Litter Box Issues

Help, My Cat is Pooping on the Floor!

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Luna will be two years old in October and has never had any litter problems. We got a puppy last week. She is obviously upset. I’ve tried to let them interact at her pace. Of course, the puppy is all over her. For the last three days, Luna has been pooping on the dining room floor once a day. I’m sure it’s stress related, but I’m not sure what to do about it. Thanks so much!
— Karen R.

Karen, the issue is one of security. Luna clearly feels threatened by the puppy. To a cat, a new dog in their territory is a bit of a conundrum. Even if the dog isn't physically threatening, he could still be seen as a territorial intruder. The whole house was Luna's domain and now there's this smelly, excited being in her space. Imagine that you went to work one day only to come home to a slob who introduced herself as your new roommate. She hardly ever bathes so she smells bad, eats stinky food, and absolutely wants to spend every waking minute with you, touching you and talking to you nonstop. How would you feel?

When a cat is middening (pooping outside the box to mark territory), she's sending a very serious message about her feelings of distress. Luna's basically trying to make herself feel more secure in her territory. Cats are usually fastidious about covering their poop because they don't want predators to pick up their scent. When a cat poops out in the open on purpose, it's basically a last resort.

There are several things you can do to help Luna.

1. You need to be the police officer who decides how much contact the dog gets to have with Luna. If you see the puppy overstepping boundaries with Luna, you need to step in gently and reassure Luna while placing yourself between her and the puppy. Show her that you're on her side. Training the puppy to sit and wait are good ways to have him stand down when he's becoming too aggressive in his play. To dogs, this is just good fun, but to cats it can be overwhelming. It's especially bad when a dog doesn't pick up on the subtle signals cats send out telling them to stop.

2. You need to provide Luna with a safe zone that she can access but the puppy cannot. A tall cat tree can serve this purpose well, especially if it has enclosures where Luna can hide if she wants to. You want to think about the vertical space in your home and see if you can arrange things so that Luna can access tops of bookcases and other furniture that the puppy can't get to. This is all to provide Luna with an escape route and a vantage point if the puppy gets too physical for her comfort.

3. Never scold Luna for middening. Cats react poorly to negative reinforcement across the board. Praise her when you see her using her litter box.

4. Make sure the puppy isn't intruding on Luna when she's using her litter box. Sometimes dogs like to eat cat poop and will eagerly intrude on a cat doing her business. This would be enough to drive any cat mad. If possible, put the litter box in an area that the puppy can't access. A toddler security gate can help if Luna will jump over it and the dog can't.

5. Make special time to spend just with Luna each day to reinforce her place in the household. Make sure she gets her fair share of lap time and play time exclusively with you.

6. Be sure to clean the area where she poops with a good enzymatic cleaner. With regular household cleaners, she will still be able to smell her poop on the floor after you've cleaned it. That will reinforce her desire to continue to mark that same area.

Cats and dogs can co-habitate fairly well but sometimes they never overcome bad introductions. It isn't a relationship where you can just put them together and hope for the best. Worst case scenario would be to separate them completely and reintroduce them more slowly. Good luck!

Crime & Punishment & Cats

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When a cat feels threatened, they often urinate outside the litter box and scratch things in order to feel better. Nicole F. writes:

My cat, Ghost, pees on my dog’s bed and in front of his litter box. We have three cats and three litter boxes. He does it sometimes out of spite. He was told “no” the other day and was pushed off something and then he went over to my dog’s bed and peed. He pushes the screens out on the patio and gets out all the time no matter how many times we fix it and I don’t want my cats outside. He shredded the carpet to the point it looked like spaghetti. Aside from Ghost’s disaster qualities, he is actually a pretty cool cat. How can I stop him from peeing everywhere?

It sounds like Ghost is feeling insecure. That can be difficult when a cat is as smart as Ghost is. He's going to find a way to make himself feel better, even if that means getting outside. He will also feel better if he spreads his scent around by urinating and scratching improper areas.

It's important to remember that cats don't act out of spite, ever. They simply don't have the capacity for that. It can be easy to interpret their behaviors that way because we're so used to looking at them as if they were small humans. They aren't, so the first step is to try and imagine the situation from Ghost's point of view.  He's clearly agitated, so what's upsetting him? 

Many times, there's a less visible aggressor in a multi-cat household and Ghost may be getting bullied. He may even feel bullied by you. You should never, ever shout at or push a cat off of anything. That's physical aggression in cat terms and most cats will respond negatively to it, just as Ghost has. When you get physical with him in any way, especially when you're upset, he will see you as a predator. All he will learn from those interactions is to fear you. He will not connect your aggressive responses to his own behavior. Cats do not have a pack mentality. They look upon us as equals, not as masters to be obeyed.

It will help if you offer more positive reinforcement. Instead of chastising him when he does something you don't like, treat him when he's behaving. When he uses the litter box appropriately, offer him a small treat. When he lounges in a spot you like him in, offer him a small treat. If he does something you don't like, overwhelm him with love and gently move him away. He may not enjoy being handled in this way, but he won't see it as aggressive, especially if you do it in a happy way. Be consistent in this behavior and you'll see change.

Think about altering your own behavior toward Ghost. You obviously care about him enough to reach out to us. Just take some time to consider how you might make him feel more secure. It will take time, but he will respond to your efforts.

There are even more good ideas in this previous post about helping a shy cat feel more secure: http://kittyhelpdesk.com/help-desk/helping-your-cat-feel-secure

Best wishes to you and Ghost!

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!