"Punishment" is not in your cat's vocabulary. Positive reinforcement of good behavior -- with treats, attention and verbal praise -- solves most kitty behavioral problems.read more
When Pete Roberts’ cat Tony began to relieve himself while standing in the litter box, the Brooklyn, N.Y., resident was appalled. “We didn’t know what was wrong, but we had to do damage control fast,” he says. At a loss as to why Tony developed this annoying habit, which allowed him to spray over the top of his litter box, Roberts and his wife had to get creative. “We bought one of those litter boxes with a lid and made a ‘hinge’ inside with packaging tape,” says Roberts. This way, when Tony aimed higher than his 4-inch litter box, the only thing wet was the tape in the back of the box.
Countless other cat owners find themselves equally challenged by their pets’ sudden elimination mishaps. Perhaps even your own feline falls into that bathroom hit-or-miss group. Despite your feline’s mysterious nature, there are ways to discover why kitty is giving you grief, as well as steps you can take to solve common litter box problems.
Readers of The Daily Cat have posted numerous questions on this very subject. For example, several owners are concerned because their feline friend pees all over expensive rugs and precious furniture. We asked animal behaviorist Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D., of Animal Behavior Associates Inc. in Littleton, Colo., to shed some light on the confusion.
“Medical problems must always be ruled out first,” says Dr. Hetts, who explains that health issues are the most common causes for changes in elimination habits. If your cat has a painful medical condition, such as a urinary tract infection, it may associate the litter box with pain. Other conditions, such as diabetes, can increase urination. Because cats don’t always act sick when they are feeling unwell, litter box avoidance may be your best sign of a health concern. Therefore, a good first step is to take your pet to your local veterinarian.
If kitty passes the medical exam with flying colors, plenty of other reasons could be causing its unfavorable behavior. Here are a few of the most common ones:
Litter essentials Cats are finicky about many things, including litter. Research shows that most cats enjoy the soft texture of fine-grained litter and hesitate to go near scented litter. The answer to your pet’s elimination problem could therefore be as simple as trying out various types of litter. Buying the cheapest litter may help your wallet, but if Fluffy doesn’t like it, it won’t think twice before going all over the couch instead. “But how can I avoid the strong stench of cat urine without deodorized litter?” asks one reader of The Daily Cat. The answer: Spread baking soda underneath the litter to help absorb odors without repelling your cat.
Cleanliness Put yourself in your cat’s paws: If you walked into a bathroom that stinks, would you be tempted to use it? Baking soda and unscented litter in the box may work temporarily, but if the box isn't consistently clean, the cat won’t use it. Cleaning doesn’t take a long time. Scoop it clean daily and you won’t have to change the actual litter for a couple of weeks. At least once a month, scrub the box with soap and water, avoiding strong-smelling chemicals or cleaning products. Then thoroughly dry the box with a few paper towels before refilling. Simply adding more litter does not equate to less-frequent cleaning. In fact, most cats avoid litter more than 2 inches deep.
Box particulars Not all cats are created equal, so not all litter boxes work for all cats. After weeks of replacing wet packaging tape in Tony’s covered litter box, Roberts searched for a more permanent litter box option that would suit Tony. “We looked online and browsed around the pet store, and we bought a Clevercat® litter box,” he says. Similar to a trash bin, this unique box includes a lid with a hole on top. When the cat needs to relieve itself, it hops inside through the hole, takes care of its business and then exits through the same hole. A built-in tracking mat removes the litter from the cat’s paws before it hops off. “We’ve used this ever since, but it may be hard for your own cat to hop in if he’s old,” says Roberts.
Although this type of setup was the perfect solution for agile Tony, old age or excessive weight may discourage your cat from using such a box. Before choosing a litter box, it’s therefore important to take into account your cat’s breed and preferences. From faux houseplants to washroom cabinets, a variety of innovative litter boxes are available on the CatLitterBoxes web site.
Stress Creatures of habit by nature, felines thrive in familiar surroundings. A new litter box location, a recent move to a different home or any kind of change in your cat’s surroundings may cause your pet to shy away from its litter box. To avoid such problems, gently reteach your cat where to go. Don’t add the unnecessary stress of punishment. Instead, encourage adjustment by gently picking up your cat and putting it in its litter box when you catch it eliminating at the wrong place.
If you have a multi-cat household, be sure to provide your pets with a sufficient number of litter boxes. The general rule is to have one litter box per cat, plus one. If you live in a home with stairs, remember to give your cat access to a box on each floor.
Social system Cats are territorial animals that are sometimes driven to exclude other cats, and even humans, from their turf. To communicate their boundaries to trespassers, they sometimes leave behind an odorous mark. Providing a private toilet area for your cat is one way to solve this problem. For multi-cat households, leave several feet between each cat’s box, if possible. That will prevent one cat from ambushing another while the latter is feeling vulnerable and trying to go.
Another possible solution is neutering/spaying. Research shows that 90 percent of male cats that sprayed urine stopped after being neutered. If your problem cat is male, neutering may be successful, since intact males are usually the marking culprits.
Disgruntlement with owner Some owners interpret litter box mishaps to be their pet’s way of showing spite towards them. “Definitely not,” insists Dr. Hetts. “This is an anthropomorphic interpretation and not a helpful perspective for solving the problem,” she adds.
When All Else Fails...
Exasperated with their cats, some readers of The Daily Cat claim they’ve tried everything and yet nothing works. “This is usually what happens when people take a ‘try this, try that’ approach,” explains Dr. Hetts. “They haven’t tried the right thing, because what they’ve tried has not been relevant to the reason or cause for the behavior.” The most effective solutions are the ones based on clues your cat gives you about the issue. For example, if your cat starts peeing next to the litter box instead of inside, it may not like the type of litter. Or if your pet stops using a box located next to a window, it may have felt threatened by a passing stray it saw while using the litter box one day.
Although cats cannot be litter-trained as dogs can be house-trained, “if you build it, they will come,” encourages Dr. Hetts. “Meaning, if you provide a cat-friendly litter box that meets the feline’s behavioral needs, she will use it.” So put your investigative hat on. With a bit of work and dedication, you can reach a compromise that will keep both you and kitty satisfied. “Problem solved,” laughs Roberts now, relieved that Tony is no longer relieving himself on a bedroom wall.
Natalia Macrynikola is a Group Editor at Studio One Networks, which publishes The Daily Cat.