Litter Box Issues

My Cat Won't Use the Litter Box

Many cats develop litter box issues. In most cases, it's either a security or a medical issue. Deanna H. writes:

I adopted Loki from the pound about a month ago. She gets along for the most part. I also have a small dog. But my issue is that she has been urinating and defecating outside her litter box. She will use the box but not all the time. All I know about her history is that her previous owner moved out and abandoned her.

Deanna, if you haven't taken Loki to a veterinarian for a checkup yet, it might be a good time to make sure she's okay and has no problems with incontinence. Once she's gotten a clean bill of health, it's time to address her security issues.

Most cats have a period of adjustment after being adopted. In most cases, the worse their experiences with humans was before, the longer that adjustment period will be. Coming into a new home, especially one with a dog, can be very stressful. The more stress a cat feels, the more likely she is to have litter box issues.

The first thing to address is the litter box. If it's enclosed (has a lid) you want to remove the lid. Cats don't like feeling that they could be trapped where they're doing their business. They want to know there are multiple routes for escape. While your dog may be very friendly to Loki, she may still see him or her as a potential threat. 

You also want to make sure that it's easy for Loki to get in and out of the litter box. Some cats have issues with high-sided boxes. You also want to avoid the new motorized contraptions that self-clean. The noise and unpredictable movement of the mechanism can be very scary.

The positioning of the box is also a big deal. You don't want to put it in a noisy or high-traffic area but it needs to be easily accessible. If you put it in a dark corner of the basement, it may be too far away from the area Loki perceives to be her territory. Even when you can't smell the litter box, Loki can and its smell reinforces her claim on her territory. If she thinks that the area is challenged at all, even by you or your dog, she may avoid it. Cats are extremely sensitive to territorial disputes and most will do anything to avoid conflict, including not using the litter box. If it's possible for you to place the box somewhere where your dog can't get to it, that will be best.

You may want to address the kind of litter you're using but if she's using it part of the time, she must be recognizing it. Most cats prefer sandy, soft grains to some of the newer pellets and chunkier textures.

The fact of going outside the litter box actually introduces additional stress to the situation because Loki would rather go in a place where she can cover her waste and feel good about it. One thing you can do is to treat her when you notice she HAS used the litter box. Don't hover - no cat likes to be watched - but if you hear her scratching around in her box, a treat is in order.

Overall, the trick is to make her feel happy and safe in her new home. Make sure she has plenty of high spaces to climb to - most cats feel safest up high - and make sure she has at least one spot where no one, not even you and especially not your dog, can reach her. Don't pressure her or punish her when she goes outside the box. Punishment doesn't work with cats, so no harsh voices. Only kindness and understanding will solve this issue, and you've already illustrated both by reaching out about this. Thank you!

We've had some similar questions in the past. I'll include links to those answers below in case something there is helpful as well.

http://kittyhelpdesk.com/help-desk/cat-urinating-on-bed

http://kittyhelpdesk.com/help-desk/link-between-urination-and-security

http://kittyhelpdesk.com/help-desk/helping-your-cat-feel-secure

It may take a little bit of trial and error to figure out just what's bothering Loki, but I feel sure you can sort it out as long as you address it kindly from Loki's perspective. We wish you both all the best!

Should I Toilet Train My Cat?

There are lots of litter boxes on the market today, all of which are vying for the attention of cat lovers. However, when choosing a litter box, it's much more important to get the approval of the cat (see our litter box & litter recommendations here). Litter boxes with hoods and motors and tumblers may seem super cool to us humans, but they aren't always welcomed by our feline friends. And then there's the toilet. Maggie S. writes:

I’ve seen videos and reports online that say that cats can be trained to use a toilet instead of a litter box. How can I teach my cat, Baxter, to do this?

It sounds great, doesn't it, Maggie? Baxter could just perch up on the toilet seat, do his business, and be on his way without all the muss and fuss of keeping up a litter box! No sweeping up or vacuuming. No more lugging 25 pound boxes of litter home from the store. No more odor. It sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? That's because it is.

While it is possible to teach a smart cat like Baxter to use the toilet, it's not such a good idea for him in the long run. The reason? It introduces stress to an activity that's ingrained in your cat's biology. Over thousands of years, cats learned to cover their waste to keep from being detected by predators and prey. When this is forcibly changed, a large number of behavior issues can be the result. It's just not worth it for you or for your cat.

These are the key reasons not to toilet train a cat:

  1. It goes against a cat's instinct to dig and bury their waste.
  2. Litter box odors reinforce a cat's claim over their territory.
  3. As Baxter ages, he'll no longer be able to nimbly perch atop the toilet seat and is more likely to fall in.
  4. When he's boarded or kept in veterinary care, a litter box will be the only option.
  5. You can't move a toilet. The location of Baxter's litter box is critical to his elimination behaviors.
  6. If you have more than one cat, you should have one more litter box than the total number of cats. That doesn't really work with toilets.
  7. It makes it impossible for you to monitor urine output. Changes in urine output are key indicators to medical conditions like bladder stones and urinary tract infections.

