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.

The Best Games for Cats

Your cat is playful, curious and a hunter, and he wants to interact with you to show off his natural skills. Playing games with your cat is a great way to entertain him, as well as give him some extra exercise.

Cats love to chase and hunt, so it’s natural from him to want to exhibit these behaviors for you. Many cats, if given the chance to go outdoors, will actively hunt for birds and other small animals. If they manage to succeed in their hunt, cats will want to show off their conquest by dropping a “gift” at your doorstep. Your cat’s hunting skills will also likely be exhibited if there is a bug or rodent in your home. He will swat, jump around and attempt to kill the intruder.

These hunting and chasing skills can be replicated in games that you play with your cat. Dr. Jeff Werber, DVM, Medical Director for Century Veterinary Group and Chief Veterinarian for ProSense Pet Products, says cats are attracted to movement, and most games for cats capitalize on these instincts, incorporating movement and a chase into the mechanics of the game.

Many cat toys that you’ll find in the store focus on the game of the hunt, and allow you to play along with your cat. If your cat lives indoors, he won’t be able to chase real animals, so it’s a good idea to provide a substitution to entice him to play. “Typical cat toys involve tantalizing the cat with a feather, or a little mouse or rabbit hanging on a string or dangling from a pole, or a ball that circles around a container, sometimes slightly hidden, that attracts the cat's attention and inspires the hunt,” Dr. Werber explains.  

Another great option for a game to play with your cat involves a laser. Your cat will be transfixed by the red laser light and try to catch it. “The cat sees the laser as an object to be chased and hunted down,” said Dr. Werber. “It can be quite comical to watch them trying to grab the laser as it flies by them on the ground, or against a wall.” This game can keep your cat occupied for a while and also provides exercise.

Dr. Werber recommends one other game that has proven popular with cats in the past. “Cats like to lie on their backs and grab and claw at your hand as it comes near their stomach,” he said. “This is fun for them, but not so much for you unless you wear a heavy glove to protect your hands and arm. An alternative version is to stick your hand under the blanket and slowly move toward them, or away, and watch them pounce.”

If your cat loves treats, you can purchase toys that you can hide treats in, too.

It is very important to keep your cat engaged in games that are both enjoyable and a good source of exercise. Your cat will make it known if he is bored, and walk away from you or the toy. Dr. Werber says that your cat may be bored with one activity but another one might continue to entertain him. Mixing up the games and toys will help keep your cat happy.

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.

How to get your cat to use the litter box

One of the most important things a cat owner needs to do is set up a good place for her cat to do her business. Follow these simple steps to help teach your cat where her proper potty place is, and you’ll avoid a lot of future hassles.

Placement is everything
You should set up your litter box in a place that is accessible, but that has little to no traffic or noise. Jane Brunt, DVM, executive director, CATalyst Council and founder and owner of Cat Hospital at Towson, the first feline-exclusive veterinary practice in Maryland, suggests a spare bedroom or bathroom, if you have one. “If your house has multiple floors, it’s best to have one on at least two different levels so there’s always a toilet nearby when nature calls,” she added.

Avoid putting the litter box in the basement, or near your washer and dryer, as the loud noises may scare your cat from going in there.  

Setting the stage
You can’t expect to just put the litter box down and have your cat learn what to do with it on his own -- teaching him to use the litter box is the first priority. “It’s best to initially keep the cat in a single room with food and water, it’s carrier with soft bedding inside, a scratching post and, of course, a litter box,” says Dr. Brunt. “You can show your cat the box by placing him or her in it, though cats naturally eliminate and cover their waste.”

If it seems like your cat isn’t getting it after a few tries, try helping your cat dig around in her litter box so she’s used to the texture, and if she does happen to go somewhere else in your house while she’s training, pick up the waste and place it in the box so your cat will start to associate the box with the correct area to do her business.

The best type of litter
There are many types of litter out there to choose from, but studies have shown that cats prefer clumping litter and types with activated carbon.

More information on studies about kitty litter can be found here.  
Dr. Brunt suggests having two boxes for one cat, and adding an additional box for every other cat you have in your home. “Placing them strategically around your home and keeping them clean will ensure everyone has one when they need it.”

Litter box problems
Has your cat started to soil other areas of your home and stopped using the litter box? There is usually a reason for this, but Dr. Brunt says it’s never because your cat is angry with you. “Make sure the litter boxes are scooped daily, and clean and wash the litter pans every 2-3 weeks,” she said.

Here are some ways to naturally eliminate litter box odors.

If the litter box was clean when the accident occurred, then it’s time to think about other obstacles that might be inhibiting your cat from getting to the litter box. Could you be accidently closing the door? Did you change brands of litter? “If there’s no obvious reason like cleanliness, access and familiarity, it’s time to call the veterinarian,” says Dr. Brunt. “It’s nearly impossible to tell if your cat isn’t feeling well, and there could be anything from diabetes to bladder crystals or stones to parasites or other infections, and the longer the problem persists, the more difficult it is to treat.”

