An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Small Bits of Cat Urine - A Big Problem for Dash

Dear Greyce,

I have a problem. Recently I have started to pee in the upstairs stairwell (the one that connects the main floor to the upstairs). Before I go into the particulars, I will provide more information about my circumstances.

My Background

I am a neutered male, short-haired tabby with extra claws on my paws (I have 16 front toes and 10 back ones) and am somewhere between 2.5 and 4 years old. I was hosted by the local animal shelter for many months where I was listed as a cat with issues related to anger displacement. But after a thorough veterinary examination, it did not appear that I’d be a threat to my new purrsons. In July (2010) I was fortunate to be adopted along with Skeeter, a 1.5 year-old neutered male tabby to keep me company.

We live in a house which has three storeys: bedrooms on one floor, main (and open) living area on another, and an unfinished walk-out basement where we spend time while our purrsons are away at work and where we sleep at night. Our purrsons are good to us and I have no real complaints.

Skeeter and I get along quite well. We play fight, groom each other, and he often cuddles into me when we sleep. I am the dominant cat and especially like to hog food bowls. But Skeeter takes this philosophically – just backing away when I stick my snout in. I am VERY food-motivated. If I can find it and eat it, then it’s been a great day.

I am very active. I jump on all surfaces and get sprayed by a water bottle for it. It’s okay for me to be on beds or couches.

I am also very curious. I want to climb in the fridge, check out what’s in the sink, go into any open cupboard. I sit on the window ledges on the main floor, look out the back door and check everything out.

But I have a fear of novelty. For example, I was traumatized by the treadmill so much that Themselves covered it up. (I started to pee outside the litter box, get nervous about being in the basement, you name it.) And only recently have I regained the nerve to explore it (thought it’s still covered up as you recommended).

Skeeter likes to play with toys way more than I do. But I love playing in my nylon tent, jumping into boxes and bags and playing with a long string of fleece attached to stick dragged round by Themselves. They play with us every morning while changing their clothes and when they get home at night.

But sometimes our play fighting gets out of hand (or should I say, paw). I grab, bite and pin Skeeter down by holding him at the back of the neck. He hisses in reply. I guess I become over-stimulated. But now Themselves break us up if this happens and we are both given a time-out – just like you advised.

When I contacted you, you gave me lots of good advice: about Feliway, interactive play, and all sorts of things. For the most part, I have been learning to trust my new home and its inhabitants.

Back to The Problem

Recently I have started to pee in the upstairs stairwell (the one the connects the main floor to the upstairs). Themselves have cleaned it with a non-detergent cleaner and sprayed Feliway in the corner. This started about a month ago and so far has happened about four times. It only happens in the evening (since most daytimes we are down the basement when our folks are at work).

I am leaving small bits of urine there. But I continue to use our litter boxes: one on the basement stairwell which I use faithfully, and one in the basement itself.

Sometimes they catch me in the act and sometimes they just notice the scent when I have left. Once I was caught about to do it, and was encouraged successfully to use my litter box instead.

They say thee pee events happen when I am ‘off’ – I’ve either gotten carried away with Skeeter and we’ve had to be separated, or I’ve hissed at Skeeter, or I’ve made growling noises when one of them has picked me up.

Why am I doing this Greyce? I love these stairs. I have particular steps on which I like to sleep. Am I jealous of Skeeter’s independent play since he is much more playful – even though we both get daily play sessions?

Just so you know, Greyce, we have three Feliway diffusers (one for each floor) and Themselves use Feliway spray on the stairs and surrounding walls.

Any advice you can give me would be appreciated.

Dear Dash,

First of all, congratulations on your excellent progress in adjusting to you new home! You have been through a great deal of change and are handling it well. You have special needs and will likely be less resilient than many, which means you need some special care and lots of patience.

Now let me cut to the chase, and get on to the topic at hand: Urine marking.

