It is always a point of concern when a cat is surrendered with a history of inappropriate elimination in the home. Having a shelter protocol in place to address each animal is beneficial to rule out particular causes. Evaluation of the inappropriate eliminator should always include analysis of the home environment, behavioral causes, and medical causes.
Evaluation of the Home Environment
It is highly recommended that owners surrendering animals with a history of inappropriate elimination fill out a separate surrender form detailing these circumstances in their home. This simple questionnaire can reveal information that may increase your suspicion of either a medical or behavioral cause. Some question to consider include duration of the problem, changes in the home environment, sources of stress, number of pets in the household, etc. Note where the elimination is occurring (vertical surfaces, one other location, the bathroom, everywhere). Other things to consider are the number of boxes available, their location, their substrate, and their cleaning frequency. These questions may help to identify a stress factor that caused the change in behavior or guide you to evaluate another cause.
Cats that have been eliminating outside of the litter box may have a medical reason for doing so (pain, infection, dysfunction, systemic disease, cancer). If an animal is experiencing painful urination, they may associate that pain with being in the litter box. This association may encourage the cat to seek other seemingly more comfortable places to urinate. It has been hypothesized that animals will seek out cool surfaces such as tile or ceramic that may be considered more comfortable or soothing. It is highly beneficial to have these animals evaluated by a veterinarian. When evaluating the inappropriate eliminator, a thorough physical exam should be performed first. Abnormalities may be palpated in the organ in question or pain may be noted that can narrow down potential causes. Urine should be examined for abnormalities as well as a serum chemistry (blood test) to evaluate kidney function, systemic function, and/or infection. Finally, a focused urinary tract ultrasound, if available, should be performed to observe gross abnormalities associated with the organs in question.
Behavioral evaluation may be limited in the shelter to observing litter box habits. Have shelter staff monitor where the cat is eliminating consistently. Changes can be attempted in the shelter to see if the cat prefers a different kind of litter or box size.
The Best Offense
Potential adopters should be notified about the history of inappropriate elimination in previous homes/the shelter. Along with this information, supply suggestions as to what cats prefer in terms of the litter box. Most cats prefer non-scented clay litter and uncovered litter boxes. Cats should have a litter box big enough for them to stand and turn around in (approximately 1.5x the size of the cat). Finding an ideal litter box can be difficult for large cats and geriatric animals that may not be able to easily get into or position themselves. In that case, low sided storage bins (such as under the bed plastic storage) can be used as a cheap and well-sized alternative to the litter boxes pet stores supply. Litter boxes should be placed in quiet areas with minimal foot traffic. The ideal number of litter boxes in a home should be the number of cats in the home plus one. The boxes should be cleaned frequently, ideally once per day and washed weekly. Some cats may require even more frequent cleaning. Even if conditions are ideal, some cats may require troubleshooting. Have resources available for owners and adopters that provide strategies for litterbox success.
Keep in mind that we cannot solve every inappropriate eliminator. If all else fails, consider an outdoor home!