Litterbox problems?

By Prof. Percy Pussycat

Professor Percy Pussycat here. Today we will explore the oh-so-important issue of proper litterbox use and what to do with a kitty who avoids their box. Now, this would be remarkably easy to fix if our feline friends could whisper the reason they refuse to use the litterbox to us, or send us an email, but that just doesn’t seem to happen.

It will probably take some detective work to figure out the reason or reasons, and the cure or cures. But dedicated owners can do it. Did you know that litterbox issues are one of the most common reasons cats are surrendered to shelters? How sad is that?

But before we go further, one of the most common problems is simply not having enough litterboxes for the number of cats in the house. The rule is each cat should have their own box plus there should be one extra as a just-in-case-I-need-it box. So, if you do the math, for one kitty, you would have two litterboxes. For four kitties, you would have five litterboxes.

Step 1. Clean up

Cat urine is one of the most difficult smells to remove. To add to the challenge, cats have an extraordinary sense of smell, so they may continue to go in a place they went before if the smell is still there. And they have really good sniffers. Remove, sterilize, or throw out any items your cat urinated or defecated on outside the litterbox. If they went on more permanent items like your front door or wall-to-wall carpet, thoroughly clean the entire area, and soak with an enzyme pet cleaner for 24 hours. Then keep them out of that area while you are trying the next steps. Even if you have to cover the area with a cat-proof plastic tarp to keep them away.

Step 2. “Brand New”

The easiest and fastest thing you can try is replacing all the old litterboxes with brand new ones, with new litter, and place in a new location. Put this brand new litterbox, as big a one as possible and not a covered one, filled with fresh all-new litter, as close as you can to where they were eliminating inappropriately the most. This might be right next to your shower if they were using the bath mat, in your closet, on the couch, under a window or in a doorway.

Then keep an eye on your cat for one full day.

Did that stop them from going outside the box? Great! If you can keep the litterbox in the new location with that kind of litter for a full week, your outside-the-box problem may be solved.

Step 3. Medical

But if the “brand new” solution didn’t fix your problem in one day, you should take your pet to your vet ASAP to rule out any medical causes. Often cats will stop using their box to communicate they aren’t feeling well or are in pain. Here are the steps most vets will recommend:

• A urinalysis to check for infection.

• A urine culture for elevated bacteria.

• Blood panel or other tests for illnesses.

• Feline Prozac or Buspar to relieve anxiety-driven litterbox issues.

Step 3. Litterbox preferences

After your vet has ruled out immediate medical causes, and while you’re waiting on the culture to come back, you can start the process of figuring out if the problem is the litterbox location, the type or depth of litter, the cleanliness, or style of box that is the reason your kitty is not using his box. Your cat may just not like the new kitty litter you bought. Or pink isn’t his color. Lots of possible reasons here. And the issue of covered boxes is a real issue. Cats can feel trapped in a box with a lid or a top so they won’t use it if they are insecure relative to another cat in the household.

Step 4. Location and quantity

Try putting six new litter boxes out in six different locations. You don’t have to buy six new expensive boxes. You can use the disposable cardboard litter boxes sold in packs at pet supply stores. This is a temporary test to see if something in the two locations you tried previously is scaring or stressing your cat out so he doesn’t want to go there all the time. If you find they are using one or more boxes and not going outside, after one week remove one he’s using the least. If you’re still okay, then remove one more a week until you are down to the maximum number you can tolerate. If they have an accident, then replace the last one you removed. You may need to combine this with keeping all the boxes super clean for it to work long-term.

Step 5. Stress

After a medical cause, stress and anxiety (territorial or other source) are the most common reasons cats do their business outside their box. Your cat could be upset over a change in his routine, by someone or something new in the house, or something scary outside the house. Whatever the cause, you can try these stress relievers:

1. Rescue Remedy. Effects are immediate. Put it on your cat’s paw so he’ll lick it off.

2. Feliway plug-ins in every room. Not cheap, but often more effective than spray or collar versions.

3. Vet-prescribed kitty Prozac or Buspar.

4. Soothing music, like a classical or easy listening radio station left on.

Step 6. Scent and Territory

You should also consider what is going on outside your house that could be causing serious stress for your cat. Is there a chance this behavior is anxiety-driven or territorial marking? If a neighbor’s cat is routinely wandering around your backyard at night, your cat may be reacting to that. Try blocking off where they can see/hear/smell any other cats or dogs outside.

Another idea is that after you’ve cleaned all the areas where your cat has gone outside the box with the strongest stuff possible, gently rub a soft cloth over his cheeks, neck, and bottom, then rub the cloth where he went to the bathroom and leave the cloth there. This spreads the cat’s pheromones and scent onto that surface, and will reduce their need to put his scent there himself.

Step 7. The Spraying Cat

And last but not least, here’s a way to deal with a cat that sprays. Soak your cat’s fabric collar in his sprayed urine, let it dry, and put it back them, so everywhere he goes, he will smell his own scent, and will not feel he has to spread it by spraying. Phew. Yucky but sometimes very effective.

And remember, cats are very sensitive creatures and are affected by your mood. They might not show it in a way you understand, but if you are stressed or unhappy when you are cleaning their litterbox, they may pick up on that and that is why they are avoiding the litterbox. Can you change your mood? Sometimes it can be no more difficult than buying a pretty new litterbox and using scented litter that makes you feel better that will get them to start going in the litterbox again. And remember, to offer your feline friend to his favorite treat when you see them doing it the right way. Between the two of you, and some detective work, I am sure you can get this issue back on track in a matter of weeks if not days. Good luck!

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