If all else fails, try starting litter box training over again from scratch. Purchase a completely new litter box (because yes, cats can be picky about the type of litter box they use) and place it where your cat is comfortable going and can get to easily. “Keep the boxes clean, and if this doesn’t work you can try synthetic facial pheromone products, a diffuser plugged in near the litter box that will help the area seem more familiar through scent,” suggests Dr. Brunt.

Remember -- your cat wants to be clean just as much as you want to her stay clean. A little training in the litter box area can go a long way.

Kitten Behavior Essentials

They say moving to New York City is tough, but the biggest challenge I faced during my first few weeks was unexpected: raising a kitten I rescued from the street, weaned off its mother prematurely. The veterinarian warned me that 3-week-old Andy was too young to survive away from his mother, but to me, Andy looked like a trooper.

According to The Humane Society of the United States, there are five stages of kittenhood. As I listenened to Andy's steady breath while he slept that first night, I vowed to see him through all five.

The Neonatal Period: Birth to 2 Weeks
During a kitten’s first two weeks of life, its eyes and ears slowly open. Being with its mother is critical at this time because antibodies found in mother’s milk help to build immunity. What’s more, “if a kitten is raised without the ability to be comforted by a mom, it can begin life as a dysfunctional animal,” says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, author of The Cat Who Cried for Help (Bantam Books 1997). Uncertain of how much contact Andy had with his mom, I wondered whether his nestling in my hands was enough to ensure his well-being.

The Socialization Period: 2 to 7 Weeks Between the second and seventh week, kittens develop their senses fully and learn to run, stalk, pounce and avoid obstacles. To my relief, Andy began to do all these things, remaining healthy after a week of sleeping and bottle-feeding. His first feat was learning to jump from my bed into his own. Soon, the brave kitten preyed -- with boundless energy -- on the toys I made for him. It was entertaining to watch Andy blossom during this period, which Dr. Dodman calls “the starting point of their lives…where they learn everything before fear develops.”

Most Active Play Period: 7 to 14 Weeks After nearly two months, a kitten usually starts to scoop, paw and mouth. Andy seemed to turn into an acrobat overnight, often running as fast as he could before springing himself onto my bed. “Having gone through ‘acclimation,’ kittens continue using that talent [skills they learned in the socialization period],” says Dr. Dodman.

Ranking Period: 3 to 6 months “In this period, kittens are still continuing to learn…when to run away and when to fight,” says Dr. Dodman. Andy learned the hard way how “ranking,” or basic dominance and submission, works. As my two older felines ate side-by-side one night, he slowly crept up behind them. His small nose suddenly sniffing in their food bowls surprised them and caused Freddy, the oldest, to strike Andy on the head. Andy slumped back with his belly up and lay still on the floor, meaning no harm, while Freddy retreated into her favorite room. From then on, Andy stayed by himself more often.

Adolescence Period: 6 to 18 months
During adolescence, kitten play and exploration continues, but the onset of sexual maturity is the biggest change. It was right before this time that I handed my kitten over to new owners. There were many reasons that I couldn’t keep Andy, but his new human family was ecstatic. For an unneutered, orphaned cat, Andy was surprisingly well-adjusted.

The Secret to Good Behavior
Andy’s adjustment to his new life was not a surprise, as I had nurtured him well in the socialization stage of his life. “If you introduce almost anything during this period, whether it’s kind and gentle handling or even your dog or bird, kittens will soak in the information like a sponge,” affirms Dr. Dodman. To ensure that your own kitten grows up to be intelligent and social, follow these five critical steps, especially during the tender socialization period:

  1. Handle your kitten often Wrap one hand around your kitten’s body under its front legs and scoop the back legs with the other hand. Studies show that kittens frequently handled by people are more likely to develop larger brains.

  2. Teach your kitten to love toys, not hands Drag or throw a toy and let your kitten chase and pounce on it. A small stuffed animal will allow your kitten to wrestle the way it would with littermates instead of grappling with your feet or hands. Conduct at least two 15-minute play sessions a day.
     
  3. Introduce your kitten to strangers Teach your kitten not to avoid people by exposing it to others early on. Let your friends play with your kitten, and bring its favorite toys into the session.

  4. Actively encourage/discourage behaviors Bribe your kitten with treats when it does well. When it nips you, squirt it, away from the eyes, with water mixed with a bit of vinegar. If the play session gets too rough, abruptly end it by walking into the other room and closing the door until your cat relaxes.

  5. Avoid physical punishment Flicking or hitting your kitten to reprimand it will only teach your pet to become afraid of your hands.

With proper care and socialization, a cat’s less-than-promising fate doesn’t have to be written in stone. Raising Andy, for me, was proof of that: I was able to overturn the veterinarian’s prediction and help Andy breeze through his fifth stage of kittenhood.