Feline urine marking—thinking outside the box (Proceedings)
Cats who eliminate outside the litter box pose serious problems for owners that may force the family to place, surrender or euthanize the cat. In many cases, treatment is highly effective with resolution rates between 80-90% if the problem has been properly diagnosed. Many referral cases show that there is still some insecurity in differentiation between and accurately diagnosis the two main causes of elimination problems, namely inappropriate elimination (voiding urine and /or feces in an undesired location) and urine marking (spraying urine on vertical or horizontal surfaces; communication behavior). Fecal marking (middening) has been described in cats, but occurs rarely.
Before the veterinarian starts a behavior work-up, it is best to first determine whether there is an underlying physical problem that could cause the issue. The minimum work up should include a thorough physical exam, urine analysis (cysto) and high quality radiographs. Depending on the results, CBC and Serum Biochemistry Profile should be submitted as needed. Since Idiopathic Cystitis is an intermittently recurring problem and the initial urinalysis often does not show any abnormalities, several urinalyses might be necessary in cases that fail to respond to treatment if it is unclear whether there is a physical or behavioral problem. It is not uncommon that clients are convinced that a certain cat in the home is responsible for house soiling issues, which may or may not be accurate. Unfortunately, tests such as oral flurescein application, is not reliable in determining the culprit, forcing clients and clinicians to rely on observation and treatment trials, if needed.
Urine marking (spraying) is a normal (highly undesirable) behavior used for olfactory communication in territorial animals, including the domestic cat. Regardless of gender and reproductive status, both indoor and outdoor cats may urine mark. Approximately five percent of female spayed cats and 10% or male castrated cats will urine mark. As a result of territorial behavior and intraspecific aggression, the incidence is increased in multi-cat homes and homes in areas with a population of free-roaming or feral cats. Part of the assessment is therefore a careful exploration of the cats' social interactions since treatment for urine marking will be ineffective until underlying causes have been resolved. The behavior history must include specific questions that allow the clinician to determine tension between cats. Since many clients are unable to detect and correctly interpret the cats' signals it is very useful and at times essential to observe the cats, making home visits a extremely valuable tool. Social tension, leading to aggression and/or anxiety, may also occur in homes with one cat since the cat will respond to issues and tension between owner and pet or issues that may arise in households that home to other species, such as dogs or birds.To prevent urine marking, clients should be advised to castrate cats as early as possible. If clients plan to keep more than one cat, it is important to share that the likelihood of cat-cat aggression and subsequent urine marking is lower in homes with female cats or male-female pairs. Systematic and slow introductions of new cats can be another important tool to prevent aggression and urine marking.
Treatment of urine marking consists or environmental management, behavior modification, the use of synthetic pheromones analogues, and pharmacological treatment. Environmental management can include a variety of elements, such as recommendations that help eliminate scent reliably as cats will mark areas that were previously soiled to 'refresh' a fading scent or to cover the scent of another pet. Territorial issues may require restructuring feeding sites, resting spots, and litter box location. Conflicts between 'the offender' and other individuals in the home require behavior modification programs that are based on learning principles that we will discuss in detail. Pharmacological interventions can support treatment and require careful assessment and monitoring as they can impact underlying anxiety as well as aggression. Clients need to understand the drugs' mode of action and monitor for side effects, ensuring patient safety.