It can be extremely frustrating when your cat stops using her litter box. Anything and everything in your home can become a potential target of urine or feces. Litter box aversion is the most common problem clients call me about and in many cases, those clients are at the end of their ropes. Cat parents seem to be able to tolerate furniture scratching or constant meowing but when a cat pees on the carpet day after day it can be a deal-breaker. Nothing sends a cat to the shelter faster than a litter box problem.
Sadly, many of the cats relinquished to shelters, abandoned, or euthanized due to litter box problems could’ve been helped. Litter box problems cause owners to react impulsively, emotionally and sometimes irrationally. The sight or smell of cat pee on a cherished sofa or an expensive carpet can easily short-circuit a person’s patience. The level of frustration is understandable but how people handle the problem can either improve the situation or send it on a downward spiral. Here are some harmful mistakes cat parents make:
Waiting Too Long to do Something About it
I can’t tell you how many times people call me and request an immediate consultation because they’re planning on taking the cat to the shelter within days. The problem has usually been going on for weeks, months, and maybe even years and then the cat parent reaches the breaking point. The longer a problem goes on, the harder it is to correct. If you wait until the problem has caused you to reach your breaking point then you probably won’t be in a good frame of mind to do the proper behavior modification. It’s also not fair to the cat. When a cat feels she can’t use the litter box for whatever reason, it’s stressful. If the reason is medically related, it also causes suffering. Don’t wait.
Assuming the Problem is Behavioral
Many behavior problems have underlying medical causes. Many cats suffer in pain because a cat parent assumes the cause of the litter box aversion is due to a behavior problem when in fact, it might be due to lower urinary tract disease, renal failure, diabetes, or any number of medical issues. Whenever a cat displays a change in behavior you should have her checked out by the veterinarian. Once the veterinarian determines that the cat is not suffering from a medically-related problem then you can start to tackle this from a behavioral standpoint.
This is so counter-productive it’s heartbreaking. Rubbing your cat’s nose in her mess, spanking, yelling, time-out, squirting her with water, or any other form of punishment does nothing to help retrain her, and in fact, can make the situation worse. If your cat is peeing outside of the litter box she is doing it because she feels she has no other option.
If you punish her for it you add to her stress, potentially creating an added fear of you in the process, and she may start retaining her urine (which is medically harmful) for as long as she can out of fear of being punished. Hitting a cat is also inhumane and harmful to the behavior modification process. Your hands should never be used as weapons. How can you ever expect your cat to trust you if she doesn’t know whether the hand coming near her is going to pet her or smack her? Fear, intimidation, and pain are not appropriate behavior modification tools. Don’t let your frustration over a behavior problem get the best of you because your relationship with your cat will suffer.
Not Finding the True Cause
Animals don’t repeat behaviors unless they serve a function. If kitty is eliminating outside of the litter box there’s a valid reason for it. The reason is certainly not an acceptable one from the cat parent’s point of view but the cat is trying to solve a problem in the best way she knows how. Let’s look at a couple of examples: Perhaps she’s eliminating outside of the box because it’s too dirty. While you may think that scooping the box once every day or so is adequate, your cat may not feel it’s clean enough. She may eliminate in other areas of the house because they’re cleaner. Maybe she’s peeing in the dining room because every time she tries to go into the litter box she gets ambushed by a companion cat. Perhaps the dining room offers her more escape potential because she can see her opponent approaching from a distance and has more places to run.
You may have set up a litter box that’s very private but in the cat’s mind the privacy limits her ability to feel safe. Another example may be that the box is located in an unappealing location. Perhaps it’s in a basement where she has to go up and down the stairs. There are numerous other reasons your cat may feel it’s necessary to choose an alternate location to the litter box. If you just set up deterrents without getting to the source of the problem she’ll just keep looking for other locations.
Cats are creatures of habit and they take comfort in knowing that things in their environment aren’t going to be changing on a daily basis. Whether it’s your desire to switch to a different brand of litter, the fact that you love rearranging the furniture, or the irresistible urge to buy the cat food that’s on sale this week, sudden change is upsetting to cats. I had a client once who couldn’t decide where he wanted the litter box located in his house so he moved it every day as an experiment. The experiment ended in disaster because his cat couldn’t possibly keep up with the daily disappearing act. Introduce changes in your cat’s life in a gradual way. If you want to switch litter brands do it slowly by adding a little of the new litter into the current brand and then increasing the amount over the course of a few days. When introducing a second cat into the household do it gradually so both cats get a chance to adjust. Cats don’t want to be taken by surprise.
Need More Help?
You can find more in-depth information on litter box issues in any of Pam’s books, including the most recent release, Think Like a Cat. If you’re considering hiring a professional to help you with your cat’s little box problem, click here to read about how to find the right expert for you. If you’d like a consultation with cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, CCBC, contact our office for more information.
Note: this article is not intended as a medical diagnosis. If you’re cat is exhibiting a change in litter box habits, consult your veterinarian.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the star of Psycho Kitty airing on Discovery UK. She is author of seven best-selling books on cat behavior including Think Like a Cat: how to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. Think Like a Cat has become known as the cat bible. Pam is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting. In addition to her television series and public speaking engagements, Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company in Nashville, TN. Cat Behavior Associates offers private cat behavior appointments on a limited basis. Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant.