A new study by Brazilian veterinary behaviourist and feline welfare researcher Dr Daniela Ramos and her colleagues published earlier this year, adds to the growing evidence to indicate that cats who urine spray indoors live in stressful environments.
However, to really help all cats in those homes, this new research shows that we need to focus on remedying the stressful environment rather than just interventions designed solely for the urine spraying cat.
Traditionally, people have tended to seek a solution for the cat who is spraying, even if they have several cats, but this new research indicates that all of the cats may be physiologically stressed, even if they don’t show it by marking with urine. The researchers looked at the level of stress hormone breakdown products in the faeces of cats from multicat homes with either a spraying or litter box (latrining) problem. Importantly they didn’t just look at the stress level of the “problem” cats, they also looked at these levels in cats in the same home who were showing no clinical behavioural signs of house soiling (spraying or inappropriate latrining). They found it was the household rather than the behaviours from an individual cat that separated the cat populations; ie, cats, from homes where there was a sprayer (whether or not they were showing this specific behaviour themselves) appeared more stressed than those from homes where there was a problem with the latrine. Their results are supported by a behavioural test they did, which seemed to indicate cats from homes where there was a sprayer were more restless in an observational test than those from households with a latrine issue, but again there was no difference between cats from the same household. These results indicate that households in which a cat exhibits urine spraying, are generally more aroused, but “sprayers” are not more aroused than their housemates. Accordingly, it seems reasonable to suggest that appropriate management of these cases needs to be applied to the whole household to help alleviate the potential stress of all the cats in the home, and not just the one expressing this through urinary spraying behaviour.
These results are especially intriguing since another study by the same research group last year (Ramos et al., 2019), found that cats from homes where there was a latrine problem (ie, toileting outside of the litterbox), regardless of whether they were the culprit not using the litter tray, were all at a higher risk of medical issues than normal cats, along with cats with a spraying problem (but not those who lived with them).
So to summarise:
- Sprayers (and others in the same household) appear more stressed than those cats in latrining households.
- Cats from latrining households (both culprit and others) and sprayers appear to have more related medical issues than other cats (including those that live with sprayers)
Confused? Don’t worry, Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine at the University of Lincoln, UK, and one of the authors on both of the papers gives us a bit more insight.
“At first sight the results from the two studies seem contradictory, but I am beginning to think we have a couple of things going on here.
In the case of households with a spraying cat we think there are probably events going on which are affecting all the cats, but only one of the cats takes on the responsibility to mark the area. This activity may be quite demanding and so put an additional load on the sprayer’s urinary system in the longer term. This puts that individual at greater risk of urinary tract disease, as we saw in our earlier work.
By contrast the situation is quite different in households where there is a latrine issue. In these cases, the urine may not contain the chemicals that make it an important signal, and so the insanitary environment may be more generally aversive. This form of stress may not result in the sort of high arousal stress seen in some situations that is revealed by measuring things like cortisol. If you think about it, avoiding a soiled area is fairly easy to do and so doesn’t require a lot of effort, but that does not mean that you don’t find it unpleasant and so distressing. The unpleasantness of the situation may then take its toll on all the cats. Such chronic stress can result in an increased risk of disease and this might be why all the cats in such a household are affected.
Clearly there is a lot for us still to investigate, but an important message from these two studies is the importance of getting your cats checked out if you have a house soiling problem (for whatever reason), and if it seems to be related to marking, then you need to focus on more than the sprayer. Thus calming pheromone products like Feliway® which diffuse throughout the home may be particularly valuable in these instances.”
We also chatted to Daniela Ramos, one of the author’s of the study to tell us a bit more about why they did the study and why it’s important for cat welfare, and also to hear a little bit about why cats mean so much to Daniela and what she likes about us!
1 – Tell us a little more about yourself
My name is Daniela Ramos and I am a veterinary behaviourist from Brazil. I have always loved cats and have been interested in their emotional lives. Thus, being a vet behaviourist and a researcher allows me to get close to their feelings and thoughts besides helping people and cats to live more happily together. And this is one of the most important things in my life that contributes to make me a very happy person!
