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.

Best Practices for Bathing Your Cat

Since cats aren’t generally known for their love of water, it’s a good thing they don’t need to be cleaned as regularly as dogs. The reason is because cats fastidiously clean themselves with their tongues and teeth on a daily basis.

Most of the time, brushing your cat will be enough to keep him clean, but on occasion -- like if your cat has gotten into something particularly dirty, or you’re trying to eliminate excess dander -- little Fluffy might need to take a dip in the tub.

In those cases, here are some tips for making the experience less traumatic for you and your furry friend.

  1. Be prepared. When giving your cat a bath, the quicker you can make the experience go by, the better. Have a plastic pitcher or large cup, a towel, a washcloth and cat shampoo at the ready. Also, the ASPCA recommends trimming your cat’s nails prior to bathing him if you’re concerned about scratching. You should also brush your cat thoroughly before bathing him to remove all excess hair and mats ahead of time.

  2. Set the scene. Fill a sink, basin or tub with several inches of lukewarm water. Keep in mind that your cat probably will try to claw her way out of wherever you’re washing her, so try confining her to a space that’s not as easy for her get out of, like a tub with glass doors. If you have access to a spot with a retractable spray nozzle, even better. Test the water, just as you would for a child or baby, to make sure it’s not too hot or cold.

  3. Be steady and confident. If you’re nervous, your cat will sense that and be nervous as well. When you’re ready, place your cat in the water and wet him from his neck to his tail using water from the pitcher. Don’t pour water on your cat’s face, and do not dunk his entire body into the water all at once. Not only will he hate it, but you run the risk of getting water in his ears and/or nose. Instead, use a damp washcloth once the cat is out of the bath to gently wipe off his face.

  4. Lather up. Clean your cat’s fur with specially formulated feline shampoo, since human shampoo can be too drying for cats’ sensitive skin. Be sure to pay attention to the specific product’s instructions.  Again, avoid your cat’s face, especially his nose, ears and mouth. Use the pitcher or cup to rinse off the soap. Since cats clean themselves with their tongues, be sure to get rid of all the suds so that they don’t ingest too much of the shampoo later. Be sure to check under his chin, paws and belly for any residual bubbles.
  5. Dry him quickly. Wrap your cat in a soft towel and dry off his fur as much as you can. For long-haired cats, you may need to brush or comb their fur to get out tangles.
  6. Give your little bud lots of praise -- and a treat! -- for being so brave. Who knows, your cat might be one of the few that likes baths or, at the very least, will stoically endure them.

If you know your cat is extremely anxious or water-adverse, be sure to consult your vet first. And if your cat absolutely will not tolerate being submerged in water, consider having him professionally cleaned at either a groomer or at the vet.

Kitten Kindergarten

When it comes to pet training, dogs traditionally have had a paw up on their feline counterparts. Programs to increase a cat's socialization and training aren't considered by most pet owners and didn't exist until recently. But school is becoming the "in" thing for kittens, with the advent of kitten kindergarten.

Kitten kindergarten is the brainchild of Australian veterinary behaviorist Kersti Seksel, who opened her own "Kitty Kindy" under a decade ago for young cats aged 7 to 14 weeks. The concept has now appeared in the U.S., where in many communities from coast to coast courses are spread out over a few weeks. These courses allow kittens to play and interact with owners and other cats. Owners also learn to care for their kittens, and behavior problems are nipped in the bud.

"People have had misconceptions about cats: that they're loners and that they're not sociable. But they are wrong," says Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified animal behavior consultant and author of books on feline care, including Psycho Kitty (TenSpeed Press 2007). "It's laying a foundation for great socialization and hopefully the prevention of future behavior problems."

What Is It?
Kitten kindergartens are being offered by a variety of veterinarians, humane societies, behaviorists and other specialists. In the U.S., the programs tend to be targeted at kittens between 8 and 15 weeks old. The young felines generally must be up-to-date on shots and have a health form signed by a veterinarian saying they are in good health and have tested negative for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV).

Steve Dale, a cat behavior consultant in the Chicago area who teaches kitten classes around the country, says that the goals of any kitten kindergarten should include getting a cat accustomed to a pet carrier, helping to socialize a cat and teaching owners how to handle, feed and play with their pets. Dale, who developed his curriculum based on Dr. Seksel's teachings and feline behavior guidelines from the American Association of Feline Practitioners, says these goals are achieved through a variety of games, drills and introductions to other cats, people and even dogs. Pet owners should also get opportunities to ask questions and learn some of the basics about having a cat at home -- Litter Box 101, discouraging scratching on furniture, diet information and grooming, among other issues.

What's the Benefit for Your Cat?
Cats, like other animals, go through an early development stage when they trust that everything in their environment is safe, including people, other pets and surroundings. For kittens, this stage generally comes between about 8 and 15 weeks of age. "Cats have this very narrow window where physiologically they are like putty, and you can teach them all sorts of things," Dale says. This is a great time for bonding with a family and becoming comfortable in a new home. But after that stage, as cats begin to explore, they can become more timid and cautious of new people, places and things.

