Having litter box issues? Here’s how to fix them.

As a cat owner, you’ve probably been there before. No matter how seasoned your cat may be at using her litter box, sometimes the inevitable just occurs -- accidents. “There are two main reasons that cats come down with litter box issues: physical or behavioral,” says Dr. Rebecca Jackson, staff veterinarian with Petplan pet insurance.

Before you can figure out which reason is causing your own cat to misbehave, consider taking him to the vet for a check-up. “Something may be irritating your kitty’s bladder, such as a urinary tract infection, or something could be causing her to drink more, such as diabetes or kidney disease,” said Dr. Jackson. “If diarrhea is present, it could indicate anything from inflammatory bowel disease to certain types of cancer. Early detection is key to successful treatment, so take your cat in for a checkup at the first sign of unusual bathroom habits.”

If the results of your vet visit come back all clear, you likely have a behavioral or situational problem on your hands. Common examples, according to Dr. Jackson, include:

  • Your cat simply may not like her litter box, or might have developed a negative association with it. Maybe she was startled there once, or maybe she had a condition that made urination painful. If this turns out to be the case, you might need to move the box, or change it altogether (start with trying a different litter, first) to remedy the situation.
  • The box may not be big enough for him (urine or feces ‘leaking’ outside of the box might be an indicator that he needs a bigger commode). The general rule is to have as many litter boxes as you do cats, plus one extra. Each of these boxes should be one and one-half times as large as your largest cat.
  • If the box is the right size, consider whether it’s clean enough. Twice-daily cleanings should be enough for even the cleanest of kitties.
  • Finally, conflicts with other cats, sudden changes in household routines or the addition of a new housemate (two- or four-legged!) might be throwing him off. Be sure to discuss any situational changes that have occurred with your vet to see if they might be the underlying cause of your cat’s litter box issues.

Behavioral litter box issues can be very frustrating and difficult for both you and your furry friend. Be sure to stay in communication with your vet about what’s working and what isn’t. Sometimes a solution can be as simple as changing litter or adding another litter box. Other times medications and/or significant behavioral modification are required. Your vet is your best source for recommendations.

4 Tips for Traveling With Your Cat

A recent online survey conducted by Petplan pet insurance found that more than 78% of respondents vacation with their pets in tow.

That’s a lot of traveling Fluffy’s and Fidos!

Of course cats can be -- to put it lightly -- notoriously picky. It’s important if you’ll be traveling with yours to ensure that he’s healthy, safe and happy when coming along on any trips. We spoke with Dr. Rebecca Jackson, a staff veterinarian at Petplan, for some advice on how to have a safe trip with cats in tow. She suggested following these four steps:

1. Identification is key. While nobody likes to think of their cat going missing, one in three pets actually will get lost during their lifetime, and without identification, a whopping 90% of them never find their way back home. In fact, according to the American Humane Association, only about 2% of lost cats ever find their way back to their original owners. (The number is a bit higher for dogs at about 15%.) That’s why it’s so important to always be sure your cat has a collar tag with your cell phone number on it, so if she happens to slip away or is accidentally let outside, you can be immediately reached by phone should someone find her. A microchip with updated contact information can help further increase your chances of a happy reunion, and it’s harmless for your cat to get one.

2. Carriers are your best friend. Use a cat carrier when transporting your cat, and don’t be tempted to let her out once you’re in the car. Having a loose cat in the vehicle could cause a huge distraction to the driver, and could post a serious threat to your cat’s safety in the event of an accident. Be sure to secure the carrier itself, as well -- most have a strap or handle where the seatbelt can be looped through -- so that if you need to hit the brakes, your kitty will stay safe. As an added bonus, staying in a comfy carrier will also help your furry friend feel safe and secure, and could help reduce her stress.

3. Lower his stress level. As mentioned above, some cats become stressed by travel, and some may even suffer from motion sickness. There are plenty of products designed to naturally help cats settle down, including pheromone sprays and calming treats, as well as medicines that can help relieve stress and curb car sickness. Talk to your vet about what’s best for your cat’s particular needs.

