The Unabridged Guide to Litter Box Problems
Cats urinating on beds, couches, carpeting, and even their owners clothes–why do some cats enjoy scratching around in their litter boxes to the point of absurdity while others will use the litter box only sporadically or will avoid it entirely as though it were a cat-eating monster? Two different examples of behavior problems: One person confessed that her cat, Mitzi, had not defecated in the litter box for 11 years! Another person said she hadn’t cleaned the litter box for three months because her cat, Jed, wouldn’t go near it. She did, however, have to clean her bed linens on a daily basis because Jed reliably chose the bed for his bathroom, even when she was in it.
Not all cat owners are as long-suffering as these two, but all of them love their cats and want to see the end of a problem that is severely straining their relationship with their furry friend. Is it possible to correct housesoiling problems with any degree of certainty that they will not recur? The answer is “yes“, provided that the owner is willing to follow some important recommendations that will work with the cat’s basic nature and instincts to modify the behavior. It’s not difficult or expensive to solve problems of inappropriate elimination, but it does require a willingness to see life from the cat’s point of view.
Cats are pre-programmed to seek out an easily-raked substrate in which to eliminate. That’s why kittens need very little training. Just place them in a litter box after a big meal and their instincts take over. If Kitty is not selecting the litter box as their preferred area, then something is wrong. Perhaps they have a urinary or intestinal disorder that makes elimination uncontrollable or painful. They may be associating the litter box with discomfort and is therefore avoiding it. It is important to know that there may be no obvious symptoms of a health problem (cats are masters at hiding pain) other than the cat’s inconsistent use of the litter box. It is always advisable to first rule out health considerations by taking Kitty to the veterinarian. In the case of inappropriate urination, a urinalysis is a good first procedure. If the problem is defecation, a fresh stool sample will be needed. Cats that are six months of age or older should be spayed or neutered to help prevent urine marking. If the cat is already urine marking, sterilization at any age will eliminate the behavior in 90% of male cats and 95% of female cats.
If the problem is not Kitty’s health or hormones, then perhaps the litter box is the problem. Are they eliminating near the litter box, but not in it? If so, this may indicate that their intent was to use the litter box, but for some reason, they just couldn’t bring themselves to get into it. Usually this is because it is too dirty. Remember that cats are self-cleaning. They are not going to voluntarily step into moist or dirty litter that they will later have to clean off their paws or fur. (If they weren’t so fastidious, would we really want them to walk all over us and our homes and furnishings?) Since their senses are far more acute than ours, what is not offensive to us may be unbearable to them.
Have you changed litters? Is the new litter a different texture or scent? Being creatures of habit cats don’t appreciate sudden changes. Don’t surprise Kitty with the new litter you bought on sale today or she may surprise you with a present of her own. The money you saved on litter can be easily negated by the cost of cleaning products necessary to neutralize Kitty’s objection. If you want to introduce a new litter to your cat, place a litter box containing the new litter next to her old litter box. Add a scent cue to the new litter letting her know that it is intended for her use by taking a small amount of urine or stool from the old box and placing it in the new litter. If after several weeks they are using the new litter enthusiastically, then you can dispense with the old litter. However, if they try it only occasionally, don’t risk offering the new litter exclusively. Remember that it is Kitty’s preferences, not yours, that count when it comes to the litter box.
If the litter you are using is scented or if you are adding a fragranced deodorizer to the litter, you can immediately eliminate this irritant from the equation and at the same time improve your cat’s quality of life. Perfume is a very effective cat repellent.
The feel of the litter is also of great interest to the cat. An abrupt change from a sand-like litter to a pellet or crystal variety may shake her world (and soil yours!). Declawed cats tend to be especially sensitive to the litter texture because of extreme pain. Most cats prefer the feel of the scoopable litters. Pioneer Pet makes a litter called “SmartCat™” and is a favorite with the cats and pet parents. Please see the instructions printed for the proper use of this wonderful litter.
