Cat Litter Box Setbacks

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One of the greatest challenges of cat ownership is dealing with a pet that urinates or defecates outside of the litter box. Most cats are hardwired to select a spot with a loose substrate to use as a "bathroom." This is why cats and kittens need little training in litter box use. Just show them where it is and they'll take it from there. Unfortunately, much can go wrong from this point forward.

"If your cat is acting sick in any way (e.g., straining to urinate) or if you try to address his behavior without success, see your veterinarian."

Spraying Versus Inappropriate Urination

If you are finding urine outside of the litter box, your first job is to determine if your cat or cats are spraying or urinating. These are two very different behaviors with unique underlying causes and treatments; making this distinction is very important.

When a cat sprays, he usually stands in front of a vertical surface (e.g., a wall) and squirts a relatively small amount of urine on it. He may rapidly vibrate his tail while he is doing this. Spraying is a form of marking behavior. Therefore, male cats, especially those that have not been neutered, are more likely than females to spray, and the risk increases in multiple cat households.

When a cat urinates outside of the litter box, he or she will usually squat and leave a puddle of urine on a horizontal surface (e.g., the floor or bed). Cats that choose to urinate or defecate around the house often dislike something about their litter boxes. Common problems include:

  • A dirty and smelly box that is cleaned infrequently
  • A change in the type of litter used
  • Litters that contain a lot of perfumes
  • Boxes with high sides that are difficult to get in or out of, especially for older, arthritic cats
  • Covered boxes that are dark and "claustrophobic" or difficult to move around in
  • A bad experience in or around the litter box (e.g., being attacked by another cat)

Given enough time, a cat that urinates or defecates on a material other than cat litter will start to feel that this is normal behavior. It can be difficult to get these cats to start using cat litter again, so try to address problems with litter box use quickly.

Veterinary Care and Home Treatment

Comfort Zone

Keep in mind that illness or injury can change urination or defecation habits. If your cat is acting sick in any way (e.g., straining to urinate) or if you try to address his behavior without success, see your veterinarian. To rule out medical problems, your vet will need to perform a physical exam, get a complete history of your cat's behavior, and maybe run blood work, a urinalysis, fecal examinations, x-rays and other diagnostic tests.

If your cat has been given a clean bill of health, behavioral modification is the next step. To eliminate spraying, try to reduce any conflicts that are making your cat feel like he has to mark his territory. In a multi-cat household, provide lots of elevated perches, hiding places and covered escape routes so that pets have a way to avoid each other when they want to. Draw the drapes or blinds if an indoor cat is bothered by animals outside the home.

Anti-anxiety medications, supplements, and sprays, diffusers or wipes like Comfort Zone that help calm cats will often improve the situation if all else fails. If your cat routinely sprays in the same location, cover the area with foil. Most cats do not like the sound of a stream of urine hitting foil. And thoroughly clean up any areas that have been soiled with urine with a product like Urine-Off. The smell can encourage more marking behavior.

Making litter boxes more attractive is the key to correcting inappropriate urination or defecation. First clean up all soiled areas with a product that eliminates the smell of cat urine and feces. Then, try the following:

  • Always have one more litter box than the number of cats in the house.
  • Provide large, uncovered boxes filled with a deep layer of unscented litter containing activated charcoal or your cat's favorite litter.
  • Scoop out the boxes once or twice a day and dump, wash and fill them with clean litter once a month.
  • Initially, place litter boxes over the areas that have been soiled and then gradually move them to where you want them.
  • Consider using a litter box attractant.

The above is provided for information purposes only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of any condition. This information does not cover all possible variables, conditions, reactions, or risks relating to any topic, medication, or product and should not be considered complete. Certain products or medications may have risks and you should always consult your local veterinarian concerning the treatment of your pet. Any trademarks are the property of their respective owners.

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