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.

Are Cats Loners?

The stereotype that cats are aloof loners who care more about their food and warm sleeping spots than they do about their humans has been around for years. If such comforts came without you and your companionship, your cat would be out the door, right? Not quite, believe it or not. Plenty of cat owners -- maybe even you -- with friendly, attention-needy felines serve as proof.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to start playing a vital role in your cat’s life. These simple steps can help create a great relationship with your beloved feline.

Cats Are Social
“Dogs, humans and almost all the other species we come in contact with are pack species,” says Dr. Tony Buffington, DVM, Ph.D., director of Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Indoor Cat Initiative. “Cats are solitary hunters,” he adds. “A lot of people misinterpret that to mean they are asocial. That’s not really what it means.”

Feral cats hunt alone, but they live in colonies, notes Ingrid Johnson, a Marietta, Ga., cat behaviorist. Supporting this more family-oriented view is a 2006 Harris Interactive survey that found that eight out of 10 veterinarians believe feral cats are in fact social by nature.

Signs of Cat Loneliness
Cats can’t pipe up and tell us they need more face-to-whisker time, but there are warning signs. Take note of the following behaviors, which can indicate your pet’s unhappiness:

  • Excessive grooming
  • Excessive meowing
  • Overeating or not eating
  • Coughing up hairballs because of the over-grooming
  • A decrease in activity and interaction

Curing Feline Distress
If you detect any of the indicators for loneliness, you can take steps to make sure your cat is not an unhappy feline. Here are some tips:

  • Visit your veterinarian first Since the symptoms of loneliness can mimic illness, it’s best to have your veterinarian examine your kitty. You’ll want to rule out physical causes, such as thyroid issues, infections or other health problems, which could be causing your cat’s distress.
  • Think pairs If possible, plan to have a cat “family.” For example, Johnson recommends adopting two cats at a time. “I always, always recommend adopting two cats,” she says. “I do not adopt out single cats unless they were raised as a single cat.” She further advises, “Don’t get one little kitten and make them an only child. I do not adopt out kittens unless they are in pairs.”
  • Choose companions wisely If you’re attempting to introduce a new kitty to be a companion for your cat, be cautious, say the experts. “If a cat is having problems, getting another cat is like taking a married couple that is having problems and saying, ‘You just need to have children,’” Dr. Buffington says, explaining that such introductions could even backfire, since you’d be adding yet another source of stress to an already maxed-out cat. She also instructs that you consider your cat’s energy level when bringing another cat into your home. As an example, if your kitty is a sedate 10-year-old, a frisky kitten might not make the best companion. “Don’t get a kitten (in this case). Get a pair of kittens so your 10-year-old doesn’t have to wrestle or rough and tumble,” advises Johnson.
  • Enrich your cat’s environment Your cat is certain to live a safer, healthier life as an indoor cat. But, like zoo animals, indoor cats are cut off from the more dangerous, yet stimulating, outside environment, says Dr. Buffington. “They are always at risk for loneliness in that situation.” It’s up to you to provide a rich, stimulating environment that engages your cat and prevents its loneliness. You’ll want to make sure your cat has places to climb and scratch, as well as toys that provide mental challenges and let your kitty act out its instinct to pursue prey. “People sometimes think cats will create their environment for themselves,” Dr. Buffington says, pointing out that’s false.
  • Be creative about play Too often, we buy cute cat toys on impulse at the pet store, then toss them in a basket. Instead, rotate toys in circulation so your cat doesn’t get bored. Grab a handful of toy mice, or other small toys, and toss them in a catnip marinade in a plastic bag before turning them over to your cat, says Johnson. Feline foraging toys, such as Play-N-Treat balls and the SlimCat, make your cat work for its dry food, since kitties must roll the balls and bat at the containers to get the pellets to dispense. Johnson feeds her cats dry food solely through such foraging toys. Working for the food is “positive frustration. It’s like a little Mensa toy for cats,” she says.

Always remember that your cat does need your interaction, concludes Johnson. “They have independent features and they don’t have that neediness of a dog, so we tend to forget about them,” she says. “But the idea of the loner cat is just folklore.”

Your Cat's Inner Kitten Released

At 14, Mary Margaret the cat still shows flashes of playful kitten, chasing after any airborne toy. “If I were to let her outside, I know she would nail every bird, because she loves to leap up in the air,” says owner Pam Johnson-Bennett.

Like us, cats such as Mary Margaret enjoy tapping into their youthful nature from time to time. But it’s up to us to encourage them to cut loose. Too often, we forget to play with our cats as they age, says Johnson-Bennett, a Nashville, Tenn., cat behavior expert who has written a number of related books. “Just because your cat has stopped playing doesn’t mean it doesn’t want to play anymore,” she says. “We get lazy because when cats are kittens they’ll play with anything, even a speck of dust.”