So, while it seems like a great idea from the point of view of us humans, Maggie, toilet training Baxter will probably cause him great stress. It's better to focus your time with him on playing games and giving him positive reinforcement that increases your bond. You might even like to try clicker training. We wish both of you all the best!

Helping Your Cat Feel Secure

Let's face it. Some cats are just born skittish. Others are wary because they were born feral or lived in a threatening situation in the past. Anita G. writes:

I have four cats, all male. They get along. The youngest, Sherman, who is almost two, is extremely timid and fearful and hides a lot. He has urinated on the bed a few times. I took him to the vet to rule out medical issues. I added a litter box on another floor, totaling five. I tried different litters. I keep the boxed very clean. Any suggestions?

Anita, the problem probably isn't the litter or litter boxes but rather Sherman's insecurity in the household. His fear is what's driving this behavior. The bed is the scent-center of the house because it's where the greatest concentration of human scent lies. By urinating there, Sherman is making himself feel better about his territory and his place in the social hierarchy. The big question is how do you help him to feel more secure? Once you've done that, this behavior should stop.

Security is a tricky problem that usually requires a lot of observation to unravel. First, you need to make sure there's no real competition for resources among the cats. Sherman should have his own food and water bowls that aren't in the line of sight of the bowls that the other cats use. It sounds like there are plenty of litter boxes, so that shouldn't be an issue. 

Another resource is prime window space and sleeping places - especially vertical space. Since the bed is the center of this issue for Sherman, is he facing stiff competition for sleeping space on the bed? It may help to add taller cat trees so Sherman can get up high. More enclosed hiding places can help too. Anywhere that he can go where neither you nor the other cats will physically get to him. A small box on an accessible closet shelf or under the bed can be a perfect hideaway. Cat trees are the best because they immediately add vertical space. If they're placed near shelves, they can also provide access to high areas that help many cats feel more secure.

You'll also need to set aside special time to interact with Sherman without the other cats around. Just thirty minutes spent paying with him alone each day can work wonders. Since the bed is such a focus, that would be a good place to play. Just close the bedroom door so the other cats will give you time alone with Sherman. He'll feel better with your undivided attention and he can also spread his scent on the bed without urinating there.

 
 

Speaking of scent, you'll want to pay special attention to laundering the bed clothes where Sherman has urinated. If he continues to smell it, the scent will reinforce his behavior. Use a good enzymatic cleaner to permanently get rid of the odor even to Sherman's sensitive nose.

Observe him diligently, Anita. Notice what scares him. The other cats may be subtlely pushing him away when they sense his fear. Intervene if you can. Pet him under his chin and raise his head. You'd be surprised at how much hands on top of an insecure cat's head feel as though they're pushing him down. Help him to build up his courage and social position in the house and the problem should correct itself, but it will take time. Above all, never punish him for improper urination. All that will do is to teach him to feel insecure around you.

We wish you both the best of luck!

Why is my Cat Urinating on My Bed?

Soiling outside the litter box is an ongoing problem for cat caregivers because the issue is rarely simple.  Jane P. recently wrote us about this sort of behavior from a senior kitty named Gigi-Mo.  Jane writes:

She’s a very lovable 13-year-old female who appears healthy and lively. Every few weeks she pees on my bed when I’m in it. This has been happening for about 12 months. I’m finding it very difficult to keep changing the bed as I’ve gotten older and suffer with arthritis. I have two other cats of similar ages. I Can’t understand this behaviour, as I’ve not experienced it with any other cats I’ve had. I tried keeping her out of bedroom, which means shutting out all three cats and my male cat then keeps me awake by crying and scratching the door until I let him in. They’ve always been allowed to sleep on my bed. Help Please!

Jane, any time a cat soils outside her litter box, they're having some sort of problem.  Usually, there are multiple issues that contribute to the behavior.  The bed is key here because it's the center of the household for cats.  It holds a significant concentration of your scent, so it's where they often feel the most relaxed and secure.  But it can also be the cause of conflict in multiple cat households.

Since Gigi-mo is getting older, your first order of business should be to determine whether or not she has a urinary tract problem.  If she has bladder stones, a lower urinary tract infection (UTI), or an incontinence problem, she could be either relaxed enough in the bed to release, or she's trying to show you that she's in pain.  Once Gigi gets a clean bill of health from her veterinarian, you can proceed with your detective work.

Before we go much further, we suggest you read this post on why cats generally soil outside the litter box and this post on the link between improper urination and security.  

If the problem isn't related to illness, it's usually related to stress.  Something may have made Gigi feel insecure and she's using her urine scent to help her to feel better.  When exploring potential issues, bear in mind that cats are much more sensitive to scents than we mere humans are.  Try to think like Gigi might think about the situation.  For cats, scents occupy physical space in the same way that big, colorful smoke bombs would to us.

Is there competition from the other cats for prime positions on the bed?  When did the most recent cat join the family?  In particular, think about the first time Gigi urinated on the bed.  Were there big changes in the household around that time?  New family members?  New furniture?  Even new cleaning products can create problems.  