2 – What was your inspiration for the study?
My inspiration was all the cats around the world that are abandoned or put to sleep due to elimination problems. We still have a lot to discover about these very common problems in order to be able to better treat these cats thus saving thousands of them. More research was (and still is) needed on this topic.
3 – What was the aim of the study?
The study aimed at using a consistent scientific approach to evaluate the common assumption that cats with inappropriate urination (urinating in the home but out of the litter tray/box) are stressed.
4 – How did you conduct your study?
The study was conducted at the University of São Paulo, Brazil with the financial support of FAPESP foundation. We examined faecal cortisol metabolite (FCM) levels in cats using a case-control design. Cortisol is a hormone which rises in concentration in the body when aroused, both negatively aroused and positively aroused. Eleven physically healthy urine spraying cats and twelve physically healthy cats who were urinating outside of the litter tray/box were included in the study and compared to behaviourally normal and similarly healthy control subjects from the same multi-cat (n = 3–9) households, as well as to each other.
Individual faecal samples were collected by owners from both “case” (urine spraying and inappropriate urination cats) and “control” cats after observing them defecate. A total of five samples per cat (typically taken on a weekly basis) were collected and analysed. Participant cats, both “cases” and controls, were also individually video recorded (together with the owner) for a 5 minute behaviour test.
5- What were your main findings?
FCM levels were significantly higher in individuals (“sprayers” and their controls) from spraying households than from the latrining (inappropriate urination) households (“latriners” and their controls). However, very interestingly, there was no significant difference between cats from the same household. Within a video observation test, cats from spraying households spent proportionally more time moving (as opposed to stationary), but again there was no significant differences between cats from the same household. These results indicate that households in which a cat exhibits urine spraying, are generally more aroused as shown by increased FCM and physical movement. However, “sprayers” are not more aroused than their housemates.
6- Was there anything that surprised you?
We did expect to find higher FCM levels in the “spraying” houses (versus “latrining” houses) but also to find higher levels in the “case” cats (versus “control” cats) from “spraying” houses. We were indeed surprised by not finding the latter. But giving it some thought and digesting the results, this now makes sense as stressors can potentially triggers cats known to urine spray to spray while triggering non-sprayers to perform other behaviours linked to stress but not as clear as spraying behaviour. Other behaviours may include aggression and active avoidance of the stressor(s).
7- What would be your top tips from the results of your study and who would they be for?
My main tip is to care for all cats in a multi-cat household with spraying problems and not just the “sprayer(s)”. Appropriate management needs to be applied to the whole household to help alleviate the stress experienced by all the cats in the home, and not just the one expressing this through urinary spraying behaviour.
8- Where do you hope the results of this study take you next?
Two main questions arising from these results are:
- whether cats from multi-cat households with elimination problems (spraying and inappropriate urination) have different social relationships with each other in comparison to other households without elimination problems.
- whether “spraying” households differ from “toileting” households in terms of social interactions among the cats.
We already have some answers for these coming in our next paper so stay tuned for more publications from us on this topic
9 – It’s clear your research tackles issues with the aim of improving the welfare of cats but do cats feature anywhere else in your life?
Yes, they are in almost all the places in my life. I have always had cats and at this moment they are 4 in my multi-cat household. There are also my loving patients in the behaviour clinic I run in São Paulo, Brazil.
10- What’s your favourite thing about iCatCare?
We can clearly see from all you do (eg, courses, events, campaigns) that strong loving and caring for cats is what drives iCatCare – and this is my favourite thing about iCatCare!
Ramos, D., Reche-Junior, A., Luzia Fragoso, P., Palme, R., Handa, P., Chelini, M.O. and Mills, D.S, 2020. A Case-Controlled Comparison of Behavioural Arousal Levels in Urine Spraying and Latrining Cats. Animals, 10(1), p.117.
Ramos, D., Reche-Junior, A., Mills, D.S., Fragoso, P.L., Daniel, A.G., Freitas, M.F., Cortopassi, S.G. and Patricio, G., 2019. A closer look at the health of cats showing urinary house-soiling (periuria): a case-control study. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 21(8), pp.772-779.