This article was originally published in the October/November 2012 issue of Pet Tails Magazine
Cats are complicated creatures, and it can be challenging to figure out the things they do. When what they are doing is urinating and/or defecating outside of the litter box, it can be downright frustrating. When litter box habits change, it’s important to remember that it’s not out of spite or revenge. Your cat is simply trying to tell you that something is wrong. And, as their caretakers, we must pay attention and get to the root of the problem.
Getting to the Root of the Problem
If you have several cats, it may be no easy task to figure out which cat is eliminating outside of the box. The easiest way to find the culprit is to isolate one cat at a time, to see if the problem goes away while a certain cat is confined. If the habit is caused by co-habitation stress, however, isolation may solve the problem, making it harder to distinguish the culprit. In this case, you will need to watch your cats more closely to determine which one is straying from the box.
Once you have pinpointed the guilty party, your first step is to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian, to detect or rule out a medical problem. A urinary tract infection, for example, could cause your cat to associate the box with pain, causing her to avoid it. Urinary tract problems or blockages can be very serious, even resulting in death, and should never be taken lightly.
If the vet has given your cat a clean bill of health, great! There are a plethora of non-medical reasons why your cat may be avoiding the litter box. Here are some of the most common ones to consider:
• The box isn’t clean enough. Make sure that it is part of your routine to scoop the litter every day. Cats love cleanliness and often won’t tolerate a soiled box. Whether you use a clumping or non-clumping litter, the waste should be scooped daily. The box should also be completely emptied, washed with soapy hot water, and refilled with fresh litter on a regular basis (weekly for non-clumping litter and monthly for clumping litter.)
• Not enough litter boxes. Do you have several cats? You should have at least as many litter boxes as you have cats, though most vets will recommend having one per cat plus one additional box. If you live in a home that has several levels, you should have a box on each floor. This is especially important if you have special-needs cats who can’t or won’t travel between floors to find the box. Remember, also, that cats are very receptive to scents. If they feel as though a box has been “claimed” by another cat in your household, they may abandon the box altogether.
• Change. Cats are very sensitive to change. If there has been a new animal introduced into your home, or a new baby, your cat may become stressed and territorial, feeling the need to claim her space by urinating or defecating in unusual places. You can calm your cat and help ease her stress by making sure she has some safe and quiet space all to herself that she can retreat to for peace, like a secluded closet. If other animals or people are requiring more of your attention than usual, set aside some time in your day to bond with your cat.
• Location, location, location! In your desire to hide the box from the view of guests, you may have inadvertently put it in a place that doesn’t work for your cat. Is it hard to get to? Is it near a noisy or shaky appliance, like the dryer? Is it in the basement? Try moving the box to somewhere more inviting and accessible. Ideally, the box should be placed in an area that allows privacy, while also providing several escape routes. If your cat has been eliminating somewhere specific (under a desk, for instance), move the littler box to that spot for a month. After she has consistently used the box in this location for a month you will be able to move it gradually to the preferred spot. Make the move slowly, just a few inches per day.
• Too big or too small. Is the litter box the right size for your cat? Large breeds of cats require larger litter boxes. If it is a challenge for your cat to turn around in the box and comfortably use it, she may opt to not use it at all. If your cat is small, she may be having a hard time climbing into a box that has high sides.
• Keep the box far from food and water bowls. Cats usually won’t eat or drink next to where they use the bathroom– can you blame them? Keep the food far away, preferably in a separate room.
• Remove the hood. If you are using a litter box that has a hood, you may be doing more harm than good by making your cat feel trapped while in the box. Especially if you live in a multi-cat household, your cat will want to be able to escape the box easily if startled. Your box should already be placed in an area that allows your cat privacy, rendering the hood rather useless.
• Rinse and repeat. If your cat is routinely eliminating in the same spot, you may not be cleaning the area well enough. Animals have heightened senses of smell, and they will continue to soil an area if it smells like feces or urine to them. It is important to clean the area thoroughly. The best way to do this is with an enzyme cleaner, which can be found at your pet supply store. This enzyme cleaner is made especially for pet odors, and will get rid of residual smells. If your cat has been soiling a carpet, you may need to clean the spot several times to remove the odor. If the area has been soiled several times, you may even need to clean the carpet padding and floor underneath.
