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Litter: Thinking Outside the Box

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.

Stay Calm

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.


Cats and relationships and feelings

By Maeve Connor

One year ago today, I brought home a kitten. I had played around with the idea for a while, looking at Petfinder and imagining how the various kittens would get along with my 2-year old cat, Agnes. Memories of how crazy Agnes was when she was a kitten had become funny anecdotes, and I had forgotten about how she used to pounce on my face at 4 am and how she would destroy every pair of headphones she came across. My girlfriend tried to convince me that a kitten was a bad idea. If we move in together, it’s going to be hard to find a place that will take three cats, she said. (She also had one of her own.) If we move to California together, which had been the plan for a while, we would have to get one extra cat down there. But our relationship was falling apart. I didn’t believe that we would be moving in together or moving to another state together. Even when she was with me, I felt lonely. So I found a fluffy tortoiseshell kitten on Petfinder, emailed about her and took her home, all while my girlfriend was out of town.

I knew my girlfriend wasn’t happy about it, and that in a way I was declaring my independence. She didn’t say much, though. Everything had been a fight lately. There was no point in starting one more. A few weeks later things were over for good. We held each other while we broke up for the last time. Agnes and the new kitten, Effie, were both there, watching.

At the time, that break-up felt like the worst thing I had ever gone through. It meant we wouldn’t be getting married, wouldn’t be having children and wouldn’t be moving together, and I realized that all the plans I had in life depended on my relationship with her. But I had a new kitten. She loved to cuddle, which was good because it was hard for me to get out of bed. She would sleep in my arms every night while Agnes slept at the foot of my bed. I focused my life entirely on taking care of them. I did everything right—high-quality food, play time every day, consulting the vet on every little thing. They got along great, like they were always meant to be sisters.

When Effie was five months old, she stopped putting weight on her right front leg. I assumed she had hurt it somehow, probably by jumping and landing weird. She had boundless energy and was always running around and jumping everywhere. A lot of people thought I was silly to be concerned, but the vet recommended bringing her in. I dropped a ton of money on an x-ray, and then so much more money on tests. They thought there was an infection in her bone. They had no explanation of how it could have happened, but it’s what everything pointed to. She would be on antibiotics for months. She would also have to be confined to a crate, because running or jumping could lead to a fracture. My five-month old kitten wasn’t allowed to play anymore.

She was in that crate for two months. I quickly learned that I had to sedate her to take her out because all she wanted to do was run around. I frequently had to sedate her when she was in it too, or else she would just cry. I felt awful leaving her there while at work. I felt awful leaving her ever. I was doing the vet-recommended thing, and I would have felt even worse if she had fractured her bone, but I felt overwhelming guilt about keeping her confined. I also met someone new during this time, and fell for her so fast I didn’t know what was happening. I had barely had a moment to think about what happened in my previous relationship, but here was someone who just appeared in my life and seemed so perfect that it didn’t seem real. I had given up on the idea of dating because my last relationship had been so unhappy for so long, and I didn’t know what the point was. But suddenly I was ecstatic all the time. Effie was allowed out of her crate the same day this new girl drunkenly told me she was falling in love with me. We both pretended it had never happened—we had only been seeing each other for a few weeks. But I felt good, finally.

That relationship ended, suddenly, as quickly as it started. I had never had a chance to grieve my previous relationship, so I just grieved everything at once. I drank juice glasses full of whiskey in bed. I sobbed in bars with my best friend. I texted this girl about how sad I was every day, as I heard about her new relationship from friends. She told me she thought it was weird that I was so sad. So I cuddled with Effie and Agnes. Effie still slept in my arms.

While Effie was now allowed to roam around the apartment freely, her leg still wasn’t entirely healed. She was still getting x-rays every few weeks, and got one four days after the break-up. After doing the x-ray my vet called me back to look at it with a concerned look on her face. They were hoping the leg would be all the way healed, but it wasn’t. But also, there was a large mass in her abdomen. It would be unusual for a kitten this age to have cancer, she said. But it looks like cancer all the same. She needed an ultrasound, today, and I would have to take her out to the suburbs for it. I called my mom and she agreed to leave work and give me a ride.