What Urine Marking Is

Small bits of urine indicate urine marking, rather than urination. At least they do to me. In other words, you are engaged in marking behaviour rather than urination (going to the bathroom, so to speak). Marking is a time-honoured method by which we purrsonalize our territory, communicate with other cats, and help us orient and feel comfortable. As you know, there are four kinds of marking – rubbing against things, scratching things, spraying or depositing small bits of urine, and depositing feces without burial. And they are arranged in order, meaning that we usually rub against things; but if we become more anxious (or concerned about asserting dominance) than we go up a notch or two – to scratching or urine deposition. So the bottom line is that urine marking gives you confidence by surrounding you with your own smell. It can be use to demonstrated dominance or to alleviate anxiety.

The Clues

Obviously we have to figure out the reason for doing this.

You have given me some clues.

First, you mark in an area of great importance to you – the first landing on the stairs leading from the main floor to the upstairs. I understand that you love to sleep on specific stair treads, namely the fourth step from the main floor and the fourth step to the second floor. And frankly I can’t quite figure out the relationship between these particular steps and where you are urine marking so please bear with me. Stairs are important connecting corridors as well as places of height, and thus have significance for cat safety and defense. And I think you find these stairs quite a safe area if you are prepared to sleep on some of the treads. In other words, this seems to be an area of safely/security for you.

Second, you already use a litter box in a similar part of the other set of stairs (the basement stairs). And you prefurr it to using the box on the basement floor itself. So there is something about peeing on stair landings (heights) that pleases you.

Third, the incidents occur when you are ‘off’ which I take to mean, out of sorts. This has two versions:

Version 1: when you have been over-stimulated in playing with Skeeter (and are then separated). For Skeeter’s and your safety, you need to be separated when things go over the top. Most cats would then just settle down quietly, given separation and time. Skeeter seems to manage this but it is more difficult for you. Over-stimulation raises your anxiety level and I gather you have these high anxiety levels which are not coming down quickly enough, and so you mitigate them by depositing some urine for comfort in an area that is a significant source of security for you (the stairs).

I am assuming that if this is the cause of your urine marking, the incident occurs shortly after your time-out. Does it? Because if it does, then maybe one of Themselves could settle somewhere on the stairs at that time (that is, around the time that you may be due to mark) and just talk to you quietly. This is called a security bridge – something or someone who gives you an added sense of comfort and safety, thereby reducing your anxiety level. Sometimes the presence of the purrson you trust is all that it takes. Of course, IF you will allow petting then gentle, slow strokes will help calm you as well.

Version 2: when someone gets too close to you and you are not in the mood (e.g. hissing and being picked up). The examples given of your ‘not being in the mood’ suggest a higher anxiety level as well. So the explanation above would apply here, too. Obviously in this case, however, everyone needs to keep their distance from you rather than try to offer you support. However, I’d still recommend the purrson sitting on the stairs trick, but with the purrson ignoring you (say, reading a magazine) and leaving it up to you to choose to interact or not.

There is also the concern that even watching Skeeter play might trigger this. It is possible but I cannot comment on this further without visiting you in purrson (and we know that we are separated by a great distance). But in case this is a trigger, here are some things to try:

a) Is it possible for one of Themselves to encourage you to leave the area where the playing is taking place. Purrhaps the two of you could go elsewhere? Out of sight, out of mind. And you could do a food puzzle in your new location (see below). (You could also do it while Skeeter plays, in his presence.)

b) Ever tried food puzzles? I know you are very food-motivated. There are a variety of food puzzles that make you hunt and might just be the motivation you need to keep you occupied and intellectually satisfied while Skeeter is playing with his toys. That would be a lot more fun for you than just watching him at play. I have listed some resources at the end of this blog for further information on food puzzles.