• Textures. If your cat is soiling soft surfaces, like your slippers, try switching to a softer litter (such as pine). If the elimination is happening on smooth surfaces, try leaving the box empty, or using only a very thin layer of litter on one side of the box. Once your cat gets into a routine of using the box, you can gradually add more litter.
• The wrong kind of litter. Cats can be very particular about the type of litter they will use. If your cat was using the box, then stopped when a new litter was introduced, switch back to the one she liked; don’t try to force it. If you need to change kinds of brands for some reason, consider putting a few boxes side by side, each with a different type of litter, to see which one she likes best.
The Scoop on Litter
Facing the amount of cat litter options in the supermarket can be overwhelming. There are so many types of litter out there, and it can be confusing to know which one is the best choice for your cat, home, and the environment.
The main distinction between litters is whether they are clumping or non-clumping. Clumping litter sticks together when your cat urinates. You just scoop the box daily and add a little more fresh litter after scooping. Once a month, you will need to remove all litter, wash the litter box with hot soapy water, and refill it with fresh litter. Non-clumping litter, on the other hand, is a bit more labor intensive. You will still need to scoop solid waste from the box every day. But since the urine will not be solidifying, you will need to empty the box, wash it, and refill with clean litter once a week.
Within the clumping and non-clumping categories, there are still several choices. Let’s take a look at your options.
• Clay-based.This litter absorbs liquid and forms clumps that are quick and easy to remove. If you scoop daily, this litter will provide excellent odor control. The downsides to this litter are that it can create dust, it is not flushable, and it is not biodegradable.
• Natural. More and more natural alternatives are hitting the market. A great environmentally-friendly alternative to a traditional clumping clay-based litter, is a clumping litter made from pine, wheat, or recycled newspaper. These litters offer the same convenience of clumping and great odor control, while also being biodegradable, dust-free, and sometimes flushable. (Always read the box before assuming you can flush your litter, as certain kinds can severely compromise your plumbing.)
• Clay-based. Clay-based non-clumping litters do absorb urine, but they don’t form easily scoopable clumps. To clean the urine-soiled litter from the box, it must be emptied and refilled weekly. As with its clumping counterpart, clay litter is not biodegradable or flushable.
• Crystals. Crystal cat litter is made from sand. Like clay-based litter, crystal litter does absorb urine, but does not form clumps that are easy to scoop. Crystal litter will need to be completely replaced weekly. This litter is not flushable or biodegradable.
• Natural. There are several types of non-clumping litters made from natural ingredients, such as pine. These litters often offer natural odor control, while being lightweight and dust-free. Natural litter will need to be scooped daily to remove solid waste, and replaced completely every week. Natural litters are biodegradable and some types can be flushed. (Always read the box before assuming you can flush your litter, as certain kinds can severely compromise your plumbing.)
Regardless of your litter preference, in the end the choice will be made by your cat, who will either accept or reject it. If you want to change litters, do it slowly, by adding a dash of the new type of litter into the old every time you scoop the box. This will allow your cat to gradually get used to it, while still feeling familiar with her litter box. If a tipping point has been reached after adding a few days or weeks worth of new litter to the old kind, and your cat begins eliminating outside of the box, you will have to either start the process again from square one, or commit to sticking with the previously-liked litter.
Though litter box problems can be frustrating, and sometimes costly, if you can manage to stay calm and patient while you get to the bottom of your cat’s litter box problem, you can avoid further stressing your cat and exaggerating the cause. You know your cat better than anyone else, and through observation, you may be able to get to the bottom of the problem right away. It may be as simple as remembering something that has changed recently, such as a change in litter types, or a litter box that has switched location. By returning things to the way they were before the change, or making the change more gradual, you may be able to quickly and easily solve the problem. The important thing to remember is that these problems won’t last forever. With a bit of creativity, effort, and thinking outside the box, you can train your cat to think inside the box once again.