"None of us want to find our cat ducked under the bed when we have to take her to the clinic," says Arden Moore, editor of Catnip, the monthly magazine for cat owners from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. "With something like kitty kindergarten, you're starting off on the right paw, if you will. You're showing your cat that the carrier is a safe, welcoming place. The car is no big deal. And the veterinarian's office is no big deal. You're getting them used to being handled by different people and safely introduced to new environments."

Socialization to new places, people, pets and situations while a kitten is in that impressionable stage will create positive associations for the cat. If a kitten gets used to being handled by pet owners and even strangers, then it may be more receptive and relaxed at veterinary exams or routine events like getting their nails cut and teeth brushed.

What's in It for You?
Kitty kindergarten, while less focused on training tricks, helps to develop positive behaviors so that cat and owner may cohabitate in the most positive environment.

"It's creating a good relationship from the beginning between the kitten and the owner," Johnson-Bennett says. "Because it's a relationship, you need to know what the cat needs and how to provide it. Having your cat be more sociable and comfortable around people and other pets means they are less likely to hide when the doorbell rings, they're more comfortable being held and it's easier to introduce another pet into the household."

Kitten kindergarten works on a variety of levels. Brand-new cat owners can learn the basics of feeding, litter box maintenance, grooming and even playing with their pet. For more experienced pet owners, the classes can aid in socializing their pet so they have fewer adjustment issues later on when they want to bring home a dog or visit the veterinarian.

Where to Find Kitten Kindergartens
Kitten kindergartens have been opening in communities around the country. Here are some resources to find one that is right for you:

  • Check with your veterinarian Many veterinarians are taking the initiative to start these classes. "It's a great way to put a cat in a fun environment when they visit the vet, not just for the dreaded vaccinations," Moore says.
  • Talk to the local humane society These organizations also see kitten kindergartens as a positive way to reduce the number of cats that are abandoned or put up for re-adoption due to behavior problems. "Shelters really love it," Moore says. "It's helping kittens get socialized and adopted."
  • Online resources Pet experts have set up Web sites with information about kitten kindergartens. Steve Dale's Pet World Web site contains a variety of resources, as does the Web site of veterinary behaviorist Sophia Yin, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her site is called AskDrYin.
  • American Association for Feline Practitioners The AAFP has developed feline behavior guidelines that might be helpful in choosing your kitten kindergarten. The group has a Web site called CatVets.

Kitten kindergartens are a sign of change in our understanding of what cats need and what type of relationship you can have with your cat. Kitten kindergartens, Dale says, help owners to provide both mental and physical stimulation for their feline friends. Kitty can then graduate to its next stage of life, feeling healthy, prepared and confident.

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.

How to Train Your Athletic Cat

Cat agility competitions are helping to shatter the stereotype of cats as untrainable, nap-happy slackers. Wondering if your cat has what it takes to be training in this increasingly popular sport? For those who are interested, getting started is fairly simple.

Find a Motivating Object
Cats don’t run the obstacle course just because it’s there. They need the proverbial carrot to lead them around. Popular items are toys, feathers or laser pointers, but knowing your cat’s quirks can yield great results. As examples, one of the fastest champions, Ursa Corynne, is motivated by chasing after a drinking straw, while Sir Linus, a Supreme Grand Champion in cat agility competitions, traverses each obstacle for the reward of a kiss from his owner, Vivian Frawley. Frawley is also a big proponent of clicker training: “Cats are very responsive to this. It allows you to apply operant conditioning to shape the behavior that is desired.” Lastly, don’t use an actual carrot, since food is forbidden as a lure during competition.

Know the Rules
“Typical course obstacles include a ladder that the cats step through, tunnels, fence jumps, cones or poles to weave through, and hoop jumps,” says Susan Lee, a cat agility trainer from Michigan. “An agility official oversees the run, times it and scores the faults. A fault is a refusal to do an obstacle. A slower run with no faults may place above a faster run with one fault.”

Practice at Home
“To start, sit in your favorite chair and drag a toy for your cat to follow. Then, add a pillow for them to jump over,” says Jill Archibald, agility coordinator for The Cat Fanciers’ Association. Official obstacle courses are expensive, but makeshift ones are easy to create. “A box with two open ends becomes a tunnel; a pillow becomes a jump; three one-liter bottles become weave poles; a toy hoop propped up becomes a hoop jump,” says Archibald.

Start Young
Although there are exceptions, most trainers agree that kittens or young cats perform and respond to training the best, as do neuters or spays. “Adult males or females are usually handicapped by their hormones,” says Archibald. “They are much more interested in finding each other than in doing agility!”

Get Your Cat Used to Crowds
“Training your cat to navigate obstacles is not enough,” says Archibald. “You must also train them to be comfortable in a large, noisy venue with unusual sights and sounds because almost all competitions are held at a cat show.” While it’s true that cats with outgoing, friendly dispositions are best suited to this, recluses can also succeed. Archibald recommends a steady diet of social exercise. “Go to a cat show without agility first, and enter the cat in the Household Pet class,” she says, to get it used to the sights and sounds of shows. “Otherwise, encourage people who visit you to play with the cat. Leave the TV on or the radio. They need to become used to unusual noises.”

Lastly, Have Fun!
Experts agree that the best recipe for success is the special bond that is created through all the practice (play) with your cat. “People underestimate what cats are willing to do once you have the kind of relationship with them that makes them feel safe and excited to do new things,” says Archibald.