Sometimes the solution to a housesoiling problem is as simple as adding another litter box, keeping the boxes cleaner, removing the hoods, eliminating the liners, or offering a more natural litter like SmartCat. Also what can do the job is a new litter box of a different shape or color, look at Pioneer Pet® “litter boxes“. When the litter box improvements do not effect a change for the better, and the cat has been given a clean bill of health by the veterinarian, then it is time to consider other possible stressors and retraining the cat to the litter box.
Cats are very intelligent and sensitive little creatures that are highly reactive to their environment (some more so than others) and the stress target in cats is their bladders. Most people recognize some of the obvious stressors: a new baby, a new pet, remodeling or moving to a new home but the more subtle stressors may be overlooked: less attention from the cat’s favorite person due to a revised work schedule, infrequent or inadequate feedings, the scent of another cat on a visitor’s clothing, the sight of a stray cat from the window. We may not be aware of Kitty’s anxiety until we actually step in it. (This is a good time to remember that punishment never corrects inappropriate elimination problems, but it can make them worse by increasing the cat’s stress.)
Sometimes it takes the skill of a detective to determine what is upsetting the cat. The location of the urine or fecal marking may suggest a cause. For example, the cat who urinates on beds, clothes, or even directly in front of the owner, is often trying to communicate:
- a painful health problem
- severe discomfort over an environmental stressor
- distress relating to the individual whose belongings are being soiled
Ironically, cats often seek out the comforting scent of their favorite person when they are in pain or are stressed, but occasionally, a cat will selectively urinate on items belonging the individual who annoys or frightens the cat.
If the urine or fecal marking is located near a window or patio door, the culprit could be a stray cat. The sight of another animal so close to Kitty’s home base often triggers territorial marking, especially spraying. These problems are most common in spring when free-roaming cats are more likely to frequent yards and porches looking for a mate. When the windows are opened and the soft spring breeze wafts into the home, so does the urine scent of the local tom cat who left his wet calling card on the front door the night before.
There are a few creative products on the market designed to keep animal trespassers out of your yard. A simpler solution is to keep the drapes or blinds shut at times outside animals are most likely to approach the house. If this happens only at night, then Kitty can be made comfortable in another area of the house away from the room with the view.
It may be the cats inside the home that are stressing the problem cat. There is a strong correlation between the number of cats in the household and spraying behavior. If there is competition for food, litter boxes, favorite resting areas, or attention from the owner, then there is likely to be some jockeying for dominance which often involves urine marking. In multi-cat families it is advisable to break up the areas of biological significance to the cats by having several feeding stations, by placing litter boxes in different parts of the house and
by having lots of cozy hide-outs and resting areas, preferably in high places. Since the most important resource in the cat’s territory is the parent, the food provider, tensions can be greatly eased if each cat is given some individual attention during the day. If these measures are not sufficient to harmonize the relationships in the cat family, then it may be necessary to separate certain cats in different parts of the house or it may be in the cats best interests to re-home one or more of them.
One product that is effective in reducing or eliminating the incidence of territorial spraying is Feliway. This product mimics facial pheromones and can be sprayed on prominent objects in the cat’s environment. When the cat sniffs the pheromone, the chemical message reads something like this, “All is well. This spot has been marked facially–no need for urine marking”, just relax.
No house soiling problem can be completely cured without addressing the need to clean and neutralize the soiled areas. If the scent lingers, it will be a constant reminder to the cat that this area was once used as a litter box alternative and that it can be used again. In the case of a vertical urine mark (from spraying) the slowly fading scent will remind Kitty that his chemical message needs to be freshened. While many products promise to eliminate the odor of cat urine, few actually do.
To accurately identify the areas that need cleaning rent or purchase an ultra-violet light. The urine should fluoresce under the light, saving your nose from having to sniff out the problem spots.
After the soiled areas have been thoroughly cleaned, place solid air fresheners in these locations to break Kitty’s habit of revisiting the scene of the crime. Experiment with different fragrances to discover which is most repelling to your cat. Keep in mind that many cats dislike a citrus smell. Spray repellents and plug-in air fresheners are not a good choice because it is difficult to determine at what point have they lost their effectiveness and should be renewed.