It doesn’t take a great deal of effort to help your cat channel its inner kitten, even if your kitty has become something of a couch feline, say our experts. All you’ll need is a bit of ingenuity, some understanding of your cat’s nature and a willingness to spend some time playing each day. Follow these four play primers to inspire kitten-like antics in your favorite cat:

  • Customize play Since cat play mimics hunting, you should know what sort of hunter your cat is. Of course, you’re not allowing your cat outside to hunt little beasties, but your cat has basic instincts when it comes to pursuing prey, says Johnson-Bennett. For instance, while Johnson-Bennett’s cat loves to chase things through the air, Mary Margaret doesn’t have much interest in objects that move along the floor. Don’t assume that your cat doesn’t want to play because it doesn’t chase after one type of toy. Experiment with several different types. If your cat is elderly, overweight or has health issues, its ability or inclination to play might be extremely limited. Check with your veterinarian about appropriate activities, and customize play for your cat, says Redwood City, Calif. cat behaviorist Marilyn Krieger. “It’s like any athlete. Get your doctor’s approval first,” she says. “You want to make sure you’re very in touch with your cat.”
  • Present a challenge Whether you’re twitching a string from behind a doorway or tempting your darling by slowly rolling a ball from behind the sofa to another spot, your cat should enjoy the success of capturing the toy as well as feeling challenged by it. “You don’t want it to be such a challenge that the cat gets overtired and doesn’t catch the toy,” she adds.

Varying toys, hiding places and routines is a great way to bring out the kitten in your cat: Hide a ping-pong ball in a paper bag turned on its side, suggests Johnson-Bennett; leave some dry food inside an empty tissue box; stuff a bit of catnip in an old sock then tie off the end; and play hide-and-seek. Those catnip-filled fuzzy mice are real snoozers if left sitting in the cat toy basket. Toys become much more intriguing if they’re partially hidden near scratching posts or left peeking out from under furniture.

  • Keep playtime short and sweet Your cat might want to play for five minutes a couple of times a day, says Johnson-Bennett. You don’t want to exhaust your older kitty with marathon play sessions. Understand your cat’s schedule, too. Just as we are getting ready to plop down on the sofa after a long day of work, cats -- nocturnal by nature -- are revving up for playtime.
  • Provide a reward After your cat enjoys the satisfaction of catching the toy it’s pursuing, say our experts, you can offer a treat or link feeding times to the end of play sessions. Your feline would be enjoying the bounty from a successful hunt in the wild, explains Krieger. Upon completion of the “hunt,” your cat will be ready to eat, groom itself and then grab a nap. Both Johnson-Bennett and Krieger suggest using food-fillable plastic balls, available for a nominal cost at pet stores. The balls can be filled with dry food or hard treats and will occasionally dispense a tidbit or two as they roll, or are batted across, the floor.

Above all else, a play session should be fun for both you and your pet. “You want to be careful that you don’t overdo it, but you do want to play,” says Krieger. After all, don’t we all crave the carefree freedom and exuberance of childhood at times? Your cat is no different, and it will likely enjoy a few kitten-like moments each day. According to the experts, you’ll also be providing the sort of physical and mental stimulation your kitty needs to live a long, youthful life.

Photo: Corbis Images

How Your Cat Says "I Love You"

Amy Morgan of Brooklyn, New York, first knew that her calico cat Ruki loved her after he'd been living in her home for about two weeks. "I was in bed, and out of the corner of my half-opened eye, I saw him patiently waiting for me to wake up. The second I moved, he jumped on top of me, purring and kneading my chest wildly. Ever since, he's done that every morning. It's a great way to wake up."

But do cats love? And do they show it by kneading? "Absolutely," says Jackson Galaxy, a Redondo Beach, California-based cat behaviorist. "A friend of mine says it best: cats are the masters of detached love. She's talking about how cats can seem aloof and unfeeling. They express love in ways that baffle us."

Galaxy decodes seven of your furry friend's signals of l'amour.

1. Grooming
Grooming is the first way that kittens experience care. Mothers groom their kittens from birth, and so licking and being licked become associated with the serenity of being with mom. "Litter mates as they grow older, if they're adopted together, will groom each other for life," says Galaxy. If your cat is licking you, it's a sign of its affection.

2. Purring
A kitten is first guided to its mother's nipples by her purr. As a result, purring is associated with milk and the feeling of satisfaction. And kittens purr back. "It's almost like a Marco Polo type of game: call and response. It's life affirming to them," says Galaxy. "There's debate as to what the purr signifies later in a cat's life, but we do know they purr to sooth themselves -- the purring lowers their heart rate." If your cat is not injured or stressed, purring in your presence is likely related to feeling cared for by you, just as it was cared for by its mother.

3. Rubbing
Cats show affection to other cats, dogs and humans by rubbing against them. (Rubbing includes paw kneading, as in the case with Morgan's calico.) Says Galaxy, "When your cat puts its scent on you, it's saying something like, 'You and I belong together because I smell you on me and you smell me on you.' It's a scent complement." Kneading is also a throwback to kittenhood, when a kitten kneads its mom's teat in order to stimulate the flow of milk. Allowing the rubbing is essential to your relationship with your cat, and you won't smell a thing.

4. Mock Spraying
Male cats spray concentrated urine when claiming territory. In claiming you, your male cat may act as if he is spraying -- backing up toward you with a quivering tail -- but will not actually produce a spray. "They have so many scent glands to rub, they don't need to spray us," says Galaxy. Unfortunately for their human caretakers, an insecure cat may also show love by urinating in its owner's bed. "My clients sometimes mistake this for aggression. It's actually a compliment."

