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Yikes! Litter Box Woes

Tips to Keep Our Feline Friends Using Their Boxes

House soiling is one of the most common reasons why pet owners abandon or relinquish their cats. Unfortunately, these cats frequently end up in shelters where they are more likely to be euthanized. 

The truth is house soiling can be a complex problem to solve. Urinating in odd places can mean a behavior problem, a territorial marking problem, or some sort of social or environmental issue, and sometimes the differences are not clear-cut. It’s important to understand that your cat does not urinate or defecate outside the box to spite you, but instead because its specific physical, social, or medical needs are not being met. 

Every cat that starts to house soil should have a thorough physical examination and urinalysis to check for medical problems such as urinary tract infections, bladder inflammation, arthritis, kidney problems, diabetes, and other medical issues. If your veterinarian believes the behavior is caused by a medical reason, she may perform additional tests such as a urine culture, x-rays, or blood work.

Feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC) is a frequent medical cause of urinating outside the litter box. Cats suffering from FIC have increased frequency of urination, difficulty and pain when urinating, and can have blood in their urine. A male cat suffering from FIC can actually end up with an obstructed urinary tract, creating a medical emergency. This inflammatory condition can increase and decrease in severity over time and is most frequently aggravated by stress and changes in diet. FIC cats are very sensitive and can flare up with symptoms over events that humans frequently discount or pay no attention to.

Beyond medical causes, an aversion to the litter box itself can lead to house soiling. Cats can dislike the box, the litter, the location of the box, or some combination of all three.

A cat with an aversion to the litter box will usually eliminate on a variety of horizontal surfaces. You may find puddles of urine and/or feces on soft surfaces like carpets, beds, or clothing, or on hard surfaces like tile floors or bathtubs. Depending on how much your cat wants to avoid the litter box, it may continue to use it, but only inconsistently. A clue to aversion as an underlying cause is when changes have recently been made to the litter box or its placement.

The Cornell University Feline Health Center offers the following tips to help cat owners assess their current litter box situation. 

Choose an appropriate litter and box.

• Most cats prefer unscented, finer-textured, and clumping litter about one to two inches deep.

• Young kittens, elderly cats, and cats with mobility problems need boxes with low sides.

• Overweight and large cats need bigger boxes.

• Most cats prefer an uncovered box that lets odors escape and allows a 360-degree view of their surroundings.

• Keep as many litter boxes as cats in the house – plus one additional.

Choose a good litter box location.

• Most cats prefer a location that is quiet, private, separate from their feeding area, and easily accessible twenty-four hours a day.   

• Place multiple boxes in different areas of the house.

• If your cat has trouble climbing stairs, locate a litter box on the floor where it spends the most time.

Keep the litter box clean.

• If you use clumping litter, remove feces and clumps at least once daily and add clean litter as needed.

• A liner may help keep the box cleaner, but many cats don’t like them.

• To clean the box, scrub it with a gentle detergent, dry it, and refill with clean litter. Litter should be completely changed every two to four weeks. The more cats using the box, the more often this will need to be done.

• Replace old boxes that smell or are cracked.

And finally, a word about urine spraying: Cats may spray when they perceive a threat to their territory, such as when a new cat enters the home or when outside cats are nearby. Cats usually spray on vertical surfaces, like the backs of chairs or walls. Cats that spray are usually unneutered males and, to a lesser extent, unspayed females, but 10 percent of neutered males and 5 percent of neutered females also spray.

Because spraying is different than other types of house soiling, different tactics are necessary to manage it. It’s important to address any inter-cat territorial disputes and have your pet spayed or neutered. Applying odor neutralizers anywhere your cat has sprayed may prevent him from spraying there again. Another useful commercial product is Feliway, a synthetic pheromone that acts to calm cats naturally. Many cats will not spray on areas that have this scent.

If you are experiencing house-soiling with your cat, please contact your veterinarian immediately. The sooner these issues are addressed, the happier everyone will be, including your cat. 

Angela Kargus, DVM, practices at Rutland and Mechanicsville Animal Hospitals in Richmond’s East End. She shares her home with three crazy spaniels and a Norwegian forest cat.
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