Deterrents should remain in place for at least a month after Kitty has been using the litter box regularly. When the treated areas are dry, a very affected product sold be Pioneer pet is “Sticky Paws™”. You can also try a vinyl carpet runner to be placed (spike side up!) in the problem area. Small motion detectors are also very effective at keeping cats out of selected locations. Don’t be tempted to protect the area by covering it with plastic as many cats particularly enjoy urinating on plastic.
This aversion conditioning along with the attraction strategy of providing a highly appealing litter box near the previously soiled area solves a majority of inappropriate elimination problems. Some cats, however, require a short re-training or re-conditioning period. This is accomplished by restricting the cat to a comfortable small room with its litter boxes, food and water (not located near the litter boxes), bed and toys and a window would be great. Confinement should not be considered punishment and the cat should be regularly visited and played with during this re-training period. Any excursions outside the room should be carefully monitored and gradually lengthened until the cat can be left out with confidence. By affording no opportunity for inappropriate behavior, the proper behavior becomes routine.
Re-conditioning the cat to eliminate exclusively in designated areas is particularly useful in cases where the reason for the inconsistent litter box use is not well understood. An example: A cat from another state that had come to the attention of a caring individual who wished to save this friendly and unusual feline. The cat was born with a severe deformity. He has no lower legs or paws. He is amazingly proficient at moving himself around by utilizing the upper portion of his legs. Other than his locomotion problem, he is in all other respects a normal, healthy, happy, affectionate cat. He actually lived outside until he was discovered by a woman who kept him in a cage for several months where he virtually lived in his litter box.
This cat had no idea that the litterbox was the only designated spot for elimination. By understanding his history and carefully observing his substrate preferences, within a week he was trained to use the litter box exclusively. It was discovered that he did not like to eliminate on the bare linoleum floor however he would occasionally use the sandy substrate in the easy-access litter box provided for him. He would also eliminate on anything else that was left on the floor. By temporarily confining him to an area with only the bare floor, his litterbox, bed, food and water, he was successfully re-conditioned to use his litter box reliably. He is now a very happy, lovable cat dispite his handicap.
It is through careful observation that the clues are discovered that reveal the solutions to litter box avoidance. No one is in a better position to make these discoveries than you, the pet parent. You know your cat’s unique personality and behavior patterns better than anyone else because you live with them. Take the time to notice their behavior in and around the litterbox. It will give you an idea of how they feel about their litter box. If they spend as little time as possible in the box–with hardly any digging or scratching in the litter–it could be that the substrate is offensive to them . If they use the litter, but after they exit the box they proceed to scratch on the floor outside of the box, he may be finding the litter box too small and confining to accommodate this natural behavior. This is a sign that they are trying to do what comes naturally and instinctually to them, but there is something wrong.
Some cats have special needs and deserve extra consideration. For example, particular attention should be given to the unique problems of long-haired cats who may periodically find bits of stool sticking to their fur and may avoid the litterbox for that reason. They may also be disturbed by the fine-grained litter clinging to the tufts of fur on their paws–in which case they might be happier with a different textured substrate. (Trimming the fur in the problem areas may be all that is needed). Declawed cats may also require special considerations as lingering paw sensitivity and pain may force them to seek out smooth or soft surfaces for elimination purposes.
Whatever the reason for the inconsistent use of the litter box, with a little work and a little patience, it can be solved!
Ten Steps to Solving Housesoiling Problems:
- Have the cat checked by a veterinarian to rule out the possibility that health problems are causing the litter box avoidance.
- Make sure that the litter box situation is ideal–clean, natural, and convenient.
- Identify possible stressors for the cat.
- Eliminate the stressor, if possible. Otherwise, systematically desensitize the cat to the anxiety-producing stimulus.
- Thoroughly clean soiled areas with a strong enzymatic cleaner to remove any lingering odor.
- Place deterrents in the problem areas for at least a month to break the cat’s habit of revisiting these spots after a good clean-up.
- If possible place a new litter box in a location that is near the target area and where it can remain indefinitely.
- Give the problem cat extra attention on a regular basis by practicing play therapy (interactive play with a fishing pole-type toy, etc.).
- Don’t give up! There is always a humane solution for every behavior problem.