Top 5 Signs of Urinary Tract Troubles in Cats and Dogs

Learn what to watch for when to seek veterinary help quickly

Cat in the Litterbox
Cat in the Litterbox. Leslie Morris/Getty

Some of the most common questions and concerns about cats as pets relate to urinary problems. What might be seen as "spraying" and ignored, could be urinary tract irritation or an infection.

What Is Spraying?

Spraying is a behavioral issue; utilized by cats (male and female) to communicate. When a cat sprays, urine is usually, but not always, released on vertical surfaces. The spraying posture differs from normal urination; when spraying, the cat backs up to the wall or ​another vertical surface, the tail extended and often twitching rapidly.

Spraying is an undesirable behavior in the home that can be managed and hopefully stopped after medical causes have been ruled out. Your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist will determine the best course of action for your pet and household.

In contrast, a cat with a medical problem of the urinary tract will assume a normal elimination posture and void urine on horizontal surfaces. They may also urinate in the sink, in the laundry or other places besides the litter box.

Inflammation and infection of the urinary tract are painful and when crystals are present, potentially deadly for male cats, who have a smaller diameter urethra. Medical treatment is essential.

Even though this is a question about a cat, these top five signs seen in cats are also relevant to dogs (except the litter box mentions, of course).

Top 5 Signs of Urinary Tract Troubles

1. Urinating out of the litter box / Having accidents in the house: Cats may associate pain with the litter box and find other places to urinate. There are many behavioral reasons (the cat doesn't like a new or strongly scented litter, stress, multi-cat household issues, etc.) for this problem to occur with cats, but a medical problem — urinary tract infection, inflammation or blockage — must always be ruled out first.

Senior cats, especially those that suffer from arthritis, may have difficulty getting into or out of the litter box, and find other, more "accessible" places to urinate. In this case, finding a low, large box that is easy to use may eliminate inappropriate urination. Urinary and kidney infections are common in older cats however, so a medical problem should be ruled out first.

It should be noted that cats may avoid the litter box after being treated for a urinary (or bowel) issue because they associate that box (or litter, or...) with the discomfort of the previous illness. A thorough washing of the litter box or a new litter box and fresh litter may be needed to start over.

Dogs that experience urine leakage or have urinary accidents in the house (forgetting house-training) should also be checked out for a urinary tract infection or incontinence.

2. Urinating more frequently: Often trying to urinate so frequently that very little or no urine is produced. This repeated straining and squatting may be mistaken as constipation, which is another condition that warrants a visit to the vet's office.

Important: not being able to urinate could indicate a partial or complete blockage of the urethra, particularly in male dogs and cats, and is a life-threatening emergency. Minutes and hours matter. Don’t wait – call your vet.

3. Pain or blood with urination: Crying, yowling, or in pain when picked up (abdominal area). These would seem like obvious problems that need to be seen immediately, but I receive questions about what can be done for pet’s bloody or painful urination at home. Answer: see your vet as soon as possible!

4. Excessive licking of "private parts": Sometimes the licking can cause secondary irritation, too.

5. Lethargy, not eating, "cranky" behavior: These signs may be seen with a variety of diseases, and should always be checked out at first notice of your pet not being him/herself.

Urinary Problems Are Serious

A partial or total blockage can become life-threatening within hours. For pets experiencing urinary difficulties, is always best to have then checked out by your veterinarian and treatment initiated as soon as possible. Your vet will rule out a medical problem (versus behavioral) with your pet. Then, if no medical issues are found, behavioral issues and modification can be addressed.

Please note: this article has been provided for informational purposes only. If your pet is showing any signs of illness, please consult a veterinarian as quickly as possible.