The ultrasound wasn’t conclusive. She needed exploratory surgery. They hadn’t ruled out cancer, but it could also be some sort of infection, maybe related to the infection in her bone. She got the surgery two days later. I was so scared to leave her there and so happy to bring her home, even though she had a huge scary incision completely down her abdomen and they still didn’t really know what was wrong. Cancer was what I was scared of, but after the surgery they brought up a different idea. My vet said that it looked kind of like Feline Infectious Peritonitis, or FIP. I had never heard of it but managed to get the important information out of her. There are two kinds of FIP, dry and wet. She had dry, and cats with dry FIP usually live a little longer, but they are both fatal. Always. Usually it’s quick.

The FIP was confirmed. My kitten was officially terminally ill. I put her on an experimental medication that had been shown to extend the lives of some cats with FIP, along with pain medication, a steroid and an appetite stimulant. She hated the medicines. Getting her to eat was a huge struggle and involved offering her sometimes up to 12 kinds of food every day in hopes of her eating a few bites of one. She didn’t want to play but sometimes she would let Agnes groom her. She was always a strictly indoor cat but I started taking her outside in the yard sometimes and she would sniff the grass and watch bugs. I figured that would be on her bucket list.

There were some days where she seemed like maybe she was doing better. There were days when she would get up from her bed and come to the door when I came home from work. But then that stopped. I knew from online support groups that cats with FIP frequently had their ups and downs before eventually succumbing to the disease, and I hoped for another up, but I never got it.

Effie was barely eating in the first place, but it got to a point where she hadn’t eaten in two days. I had about a dozen friends coming over that night. My best friend and I were doing a dinner to raise money for her vet bills (over $6000 at that point), but I had to rush to the vet to pick up an anti-nausea medication in hopes that she would eat something as guests started to arrive. A friend injected the medication in my roommate’s bedroom while the rest of our friends chatted awkwardly in the living room, now knowing what was going on. Shortly after she got the injection, she tried to jump and fell over. Suddenly she could barely walk. FIP often eventually hits the brain and causes neurological symptoms. I knew this, but I was hoping it was some weird reaction to the medication. A friend drove me to the emergency vet. They took Effie to the back and left me crying in an exam room for ages. Then they told me there was nothing they could do. I could put her down now or I could take her home. I asked the doctor if she was in pain. I don’t think she’s in pain, she said, but I think she’s very very dizzy, and if you’ve ever felt dizzy like that, you know how awful it can be. I decided it was time to put her down two different times. I even filled out the paper work. Then I asked for a big dose of pain meds for her, so that she wouldn’t know what was happening, and took her home. If I was going to put her down I wanted it to be with my own vet, but the office was closed until the morning. This might have been the wrong decision but it was the only decision I felt like I could make.

Effie seemed to be completely paralyzed when I brought her home, with the exception of some very violent and scary seizures. I was terrified that she was going to snap her neck. I came very close to bringing her back to the emergency vet to be put down but then the seizures stopped. My mom came over and we sat with her. We watched a movie and pet her and constantly checked to see if her heart was still beating and if she was still breathing. Eventually my mom fell asleep on my couch and I took Effie to bed with me. I laid awake all night with my hands on her, listening to her breathe. The breathing got slower and slower. I woke my mom up around 5 am because I felt like she wasn’t going to make it much longer. I sobbed while my mom put her hand on her pulse. She stopped breathing. Her heart stopped beating. The vet wasn’t going to be open for a few hours. I made coffee.

We took her body to the vet’s office so it could be cremated, and then my mom bought me breakfast. I went home and fell asleep crying. Agnes licked the tears off my face. It was the Friday of gay pride weekend, so after sleeping all day I went out to a dance party. I left when I saw my most recent ex. I cried for the whole 30 minute walk home.

Single women adopting cats as an alternative to a relationship is such a cliché that it comes up in every conversation I have about being single. Sometimes in these conversations, I remind my friends that cats can break your heart too. The hurt I carry around from losing Effie overwhelms me still. Cats are amazing companions and I’m grateful for them every day, but it doesn’t mean they’re always easier than human relationships. I had Effie for a little over five months, and she died a little over five months ago. Nothing has been the same since I lost her. I adopted another kitten who is also amazing, and different from Effie in every way, and so far mostly healthy. I love her, and Agnes and I are both so happy to have another kitten in our lives. My apartment used to feel like a nursing home and now it feels more like a circus. But it’s been scary too. My new kitten Olive is now the same age Effie was when she first got sick. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that any time you let someone into your heart you risk feeling like the whole thing is being ripped out of your chest. But if your heart is being ripped out of your chest it’s good to have a cat to curl up and sleep on top of it.

