Outside the Box

Cats and the litterbox

Does your cat not use his litter box? Does he “go” all over the house? This problem is one of the major reasons owners relinquish pet cats to a shelter or rescue. Poor bathroom etiquette within the home can be hard to live with: the smell, the constant cleaning, ruined furniture, and the cost of replacing soiled items are all difficult and costly. Feline elimination issues are not uncommon, but the causes — and solutions — are sometimes difficult to determine. In this article we will consider the possibilities for the cause of the behaviour and feasible remedies.

Medical Examination

When faced with inconsistent litter box use, the first step is to consult your veterinarian. There are multiple illnesses prevalent in cats that can lead to inappropriate elimination behaviors. Some of the more common conditions include urinary tract infections, feline lower urinary tract disease, crystals in the urine, bladder stones, inflammation of the bowels, kidney disease, diabetes, and thyroid issues. In some cases, serious blockages in the digestive tract may cause discomfort and abnormal toileting habits. A visit to your veterinarian can rule out or treat medical causes of your cat’s behaviour.

Behavioral Considerations

Location Preference

Some felines are extremely picky when it comes to the location of their litter box. Cats that soil in a specific location or outside of the box most likely have an issue with placement. Try putting the litter box away from high traffic areas and try locating it in different places within the home to see if there is a difference. Ask yourself: is the box conveniently located? Is it private? Is it too close to feeding and water areas? Cats will avoid soiling where they eat and drink, while others will skip the litter box if it is not easily accessible. Ideally, have one accessible litter box on each floor of a multi-level house.

Litter Material Preference

Cats can have individual preferences as to the type, size, and condition of litter within the box. There are many varieties on the market, making it hard to sometimes choose the right litter. The use of fragrant material may be pleasing to humans but unattractive to some of our feline friends. Also, daily cleaning and maintenance will encourage your cat to use the box successfully; they usually don’t want to use a pan filled with days’ worth of urine and feces. Also consider litter depth when maintaining your pan as cats naturally like to bury and hide their excretions, which is not possible when there is not enough litter in the box. For some cats the use of liners complicates using the box, causing them to avoid it.

Box Preference

In some cases the size, construction, or shape of the litter box is unappealing to the cat. Some adapt well to enclosed dome shapes, whereas others prefer open containers. Some cats prefer larger litter boxes. If your cat is eliminating on a variety of surfaces away from the litter box, it may have a preference for style.

Adequate number of litter boxes

In multi-pet households, stress can be induced through bullying behavior and other cats may block access to the litter box. Ensure enough boxes are available in a multi-cat household: one for each cat in the home, plus one more.

Stress Induced Problems

Various lifestyle changes can dramatically impact your cat’s toileting habits. A recent move, the addition of another pet, a change in family dynamic, and variation in routine can all contribute to stress. Tension can also exist if feral cats are in your neighborhood causing territorial rivalry. Eliminate or mitigate the stress if you can, and wait for your cat to adjust to its new routine and surroundings.

Spraying Behavior

Many house soiling complaints are related to spraying or urine marking. This is not commonly a cause for elimination issues outside of the litter box and is most often associated with sexual behavior. Tomcats are generally the main culprits and will target vertical surfaces to spread their scent. Further reasons for spraying include learned aversion, territorial disputes, and anxiety.

If your cat is having toileting issues, consult with a certified animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist to discuss modification and treatment options. In mild cases where occasional incidents occur, good household management, change in litter box care, and adapting to cat preferences can go a long way. In more extreme cases where medical conditions have been ruled out and management has been unsuccessful, pharmaceutical support may be required alongside behavior modification.

Charlotte Wagner Harvey
About Charlotte Wagner Harvey 21 Articles
Charlotte Wagner Harvey holds a Bachelors of Science with honors in Animal Management from the University of Essex with a special interest in behavior. As a dog trainer and the owner of K9ology in Warrenton, she helps dog owners and dogs find common ground to establish a peaceful life together. Her core tenets: there are no shortcuts, it is hard, and do it right or don’t do it at all. She lives in Rappahannock County with her husband and a farm full of animals including horses, chickens, cats, and, of course, dogs.

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