5. Gumming
Is Fluffy rubbing its gums on you? Yep, that's one more way in which your cat may attempt to blend its scent with yours.

6. Blinking
It's been referred to as "the cat I love you." This visual signal usually consists of a stare, followed by a blink, an open eye, and then a soft second blink. "It's actually a sign of trust, like showing you its belly," says Galaxy, who mimics the blink with cats he works with when trying to gain their confidence. "It's a form of communication I know works. Do it a few times with your own cat. They'll begin returning it to you."

7. Gifting
When your cat brings you a dead mouse, it's not a present in the traditional sense. "What seems like an obvious sign of affection is something that comes from a dog or human-centric viewpoint. When a cat brings a dead mouse home, they're saying, 'I bring this thing to my safe place.' It's more a demonstration that your cat feels supremely safe in the home you share. That, too, is a compliment."

To return your cat's affection, Galaxy recommends following its lead. "Experiment. Present your hand and see where your cat forces it. You'll find out what your cat likes to feel." Your cat will discover that people, too, are capable of feeling love.

From Feline to Family Member

Has the idea of “owning” a cat become as dated as the three-dollar gallon of gasoline? Surveys by the Delta Society -- a Washington state group that studies the human-animal bond -- regularly show that the majority of pet stewards regard their cats, dogs and birds as family members. It fits, then, that 56 percent of pet people surveyed in 2004 by the American Animal Hospital Association were willing to risk their own lives for their pets, while 64 percent were certain that their pet would come to their rescue in a time of distress. 45 percent even said their pet listens to them best. In contrast, only 30 percent named a spouse or significant other as their most valued confidante.

Cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy of Redondo Beach, Calif., supports the notion of cats as compadres. “It’s important to change the paradigm of ownership. We are pet guardians. We’re here to show them, like we show our children, how to get through life.” Read on for seven helpful tips on how to turn this paradigm shift into a reality.

Call Him Al
Whether aloud or simply in your head, you refer to your cat by name dozens of times a day. While your furry friend may not know the difference between “Fluffy” and “Felicia,” the humans in his or her life certainly do. What you call your cat will impact how you and others in the house will relate to it. “It’s about the intention, and the sentiment behind giving your cat a human name is strong,” says Galaxy. “The paradigm shift has to begin with some sort of action.”

Play Ball
“I can’t think of a better way to bond with a cat than playtime,” says Galaxy. “It can involve everyone in the family, and it’s crucial to a cat’s health and well-being.” Cats are hunters by nature, and manipulating their prey, which in this case could be a faux mouse on a stick, will engage them and intensify your connection. Give your complete attention to the game to make your cat feel truly valued. That means no TV in the background when it’s kitty’s quality-time period of the day.

Mi Casa Es Su Casa
For a cat, feeling at home is about believing it controls the territory. “A cat has to feel like it owns every square inch of your house,” explains Galaxy. For people, that usually involves placing your human partner’s name on your lease or deed, but cats instead respond to strategic placement of cat condos, scratching posts and the like. When these are located in well-traveled areas of your home, such as the living room, and at heights that allow your cat to gaze down upon the people in the room, they will feel most secure in their territory.

Say I Love You
While you may never meow well enough to be convincing, you can communicate with your cat in its language. The cat “I love you” is delivered with your eyes, not with your voice. Galaxy advises, “Start by looking at your cat in soft focus, not a stare. The first word, ‘I,’ is this soft look. The second word, ‘love,’ is a slow blink. Then ‘you’ is the soft look again.” Do this a couple times daily and your cat may eventually “say” it back.

Make Introductions
Depending on how sociable your cat is, it may want to get to know your visitors. Paradoxically -- from a human point of view, at least -- the best thing your guests can do is drop food and then ignore the animal. “When your friends drop treats on the floor, your cat will develop a positive association to them,” says Galaxy. After that, all visitors should feign indifference. “Cats never go to the people who call them. Ignore them and they’ll come to you. It’s your job to trick your cat into thinking the introductions are taking place on his or her terms.” 

Make Nice, Even When Al Doesn’t
Cat discipline only makes sense when you catch your feisty feline mid-act. As little as a moment later, a cat cannot make the connection between the squirt gun blast and the garbage bag they just tore into. Belated attempts at discipline will be misunderstood by your cat as arbitrary aggression. “They have no clue, so why damage the relationship that way?” asks Galaxy.

Ensure Your Cat’s Continued Care
While cat owners are likely to outlive even pets with nine lives, providing for a feline in case of an unexpected turn of events is crucial. “Again, it’s about intention, and you need to make sure that your cat has a full life after you’re gone, that your pet doesn’t wind up in a shelter,” says Galaxy. It is becoming more and more common for cat companions to provide for their animals in their wills and bequeathing money to a human loved one who will continue to value the cat’s companionship.

Treat your cat like a family member, and it will return the favor, soft-staring and blinking in response as you confide your deepest secrets.

Photo: Corbis Images