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Your Cat and the Litterbox Blues

Your Cat and the Litterbox Blues

By Mark Hale, DVM

Bolivar, MO


            According to most surveys of animal shelters in the US, failure to use the litterbox is the number one reason cats are relinquished for adoption. Housesoiling, as this is called, can be very frustrating for owners and veterinarians alike. It usually helps to look at the situation from the cats' point of view.

            In the large majority of housecats, litterbox training is almost automatic. But ancestors of today's cats did not eliminate in a plastic box filled with artificial dirt in a location chosen by humans. Usually the cause for problems here is our fault in one of these areas. Either the cat has found something undesirable about the litterbox, or it has learned to avoid the box because of an unpleasant experience.

            Litterboxes can be undesirable for a variety of reasons, especially uncleanliness. Cats do not appear to want to use a soiled box any more than humans would want to use a soiled toilet. Litterboxes should be checked twice daily and scooped out if dirty. Litter should also be completely changed and the boxed washed with unscented soap and water routinely. Strong odors left by some cleaners can be offensive to cats.

            Boxes must be large enough for comfort. Larger boxes are needed so the cat can move about and select an area to use. This can especially be a problem for large or overweight cats. The box should at least be one and a half times the length of the cat. Large plastic storage boxes with short sides often work well. Covered litterboxes can be offensive to some cats, and allow a subordinate cat to be "trapped" by a dominant cat. This fear of aggression can then lead to chronic misuse of the litter. If there are multiple cats in the household, then multiple boxes should also be available. Avoid placing the box in noisy, drafty, high-traffic areas. Litter preferences are another factor to be considered. Usually it is best to avoid scented litter. Some cats also have a preference for certain textures. If the cat does not dig in the litter and cover its excrement, simultaneously offer two or more kinds of litter in separate litterboxes and keep a log of the cat's preferences. Several types may need to be tried to determine the preferred one. Some litters even turn colors depending on the pH of the urine, or if there is blood in it.

            Learned aversion is another potential reason for avoidance. As I mentioned earlier, social conflict at the box can be a serious problem. Also anything that causes pain while near the box, such as pain with urination, arthritic conditions and a high-sided box, or diarrhea, can cause aversion. Low sides in at least one side of the box can help with older or weaker individuals. Two of the most common reasons that I deal with in my practice is urinary tract infection (UTI) or Feline Urologic Syndrome (FUS). These two diseases can both cause pain with urination that the cat associates with the litterbox, and therefore may avoid it to avoid the pain. It may even keep trying new locations in the house trying to find one that doesn't "hurt". Some may urinate or defecate in the sink, on dirty laundry, or the owner's bed.

            Cats may also eliminate outside the box due to stress or anxiety. Just as with humans, it may not be obvious that social stress or anxiety is present until a closer observation is performed. If this conflict is not resolved, chronic avoidance of the box, and possible territorial marking, may occur. Separation of certain individuals may be the best remedy. Sometimes certain anti-anxiety medications may be beneficial.

            A cat that lives in a suitable environment and is happy with its litterbox will consistently eliminate there.  If your cat is having problems with litterbox use, hopefully these comments can help. Discuss the signs with your cat's veterinarian for a diagnostic and treatment plan.