When the World's a Kitty Toilet

There's one member of the household you don't want to encourage to "think outside of the box" -- your resident cat.

In the wild, felines naturally do their business in soft soil or sand because they instinctually bury their waste. As cats became domestic animals, people simulated this behavior by providing pets with a litter box -- nowadays a plastic box filled with some form of cat litter. Most cats take to the litter box like a fish takes to water. But, in some households, a cat may eschew its designated toilet and instead start soiling a carpet, the couch or other area.

It's a feline behavior that most pet owners need to understand and address immediately. Stains and odors in these locations may draw the cat back again and again to the same spot.

Pet Owners Turn Pet Detectives
Dr. Katherine Miller, senior behavioral counselor of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, goes through a series of questions with pet owners to root out the cause of a litter-box problem. First, she rules out a medical condition -- such as a urinary tract infection or diabetes, the latter of which would cause the cat to drink excessively and often urinate. Then she goes down a checklist. "I ask when the problem started whether there were changes in the household, including the addition of another pet or person, the loss of a person or the change of family or school schedules," Miller says. "Then I ask where the soiling is happening. Cats that are anxious and have litter box problems use places in the household that are important to them -- their own bed or a human bed or couch. Or, if they are frightened, they may choose the back of a closet, or a corner in back of furniture."

Discourage Returns to the Scene of the Crime
No matter why the soiling is occurring, it is in your best interest to clean the area with an enzymatic cleanser that will eat up organic molecules and remove the source of the odor. Household cleaners, in general, may leave an odor that a cat can still detect and that will encourage the cat to continue soiling the area. The ASPCA points out ammonia-based cleaners are particularly poor choices, because urine contains some ammonia and that could encourage the cat to repeat his or her performance. Miller also recommends the use of sprays or diffusers that reproduce some of the properties of cat facial pheromones. One such product is Feliway Cat Pheromone Spray. When your cat feels safe, it rubs its head against furniture, legs or doorways, leaving markings. "This mimics that odor and can help reduce tension, anxiety and stress and lead to a more relaxing environment for the cat," Miller says.

Litter Box Reassessment
The litter box itself may be the turn-off. Dr. Christianne Schelling, a veterinarian in Three Rivers, Calif., who maintains a not-for-profit educational web site The Litter Box, recommends one litter box per cat in the household, plus an extra box. "Some cats prefer to urinate in one and defecate in another," Schelling says. "You have to figure out what is right for each individual cat." Schelling also recommends these steps:

  • Figure out if the box is big enough Cats like to get in and be able to turn around. If a commercial box isn't large enough, consider turning an under-the-bed sweater bin into a litter box.
  • Make sure there's enough litter Cats like to dig. Don't skimp on litter.
  • Reconsider the plastic liner While liners make the cleanup easier for you, the cat may not like the crinkling noise or the slippery feel.
  • Type of litter is key Cats may be giving a thumbs-down on pelletized or clay litter. Schelling says most cats prefer sand or clumping litter.
  • Clean the box regularly Cats by nature are finicky. If there's even one little mess in the box, they may not go back. Have a garbage pail right next to the litter box to make frequent cleanups easy.
  • The jury is still out on automatic self-cleaning boxes Some cats love boxes that clean themselves. They hear the noise and hang around to watch it scoop. But to other cats, the whirring noise of the motor "scares the living daylights out of them," Schelling says.

Kitty Litter "Boot Camp"
Some cats may need to be retrained to use the litter box. Miller suggests having the cat undergo "litter box boot camp" by confining them to one room with their litter box for a few days. The last thing any pet owner should do to a cat with a litter-box problem is to punish the cat. If you catch them in the act, pick them up and put them in the box. "If you find a mess after the fact, it's already too late to do anything," Miller says.

Litter Box Dilemmas Solved

You have probably put a great deal of thought into making the right selections for the litter box and litter material that best meets the unique needs of your cat.  Not to mention the routine you created for regular cleaning and maintenance.  You may be surprised to learn, however, that litter box location is also a big issue for many cats. It can mean the difference between your feline going in the right place, or somewhere else, such as on your favorite carpet. And no one wants that.  Not even your cat!

As you might guess, most cats prefer a private place to conduct their bathroom business, so the key to proper litter box placement is to avoid putting it where there might be a lot of noise or people frequently coming and going.  The family room and the kitchen, as examples, would be unattractive locations from your cat's point of view.

On the other hand, cats want their box to be convenient, and easily accessible. The basement or garage are therefore less than desirable choices. You can imagine, of course, that your cat would also not want its box in areas that are cold, dark, damp, or cluttered with lots of stuff.  Plus, when the box is hidden away, you might forget to do the necessary regular maintenance.

Additionally, you never want to put the box anywhere near your cat's food and water dishes.  Cats are naturally programmed to eliminate in locations that are far away from their food and water supply.  Here's why:  In the wild, cats know never to leave their own scent in a place that might attract hungry predators.  It is important that the place they eat, and the place they eliminate, are always separated.

So, where would your cat prefer to find its box?  One option is in a bathroom.  The benefits of this location are many.  It's easy for you to clean, as well as being easy for your cat to find, and get in and out.  One note: after you take a shower, the litter may become damp. So if the bathroom is the location of choice, it's important to leave the box uncovered at all times. You will also need to make sure the bathroom door is open a majority of the time -- even when guests stop by.

The laundry room can also work well for some cats because it is a warm, clean room that doesn't get a lot of foot traffic. On the other hand, if your pet is a scaredy cat, you might think twice about the laundry room. If it happens to be in the litter box when the washing machine spin cycle kicks in, your pet may end up fearful of the litter box from that day forward.

