Resolving Litter Box Issues

The information below assumes you have addressed the most common issues: changed brand of litter, tried an additional litter box, kept the litter scrupulously clean, assured cat is not being abused by anyone.

If your cat is having litter box issues, it's usually due to one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Medical problem. The first step should always be the vet's office to rule out a UTI or other medical cause.
  2. blip in the litter box training. See details below.
  3. motional concerns. A variety of reasons; a variety of solutions.

Medical Problem

Logical enough: If the using the litter box is causing the cat pain, the cat will avoid the litter box. UTI's, parasites, Inflammatory Bowel Disease are all common in cats. UTI's can be especially serious and painful for male cats. Have your vet rule out any treatable medical cause. 

And, this almost seems too obvious to mention, but your cat should absolutely be spay/neutered. An intact animal will spray and mark to attract a mate. "Experiencing motherhood" is a human issue, not a feline one. Don't worry. He or she will be much happier afterward. If you can't afford the surgery, and it really can get exorbitant, have your vet recommend a low-cost clinic. For healthy household pets, the low-cost option is just fine.

Litter Box Training

(This section offers advice on litter box training in general, but sometimes a cat making litter box mistakes just needs re-training. So, this advice applies to those bringing in new pets and to those needing to re-train.)

One of the biggest challenges in introducing a cat to a new environment is getting the cat to learn the litter box. This is especially true of cats with feral backgrounds who never watched their mother or siblings use a litter box. For this group, be sure to use un-scented litter.

The protocol is applicable for both ferals and socialized house cats, such as those adopted from shelter facilities. 

For the first 24-48 hours, the cat should be placed in an enclosed, small, preferably tiled room (an extra bathroom, for example), with their food and water at one corner, a bed in one corner, and a litter box in another corner. The open carrier can be left in the room as well, as a "safety zone" hiding place. (If the cat is a kitten, and you're using an extra bathroom, be sure to close the toilet lid! Voice of experience here, I'm sorry to say.) The cat should be kept in this room for the first 24-48 hours.

This serves two purposes: One, it keeps the cat from being overwhelmed by the new environment. Emotionally, he or she only has to deal with the one room. Two, it imprints the location of the litter box on his or her brain. If the litter box is the only item in the room that allows the cat to "bury" waste, he or she should be attracted to it instinctively. (Hence, clothing and towels should not be left on the floor of this room.) With a tiled room, it should be easy to tell if the cat has soiled the environment or used the litter box. For cats with a feral background, you may want to put some leaves in the litter box.

The cat is likely to remain pretty quiet during this adjustment time, and you may spend as much time in there with the cat as you like. But the cat should be limited to this one room.

After the first 24-48 hours, you can open the door, leaving the cat access to the adjacent room, but only that next room. If over the next day or so it is obvious that the cat returns to the litter box without soiling the new room, you can be relatively sure that he or she has "learned" the litter box and you can open up more areas of the home. Ideally, the litter box should remain in its learned location.

This 24-48 hours of limits can mean a life-time of freedom from accidents. It's hard when you want to snuggle up with your new baby immediately and give him or her the run of the house, (and DO snuggle with the baby in that room), but it's best in the long run to work within slowly expanding limits.

Emotional Concerns

Cats can also soil outside their litter box for emotional reasons. Typically, something has changed in the environment: new furniture, new carpet, new boy/girlfriend, new baby, new work schedule, or even something as uncontrollable as an unfamiliar cat outside. Something has changed. Emotional soiling can be addressed behaviorally or medically.

Start by re-teaching the litter box following the instructions in the litter box training section above. Thoroughly clean the previously soiled area with a product designed for pet odors. If the behavior continues after re-training, many people suggest using a water bottle to squirt a cat who may be soiling in a carpeted corner, or some random location like that. This "behavior modification" teaches avoidance: "I get wet when I pee over there, so I'm not going to pee over there." Of course, you have to catch the cat in the act for this to be effective. Temporarily covering the area with tin foil has also discouraged cats from re-visiting a no-no area.

If the cat is soiling your shoes or your bed -- and this is actually common behavior -- then it's usually more personal. I find it usually due to the cat needing more personal attention. Start by re-teaching the litter box, following the instructions above, and while you are re-teaching -- and every day thereafter (you did want a pet, right?) -- establish scheduled "quality time" with you and your cat. I know you're busy; the cat knows you're busy. We're not talking hours here; cats aren't as high maintenance as people. : ) Ten to twenty minutes every night before bed time, for example, spend time with just you and the cat. This is your special time together: brushing the cat's hair, playing with cat toys, just petting and talking about your day. Emotionally, the cat will learn that you will have your special time together; he or she doesn't feel quite so abandoned.

Sometimes, bringing a younger cat into the environment will help by keeping your cat from getting lonely (an older animal could be threatening and thus create more problems). Sometimes a new cat has the exact opposite effect. So try the quality time suggestion before taking this risk.

What if I've tried all of the above and the cat is still soiling?

A return trip to the vet is in order. Your vet can provide further suggestions. Cats can also be medicated to alleviate some of their anxieties, but this should be a last resort. Unfortunately, cats surrendered to shelters for soiling problems are usually put down.

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