tolerate this. He and the other cat seem to get along fine – rough housing a few times a day.

C.L., Lewes

Dear C.L.,

With Sandy’s very serious bladder infection (also referred to in vet slang as… “a raging cystitis”), there can be an increased urgency to urinate more frequently, and hence “accidents.” It is quite common for accidents to begin as medical problems. This is why whenever accidents occur, you should contact your veterinarian to check it out. If you catch it early, you can reduce the risk that this medical problem will turn into a behavioral problem. And this happens often.

You have a cat with a cystitis that suddenly has the urgency to pee. It relieves that urgency by peeing, and after this happens a number of times, the cat learns that it is far more pleasant to pee on the rug where it’s not so dusty, or so smelly, or so rough and uncomfortable, etc. So, a behavioral problem has arisen out of medical problem by way of a “self-reinforcing behavior”… that is… a behavior which, when performed, automatically rewards the participant.

So far we may have a medical problem which has turned into a behavioral problem. It may however be a behavioral anomaly that you are first observing with the onset of a medical problem.

Let’s better define the problem. Cats have two basic postures for expelling urine from their bodies. Most commonly used to void urine from the bladder is the repertoire of behaviors where cats finds desirable material(s) in which to eliminate, they scratch about in it (or not… there is more variability with regard to pre-eliminatory scratching), they assume a mock-sitting posture (which keeps the cat cleaner and he’s still positioned to react to an impending situation), they urinate a substantial volume, and finally they do some more scratching to cover their waste. That’s elimination option #1.

Next, #2, is a spraying posture. This is where cat raises its tail, backs up to some vertical surface or vertically-oriented object and shoots urine strait or almost strait back. This is most commonly associated with urine marking, a predominantly male behavior primarily driven by testosterone. So by neutering the cat, you are eliminating its source of testosterone, the testes, and the behavior’s primary driving force is no longer a factor. Male neutered cats, as well as female cats, sometimes urine mark via a spraying posture… This is what is known as a learned behavior. Despite the fact that the hormone is no longer around, the behavior has become reinforced, (i.e., learning by positive association).

Approximately 80% of the cat cases I see in my behavior practice are elimination problems of one form or another. In the last few years I have discovered an interesting phenomena. That is, a good number of cats are assuming a spraying posture (regularly associated with territorial marking) simply to empty their bladders.


Most likely because this second posture (spraying) does not involve any scratching/covering behavior. If a cat does not like the feel of digging in the litter, or the dustiness or odors that are kicked up during scratching, it can avoid all such unpleasantness by voiding urine via a spraying posture (which involves no digging behavior). Is this marking? Is this territorial behavior?

No. This is an intelligent creature seeking pleasure/comfort and avoiding discomfort/unpleasantness.

Distinguishing between such factors is essential to accurately diagnosing problems, and this is the key to making appropriate treatment recommendations.

So… is this “spraying” in the typical sense associated with territorial behavior and urine marking? Probably not. But I am a little concerned about the “rough housing” between the two cats. Is this play for cats? Sometimes, but if it involves any vocalizations by either of the “participants,” it is probably not, and you may have the seeds of a territorial dispute. Cat play is almost always silent.

I suspect, from the information you provided, that Sandy has a mild aversion to some aspect of the litter box, and you may have some mild territorial disputes developing as well. To fully assess the problem and provide an effective treatment plan, a consultation would be warranted.

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