Maeve Connor is a freelance writer, nanny, queer vegan and committed cat lady. When she isn’t uploading pictures of her cats to Instagram, ranting about feminism or wasting time on the internet, she writes for websites like Catster and Autostraddle.


This piece was originally published at Navigator, Equator

Four months ago at this moment, I was picking fleas out of Nora’s butthole. That was my first motherly act towards her.

Mike had been in the right place at the right time, when a woman entered the cafe where he had been studying, with a kitten cradled in her arms that she had found under a car in the parking lot. The woman was late for work, so Mike wrapped her in a t-shirt and drove her to his vet, which was only a few miles away. She was so tiny and scared, and swarming with fleas.

I was at work at X’s to O’s Vegan Bakery when Mike texted her picture to me. “Want a kitten?”, he asked. He was mostly joking, and I didn’t think about it seriously at first; Pippi has never gotten along with other cats and I hadn’t been planning to add another cat to our family in Pippi’s lifetime. But the more I looked at the picture and thought about it, the more it felt right.


The folks at Sand Creek Animal Hospital took such great care of her until I was able to pick her up. They fed her and treated her flea problem. You wouldn’t even believe the amount of fleas.

Bringing her home was scary. I have lived with Pippi for 8 years, and she is the love of my life. I didn’t know how this kitten would change the dynamic between Pippi and I. I didn’t know if I could ever love this kitten as much as I loved Pippi. I didn’t know if I wanted to.

But as I sat on the edge of my tub, carefully grooming her with the flea-comb, and feeling her little bony legs shiver in my hands, I palpably felt my heart open to her.

The first few months were hard. I have lived with a lot of kittens in my life, but never with one who had so much energy, strength, and naughtiness. All summer, my legs were shredded from constant attacks. For a while there, I didn’t know if I would be able to keep her. Physically and emotionally it was just too painful. But we were patient with each other as she learned to not be a vicious tiger and I learned how to roughhouse with her and help her release her kitten energy without getting hurt.

Today is Nora’s 4-Month Forever Home Cativersary. She has tripled in size and weight, and is filling out to be such a typical huge and muscular Maine Coon. Pippi and I are both so chill and quiet; Nora adds an energetic playfulness to our home that I didn’t even know we were missing.

Happy Cativersary, you sweet and ferocious monster. Here’s to many more.

Feline Friendships

It’s no secret that I love cats more than I love most humans.

Cats and I understand each other, and I am often able to bond with cats that are known to be mean, shy, or scared of humans. When I lived in Pensacola, FL, there was a tribe of strays that lived under my house. They had been there for several generations and were terrified of and aggressive toward my roommates and neighbors. Despite all odds being stacked against it, one of the kittens, Lil’ Stripey, and I became friends. First, she sat with me on the porch while I wrote letters. Then she let me scratch her back. Then she was sneaking through my window at night to sleep on the edge of my bed.

My oldest cat, Pippi, has been with me for eight years. My friend’s mom found her and her sister, Maru, in the woods when they were tiny babies. It’s a miracle they survived. Pip had always been anti-social and spent her days avoiding everyone by sleeping under a desk in a home office. Maru, who is social and “aggressively friendly”, bonded with the family while Pippi became known as a boring grouch. When Pippi was six years old, my friend and I moved in together, and the cats moved in too. I coaxed Pip out of her shell and she has stolen my heart like no other cat ever has. This cat who was known for being grouchy and boring for six years was actually so sweet, loving, playful, and hilarious.

Nora was a surprise; I didn’t even know she existed until about four hours before she came to live with me. She was found in a Starbucks parking lot, next to a 4-lane highway, hiding under a car and covered in fleas. Like Pippi, it was a miracle she was alive. Living with a kitten has been a challenge. She is ultra-high energy, playful in a way that is often painful, and anything left on a low shelf (or, these days, any shelf lower than her 5-foot jumping height) will either be knocked off, eaten, or shredded. Sometimes knocked off, eaten, and shredded. But the 10 minutes a day when she is sleepy and cuddly are worth the frustration. She has added such a necessary youthfulness to this house.

There is a lot that I have to say about cats. I have stories to tell, and advice and tips to share. I’m excited to have a blog devoted to these sweet and sassy creatures.

Once a week I volunteer at Whiskers Animal Benevolent League, a cat rescue here in Albany, NY. If you have a moment and a few bucks to spare, this is a great place and any contribution would help so many cats. If you live locally, consider volunteering some time weekly or monthly. Just two hours of your time can make such a difference.