Feliway. It is wonderful that your folks are using their funds to install diffusers on each floor of the house as well as spray for the stair area. And obviously they are conscientious about spot clean up. I do wonder, however, if they are following the instructions carefully enough. Just as a reminder:

a) In terms of marking, Feliway works best for spray marking, that is, urine deposition on walls or vertical surfaces. Is any of your marking of this nature? Because Feliway makes no claims for horizontal marking. Now that may be because most people cannot distinguish between horizontal marking and urination. I don’t know. So I’d continue with the Feliway spray just in case, but without huge expectations of miracles. The diffusers are serving another purpose and should be maintained anyway

b) While Themselves can clean up your marking with water or an odourless solution, make sure that whatever they use does not contain ammonia or bleach and scent as any of these elements can interfere with Feliway’s ability to do its job. I would normally recommend Stink Free as a cleaner (since Bud of Brandon gives it four paws up) but I’m not sure if it meets these criteria. So for whatever Themselves use, please make sure they check the ingredients list.

c) The area over which Feliway spray is used, must be clean and dry before Feliway itself is applied.

The Challenge of Horizontal Urine Marking

Horizontal marking is often confused with inappropriate elimination. The reasons for this are complex. Both kinds of urine can look the same. And many of us mark INSIDE out litter boxes as well as using them for urination. So it isn’t always easy to figure out. The bottom line is that we need to rule out two possibilities. One is that you really are just wanting to use the litter box and like that particular location. The reason I say that is not only because one of the most famous veterinary behaviourists (Dr. Karen Overall) says so but also because you’ve already shared your enjoyment of using the litter box on the downstairs’ landing. The other is that you may be amenable to doing your marking in a litter box is one is in the area. The way to test this out, it to put a litter box over the area in question and see if you use it. So please ask your folks to go ahead with this now.

A Summary of My Advice

1. Use a purrson as a security bridge on the stairs if and when it is practical to do so

2. Consider removing yourself from the scene if Skeeter’s play bothers you. Or distract yourself with food puzzles.

3. Make sure your purrsons are using the right kind of urine cleaner.

4. Make sure your purrsons are using Feliway correctly.

5. Install a litter box where you like to mark.

Now keep me posted and we’ll take it from there.

Oh, I almost forgot! Here is a list of resources about food puzzles (some of which can be purchased and some which your folks can make for you).

Resources for Food Puzzles

Frederick Cat Vet Frederick Cat Vet Recommended:This site is by a veterinarian and this entry has 3 food puzzle toys that your folks can easily and inexpensively make for you - complete with photos!

Pet Place (This site has many articles and this particular one is by Dr. Dodman, a behaviourist. Scroll down to the part on food puzzles where he gives some suggestions of ones you can have your slaves make for you.


 Alyona Russian Blues After watching interminable videos on You Tube, I found this excellent one on food puzzles. Be patient and watch the whole thing, because you will see many different puzzles - some you can buy (at least in Europe though I'm trying to find out if they are available in North America) and some you can make. Just be careful about the egg carton one; I'm concerned about the string for those of us who just can't resist such stuff and could get tangled or ingest it if not supervised. However, I'm confident there are other ways to seal the egg carton that could work just as well - so figure it out! All in all a worthwhile viewing - especially since these cats have a coat colour similar to mine.

Some Food Puzzles You Can Buy (in no particular order)

Note: Many food puzzles were first designed as a way of dealing with feline obesity. Don't take that purrsonally! Food puzzles provide intellectual stimulation and give you a chance to use your predatory drive. As such they are part of a program of overall environmental enrichment and can help alleviate both boredome and anxiety.

 Pipolino (This site has various videos of cats using the product as well as one on how Themselves can fill the toy with food. There is a user guide which can be downloaded, a store locator and an on-line store if the product is not available in your area.)

Feeding Frenzy (This toy is somewhat like Pipolino. The site has a video, FAQs, and the ability to order the toy on-line).

Cat Activity Fun Board (This site is from Germany. Make sure you choose English unless you speak German, of course. In the search box put Cat Activity Fun Board - otherwise you will have quite the time trying to find it. I'm not sure about availability in North America but this one is highly recommended for environmental enrichment. If I'm lucky, purrhaps Herself will get me one for the holidays (hint, hint) and then I can tell you more.

 Peek A Prize (Several different versions available, this is a high-end model of a simple puzzle box. While pricey, some of you might consider it IF you are 'hard' on toys or live with other cats who will give it a workout. My colleague Kahlua endorses this and she lives with several other cats.)

Best of luck Dash,