Other options include: off to the side at the top of the stairs, or the corner of a quiet room in the house. The end of a rarely used hallway might also work. Putting the box in a more open space comes with an added advantage for multi-cat households. When a cat is in the litter box, it can see other felines approaching and will not feel cornered and uncomfortable.

Finally, remember that even if you have just one cat, you may need more than one litter box -- especially with kittens and older cats, which have less control over their bladders. Think of it this way:  People tend to like having a bathroom on each floor of the house, and most cats do too.

Cats on Command

Have you heard the phrase "like herding cats" in reference to a task that is next to impossible? The saying is actually a misnomer, because controlling cats, and even training them, is indeed possible. With a bit of patience and repetition, you can teach your kitty to sit, lie down and come on command.

The "Sit" Command
When your cat sits on command, you will pave the way for teaching your favorite feline other trained skills. For this first lesson to work, you will need a quiet area, a table and a special treat that your cat loves. Follow these three steps:

1. Gently put your cat on the table at the edge nearest to you. Pet your cat to make it feel comfortable and relaxed.

2. Show your cat the food reward. Next, say your pet's name followed by the command word, as in, "Tabitha, sit." Move the reward back toward you and then over your cat's head.

3. As your cat tips its head back to follow the food, it will sit to keep its balance. At this point say, "Sit, good sit," and then give your cat a treat.

Your cat will soon sit without you having to move the food over its head. At that point, you do not need to put your pet on a table to sit. If your cat does not sit during the lesson, gently press down on its hindquarters. Then repeat, "Sit, good sit." This will work with some cats, while others may resist. Be gentle and patient. Whatever you do, avoid frustrating or frightening your cat. If your kitty resists, try again another time.

The "Lie Down" Command
Once you have taught your cat to sit, getting it to lie down should be relatively easy. Here's how:

1. Gently sit the cat on the table at the edge nearest to you and give it affection as before.

2. Hold a treat in one hand slightly below and in front of the table and say its name followed by the word "down," as in, "Tabitha, down."

3. When your cat lowers itself to reach for the food, say, "Down, good down." Give your cat a treat.

Your feline will eventually lie down following your command. Be gentle and patient. Do not be afraid to help your cat into position. Again, if your cat is just not in the mood for this, try some other time.

The "Come" Command
The best way to teach your cat to come is to call your pet to its bowl. Since your kitty already comes to you for food, this should be a cinch. You therefore should start to train your cat this command at mealtimes. The following training session only requires two steps.

1. Call out your cat's name proceeded by the word "come," as in, "Tabitha, come."

2. When your cat comes, say, "Come, good come," in an upbeat way. Give your cat a treat.

Once your cat has learned to come to its bowl, try the same steps in another location. Your cat should eventually come to you whenever you say, "Come." When your feline does follow your command, affectionately say, "Come, good come," and again reward kitty with a treat.

Training your cat to do basic moves is just one of the many ways you can bond with your four-legged friend.  And think of how impressed your two-legged friends will be!

Careful Climbing

When it comes to fun, there's almost nothing cats love more than to watch the world from above. Unfortunately, they often like to perch where they don't belong, like atop bookcases and dressers, where things can easily get broken.

Keeping a cat grounded can be a challenge, but it really is in your pet's best interest. Your cat could hurt itself by getting tangled on something while jumping from the chair to the dresser, or by leaping onto that not-so-stable plant stand.

Keeping Your Stuff in Place
Try these kitty-tested strategies for controlling your pet's natural need to leap.

  • Remove its launch pad If your cat is able to get onto a high bookcase by leaping from a nearby chair, move the chair. Without this launch pad, the cat is no longer able to reach its perch.
  • Use a doorknob alarm on your drapes When pinned to the drapes, the alarm will sound every time your cat tries to use your drapes as a ladder. Another solution may be to replace fabric drapes with vertical blinds.
  • Place obstacles along the path A couple of strategically placed potted plants or large books can work wonders in keeping cats off shelves and dresser tops.
  • Give your cat a solid place to land with a freestanding cat perch Most retail pet stores sell them, and they're easy to assemble. You could even build one yourself.
  • Consider a window perch for your feline friend You can put them together quickly, and they'll give your cat hours of entertainment -- especially if you place a bird or squirrel feeder in the yard outside the window. Make sure the window is locked and reinforced so your pet won't fall out.

Cleaning Up Your Cat's Climbing Habits
If your cat doesn't get the message and continues to climb, don't lose hope.  The next step is to try startling it into behaving better with a squirt gun, a whistle or a beanbag. The key is to make sure your cat doesn't come to associate you with the water, noise or sudden motion. If it does, it may become frightened or continue the bad behavior behind your back.

Try these ideas for taming your cat's climbing ways:

  • Don't make eye contact with your cat when you use a squirt bottle or noisemaker. Every time you see the cat start to climb, give a quick squirt or toss the beanbag near the animal (not at it) then walk away. You want to make the consequence of this behavior unpleasant, not terrifying.
  • Try temporarily putting foil on the furniture. The sound or texture will be unpleasant.
  • Buy a motion detector that sounds an alarm every time your cat enters the forbidden area. For best results, get the kind that resets itself after every use.
  • Don't scream at or strike your cat when it is perching in a place it doesn't belong. Physical punishment can sometimes adversely affect your relationship and lead to other destructive behaviors.
  • Don't startle your high-minded cat with a squirt gun or noisemaker when it's perched near something breakable. This could cause the animal to jump in fear, knock the object over, and get hurt in the process.

The overall goal is to find a balance between your natural need to keep plants upright, and your cat's natural need climb.  With these strategies and a little bit of time, you and your cat can live together in harmony.