It's possible that after doing it once, she has repeated the behavior because her urine scent is still present on the matterss and laundered bed clothes.  Be sure to clean both with a good enzymatic cleaner in order to completely get rid of Gigi's urine scent.

Next, observe how the cats in your house interact.  Are there enough prime sleeping locations for everyone?  Is there competition for resources?  We recommend you read this post on how to keep the peace in a multi-cat household, and don't forget how subtle cat communication is.  There could be a full-out war going on in your house and all you'd see would be the cats ignoring each other.

Your goal, Jane, should be to discover what's bothering Gigi, as something most certainly is.  While you're on the case, you can use an artificial hormone product such as Feliway to help treat Gigi's stress and alleviate the symptoms for now.  Test a little on your bed clothes first to make sure they won't stain, then spray a little on the area where Gigi usually sleeps.  That should provide enough stress relief to stop her improper urination until you can home in on the source of her illness or insecurities.

 
 

We know how frustrating this sort of problem can be, Jane.  Many cats lose their homes over issues like this.  We hope that you'll take the time to try and understand what's bothering your feline friend.  With a focused effort and a keen eye on the behavior of all the cats in the household, we believe it will become clear.  We wish you and Gigi-mo all the best!

Cat Middening

Chris H. has a problem between a pair of outdoor cats.  Chris writes:

We have had Clyde (age 3) for three years and got Miss Kitty (age 2) two months ago. Both are outside kitties and well taken care of. They both have houses inside a shed, different things to play with, the run of the place, different food bowls in their areas, and each have a litter pan to use in their areas away from each other. The problem is that Clyde has started to poop in Miss Kitty’s house. Both cats are fixed. Why is he doing this and what can we do to stop it? Thank you!

Chris, any time there is a change in litter box habits, there is a cause.  Something has changed in Clyde's world and has made him react this way.  Our first guess is that the big change was the addition of Miss Kitty to the family, but it could be other things as well.  Think long and hard about any changes that might have affected Clyde.  Has his litter been switched?  Is something new being stored in his shed?  Has the shed been rearranged?  Are new people coming into his territory?  Are neighbor cats spraying in the area?  Has his bedding been changed?  While you consider these things, it would be wise to take Clyde in to the veterinarian for a checkup just to make sure there are no medical reasons for his behavior.

Cats generally cover their poop so as not to alert both predators and prey to their presence.  However, some cats mark their territory with their feces; a process called middening.  If Clyde is leaving his poop uncovered out in the open, he's trying to make himself feel more secure in his territory.  If he also poops where Miss Kitty's scent is the strongest - her bed - he may be trying to make it clear to her that the shed is all his and he doesn't want to share it.

We would be remiss if we didn't mention the fact that outdoor cats encounter other animals who may be a threat to them on a regular basis.  Keeping the cats indoors would definitely insure longer, less stressful lives for them both if they would tolerate the transition.  That said, we do have some suggestions to help you ease Clyde and Miss Kitty past this crisis.

The first step should be to replace any bedding in Miss Kitty's house and clean it with a good enzymatic cleaner.  Normal household products will not work against cat urine and feces smells.  Once the house is clean and Miss Kitty's bedding has been laundered or replaced, you should relocate both cats' houses outside the shed.  The further apart they are, the better.  This will give each cat a chance to establish his or her own territory.  

 
 

It's likely that the shed has become the point of conflict between the two cats.  While it's easy to blame Clyde because you see the evidence of his handiwork, don't forget that Miss Kitty could be leaving scent marks on his things as well.  The key to helping them to get along is to make sure they each have equal and separate sets of resources.  At present, the shed itself is a valued territory that may have become a point of contention between your two feline friends.  Cats usually choose to avoid conflict, and Clyde may have been doing so since you introduced Miss Kitty, but at a certain point he's decided to make his true feelings crystal clear.

Make sure that there's nothing objectionable about the litter box that Clyde uses.  It should be in an area where Clyde won't feel trapped and it should not be covered.  You can see our litter box and litter recommendations here.

There are a couple of additional things you can do to help.  One is to spray Clyde's bedding and house with a synthetic feline hormone like Feliway.  Clyde would have to be very stressed out to act as he has, so this could help ease those feelings, albeit temporarily.  

 
 

The second thing would be to check the shed inside and out for other feline markings.  If Clyde's territory has been challenged by another cat outside the family, he might react this way to make himself feel better.   You can see markings with an inexpensive black light flashlight.  Cat spray and urine will glow in the blacklight.  If you find markings, clean them with the enzymatic cleaner and that should also help ease Clyde's bad feelings.

 
 

In the end, it will be up to you to make sure each cat feels loved separately.  We often imagine the addition of a new cat will make our present pet happier, but that's not always the case.  Sometimes the new cat's presence complicates a simple situation and creates new boundary issues.  In many cases, the addition of a third cat can actually solve the problem IF that cat's personality is well chosen.  See this post for more on the subject.

Chris, clearly you and your family care for both cats and want to help them thrive.  We think you just need to look at their world through their eyes and you'll soon be able to solve their problem.  We wish you all the best!