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Litter-ly Speaking: When Your Cat Boycotts the Litter Box, He's Sending a Message

Dig into the reasons behind inappropriate elimination

All Animals magazine September/October 2012


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by Arna Cohen

Actions speak louder than words, goes the old saying. And no action speaks louder than the one your cat performs outside the litter box.

Cats are hardwired to bury their waste. When your kitty forgoes this basic instinct, he’s letting you know that something is wrong in his world.

But while that something may be obvious from a cat’s viewpoint, to humans it can be utterly obscure. As a result, inappropriate elimination is one of the most common reasons cats are surrendered to animal shelters.

Romeo had been returned to a shelter twice by the time Caroline Golon of Columbus, Ohio, adopted the 2-year-old from a Persian rescue group. The group had no information on why he’d been given up, but within five months, Golon had a suspicion. “If there’s something soft on the floor, he’ll pee on it,” she says. “… We lived … in a place with wall-to-wall carpeting. … He’d target corners and we’d cover those up with plastic, then he’d find someplace else. Pretty soon the whole upstairs was covered in plastic.”

Golon took Romeo to the veterinarian to check for a medical issue, always the first step in digging into the cause of litter box avoidance. Inflammation, infection, or obstruction in the urinary tract makes urination painful—a blockage can even cause a fatal buildup of toxins—while constipation can cause uncomfortable bowel movements. Associating the pain with the litter box, your cat may stop using it, even urinating right in front of you to tell you he’s not well. Quick treatment is essential to relieve his pain and get him back in the box.

Romeo got a clean bill of health, so Golon had to look elsewhere. Her search for answers turned up a plethora of theories and advice—so much that she eventually launched thehappylitterbox.com blog to share information with cat owners in similar predicaments. “Every cat is different; every situation is different,” she says. “It’s a lot of trial and error in finding a solution.”

As Golon discovered in her research, some cats are wedded to their bathroom routine and hate any alterations. A healthy cat who starts eliminating outside the box may be unhappy about the shape, size, location, cleanliness, or amount or type of litter. To resolve the problem, you need to give your kitty what he wants.

Read these tips for keeping your kitty in love with his litter box »

If health or preference isn’t the answer, it’s time to get inside kitty’s head. More than likely, he’s stressed with a capital S.

“Just like with people, stress … impacts emotional health,” says Amy Shojai, a certified animal behavior consultant in Sherman, Texas. Cats thrive on routine, and changes in their environment—a new person in the household, even a different furniture arrangement—can cause anxiety. Some cats cope by using “self-scent” to comfort themselves, says Shojai. “What smells like kitty? Her pee and poop.”

A cat who pees on the drapes may be reacting to the sight and smell of strange cats outside, marking his territory to reassure himself. If he marks your bed or a personal item, he may be anxious and confused because your new job has you away from home for long hours. “[Your cat] is not mad at you and acting out,” Shojai says. “He’s trying to calm himself down by sharing that scent in a place that feels safe and comfortable for him. … It’s kind of a backhanded compliment.”

Even so, Josh Rodgers and Amy Briggs didn’t feel particularly flattered when their cat Charley, then 3, started urinating on the carpet a few months after they adopted her. They hadn’t made any changes to the litter box, and the vet didn’t find any physical cause. All paws pointed to stress in the form of the couple’s younger cat, Sushi.

The Frederick, Md., couple had adopted the 1-year-old cat a few months after getting Charley. Sushi quickly asserted her dominance in the household, bopping the two dogs in the face, chasing the timid Charley from chairs and windowsills, and as her owners later discovered, preventing the older cat from using the litter box.

The solution was simple: more litter boxes in different locations. Since Sushi couldn’t guard every box at all times, Charley’s inappropriate elimination stopped almost immediately. While Rodgers wasn’t thrilled to have litter boxes in every room and hallway, he was eventually able to reduce the number of boxes to three. The couple also moved into a house with hardwood floors, eliminating the temptation of carpet. “We were confident that we could make it work or find a happy balance,” says Rodgers.

For Golon, the quest to make Romeo a reliable litter box visitor continues. Having ruled out the usual suspects, she’s planning to hire a behaviorist to get to the root of the problem. In the meantime, she puts puppy pads and towels inside Romeo’s boxes, and she and her husband are careful to never leave clothing on the floor.

The sacrifices, she says, are worth it. “We’d rather have Romeo than area rugs.”

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