4. Plan ahead. Think of your cat like a child, and always travel prepared. You never know when an overnight trip might turn into an extended stay, so be sure to pack extra cat food, any medication or supplements and kitty litter. Don’t forget to toss a pet first aid kit into the car, too, in case your kitty has an accident or injury while you’re away from home. One other smart thing to bring with you is a health certificate from your veterinarian. Plan ahead for this, since it takes time to get the paperwork, depending on where you’re heading. This could require an office visit, certain vaccines or even blood work.

Are Mischievous Cats Just Bored?

This scenario may be all too familiar: An unsuspecting cat owner comes home from work to find that his or her once well-behaved feline has tipped over a houseplant, batted everything off the home office desk and pulled a foot-long thread from the living room curtains. What’s the scoop? Simply put, kitty could be bored.

Understanding Cat Boredom
To understand the behavior of a cat, consider what goes on in zoos. Several decades ago, zoo animals were often just given food and water and left to sit in their cages. Now, zookeepers devise numerous enrichment activities, encouraging the animals to hunt for food and even playing games with them.

“Today’s cats are like yesterday’s zoo animals -- they stay home without much to do and rarely use their instincts to hunt, explore, play and interact,” says Steve Duno, a pet behaviorist in Seattle and author of Be the Cat (Sterling 2008). “As a result, they get a little nutty.”

While bored cats can exhibit destructive and antisocial behaviors, they might also demonstrate less obvious symptoms, including depression, excessive grooming, skin disorders, hypervocalization, house-training accidents, overeating and excessive sleeping. 

Inspiration From Zoos
So what’s the solution? “Open your own zoo, so to speak, by offering your cat behavioral and environmental enrichments,” Duno says. However, instead of overwhelming your cat with these enrichments, introduce a few at a time.

In addition, don’t adopt a kitten to entertain your cat, especially if your cat is older and not used to other animals. “You’ll only create more problems,” says Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, author of Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Cats and Dogs (Cattledog Publishing 2009).

Cures for Kitty Doldrums
If your own cat seems stuck in a dreary rut, and any underlying health problems have been ruled out by your veterinarian, our experts advise the following:

Make your pet work for its food By nature, cats are hunters, which is why constantly putting their food in bowls or free-feeding may cause boredom. Instead, make it a game for them to find food. Dr. Yin recommends cutting 2-inch-high openings in a shoe box, making sure the openings go to the bottom of the box. Place your cat’s dry food under the box and let your furry pal bat it out. You can also use balls that hold food.

Train your cat “If you’re not free-feeding, cats are easy to train, and the training provides stimulation,” says Dr. Yin. She likes to train cats to “sit” and “come” for when they’re hungry enough to eat treats. To train your cat to sit, hold a treat away from your pet and wait until your cat sits. Then put the treat right up to your cat’s mouth and give it to your pet. If that doesn’t work, push the treat from your cat’s nose to right above its head, which should prompt a seated position. If your cat remains seated, reward with another treat. Now walk away while saying “come.” Your cat should follow you. Repeat the instructions for sitting to return your cat to a seated position. Be sure to reward with treats when warranted. Later, you can use these commands to distract your pet whenever it misbehaves.

Put kitty on the trail If possible, hide food -- or other smell-good items -- around the house to stimulate your cat’s olfactory sense and to excite its hunting drive. For instance, leave scent trails throughout the house. Drop a little lavender oil or cinnamon in various places, leading your cat to a treat. You can also hide catnip or place an evergreen bough out of reach of your cat.

Provide visual stimulation If possible, hang bird feeders near windows or a mobile from the ceiling -- out of paw reach -- for your cat to view. An aquarium or cat-themed DVDs are good for entertainment and companionship. You can also try rearranging the furniture to spark kitty investigations.

Boost the fun factor Set up scratching posts and leave out interactive toys. One caveat? “Rotate the toys so your cat doesn’t get bored seeing the same one,” Duno says.

Your cat should respond almost immediately to these enrichment activities. Not only will you notice that it is more interested in its environment, but you should also start to see behavioral improvements. Duno concludes, “Now that you’ve followed the lead of today’s zookeepers and provided a more stimulating environment for your cat, you’ll probably even notice that your cat is happier and more content with life.”

Cat Litter Box Problems Eliminated

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.

Out-of-the-box Thinking
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.

What to Do With a Feline Loudmouth

When my beloved 19-year-old cat, Sweetie Pie, recently started to become more vocal, I began to worry. Not just because her screams wake me up at all hours of the night, but because hyperthyroid disease runs in her family. This sometimes-deadly condition causes over-activity of the thyroid gland. One of its most obvious symptoms can be excessive meowing.

News shared by veterinarian Noel Grandrath, DVM, at Montclair Veterinary Hospital in California, gave me a huge sigh of relief. She determined Sweetie Pie’s thyroid, based on blood work, was OK. But why was my cat becoming such a feline loudmouth? “Sometimes older cats will vocalize more often,” she explains, mentioning that “a touch of dementia” can affect elderly felines.

It turns out many reasons, in addition to hyperthyroid disease, can create seemingly non-stop meowers. Here are three common ones:

Feline senility This is good news, believe it or not, since it’s a sign that cats in general are living longer. “As with humans, the life expectancy of cats is increasing and with this longer life runs the greater chance of developing dementia,” says Dr. Danielle Gunn-Moore, a specialist in feline medicine at The University of Edinburgh’s Royal School of Veterinary Studies. She adds that studies suggest “28 percent of pet cats aged 11-14 years develop at least one old-age related behavior problem and this increases to more than 50 percent for cats over the age of 15.”

Noisy breeds The genetic makeup of your cat can affect how noisy or quiet it is. “Orientals are the quintessential loud mouths,” according to Nicholas Dodman, program director of Animal Behavior at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. While he says many breeds, like Persians and Maine coons, tend to be less vocal, Siamese felines seem to have no meowing inhibitions. Balinese, Burmese, Javanese, Tonkinese and other breeds can also be audibly expressive.

Owner control While studying meowing at Cornell University, researcher Nicholas Nicastro found that cats could manipulate us with “demanding calls.” These are “the kind we hear at 7 AM when we walk into the kitchen and the cat wants to be fed,” he says. “The cat isn’t forming sentences and saying specifically, ‘take a can of food out of the cupboard, run the can opener and fill my bowl immediately,’ but we get the message from the quality of the vocalization and the context in which it is heard.”

How to Hush a Noisy Cat
If you and your veterinarian have ruled out medical or age-related causes for your cat’s excessive meowing, here are some gentle, yet effective, ways to quiet your kitty:

1. Take charge “Cats are domesticated animals that have learned what levers to push and what sounds to make to manage our emotions,” Nicastro says. “When we respond, we too are domesticated animals.” Don’t respond to every loud call if your cat is clearly pushing your buttons to get its way.

2. Don’t reward the midnight meower Cats have the uncanny ability of recalling every rewarding experience. If your cat screams at 2 AM and you get up and feed it, your pet may come to expect such good service every night. Cat behavior counselor Dilara Parry, who works with the San Francisco SPCA, advises that if cat cries are keeping you awake, “you can try earplugs, or pulling the cover up over your head, or you could close the door to your bedroom.” The point is to not become a nighttime slave to your feline. Over time, your cat will learn to not associate meowing with being waited on.

3. Reinforce regular feeding and play times Cats are creatures of habit and thrive under routines that meet their basic needs. Parry advises that you stay on “a set schedule as much as you are able.” That means regular veterinarian visits, feeding a high quality diet according to manufacturer guidelines and grooming and playing with your pet at defined times of the day.

Finally, keep your cool. Bad habits can take a long time to break and owner patience is needed during the interim period. In some cases, where breed or age-related meowing leads to excessive vocalizing, you may just have to learn to live with the noise. When Sweetie Pie now interrupts me with her meows, the ear-splitting sounds remind me how lucky I am to have enjoyed the company of such a loving, albeit noisy, healthy feline for close to two decades.