Cat Box Blues? Don't Panic. Here's Help.

November 12, 2009 | By FelinePine | 2 comments
Category: Health & Wellness

By Dr. Michele Gaspar DVM, DABVP (feline)

Cats who don't reliably use the cat box are cats in trouble. Inappropriate urination and defecation is a top reason for cats to lose their homes and be surrendered to shelters.

When cats stop using the cat box, their guardians need prompt, accurate help to get the kitty back on track. Fortunately, with a little detective work, the causes for a cat's inappropriate urination and defecation usually can be identified, changes made and the problem solved.

The sooner you take action, the faster your cat will be back to using his or her box, your stress level will be reduced and your home will once again be peaceful!
Your kitty hasn't stopped using the cat box out of spite or because he or she is angry. Various stressful events (illness in the cat, humans away on vacation, visitors, construction in the home, problems with other pets in the home, etc.) and cat box maintenance issues are generally the two most common causes that make cats abandon the cat box. Punishing the cat who is not using the cat box never gets results.

Any time a cat stops using the cat box, it's important to make sure that there are no underlying medical problems, so a trip to the veterinarian is mandatory. Older cats with arthritis may have a difficult time getting into and out of most cat boxes; cats with constipation, diarrhea or feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD) may associate the pain and distress of those disorders with the box and choose to defecate and urinate elsewhere. Cats with hyperthyroidism, diabetes and chronic kidney disease may produce so much urine that the box is a wet, dirty mess and one they avoid. Your cat's veterinarian may recommend a urinalysis, radiographs (x-rays) or additional tests to help diagnose a medical condition.

Once your kitty has gotten a clean bill of health, the next step is to trouble-shoot your maintenance of the cat box. Cats have a location preference (where they want to urinate and defecate) as well as a substrate preference (that upon which they want to urinate and defecate). Our domestic cats are descended from cats who originally developed in the deserts of northern Africa and the Middle East. Because of this, many cats may have a preference for a soft substrate (like Feline Pine scoopable).

Veterinarians recommend one more cat box than there are cats in the home. So, if you have one cat, then you'll need two cat boxes. Have three cats? Then four boxes are best. The boxes should be placed in multiple, quiet locations around the home, that provide privacy. Some cats will use boxes that are located in one area. However, having many boxes in close proximity really amounts to having one large cat box, so consider multiple, out-of-the way areas for the cat boxes in your home if one or more of the cats isn't using the box regularly. Some cats prefer to urinate in one box or boxes and defecate in others.

Covered cat boxes often present many problems. Humans like them because the wastes are "out of sight," but that can mean that daily cat box maintenance is "out of mind." Covered cat boxes are almost impossible to clean well and typically hold in odors. Often times we can't smell the odors from a covered box, but our cats can. One well-known veterinarian describes covered boxes as "gas chambers for cats." Think of a covered cat box as the cat equivalent of a human portable toilet. Without scrupulous cleaning, who wants to use it?

Older cats may have problems "ducking down" to enter a covered box and may not have sufficient room to turn around. If you have covered boxes and your cats are not using them, purchase a few large, uncovered boxes. One recommendation is that the boxes should be 1.5 times the length of the cat from tip of the nose to the base of the tail. Older cats with arthritis, as well as cats who have had previous injuries, and very large cats may do best using a medium or large-sized litter box, which has a shorter entrance lip. These are available at most large pet supply stores.

Cat box wastes should be scooped at least once daily and fresh filler added, as necessary. Generally, no more than 2-2.5 inches of cat box filler should be used. If the cat boxes in your home are "oldies but goodies," consider purchasing new boxes. Many clients finds that their cats do best when the cat box filler is changed completely on a regular basis (once weekly), in addition to daily care. Cat boxes should be washed with very hot water and a mild dish soap. Avoid the use of ammonia, harsh cleaners and disinfectants.

If you've delegated cat box duty to children in the home, make sure they realize how important it is to be consistent with a daily maintenance routine. If this is the case in your home, sit down with the family and make sure that everyone puts themselves in the cat's "shoes" (or paws). Who doesn't like to use a nice, fresh, clean bathroom?

You may need to offer a variety of cat box fillers (scoopable, non-scoopable—even an empty box).
Then ask yourself a few questions:

1.) Does the kitty: Urinate or defecate right next to the box, prefer not to touch the cat box filler, or jump out of the box quickly after using it?

If so, check your cat box maintenance (and make changes as suggested above). Cats who exhibit these behaviors, usually are avoiding the substrate (or are having to live with a dirty box). If you are using a non-scoopable product, choose a scoopable one (or vice versa).

2.) Where is your cat urinating or defecating?

Cats who urinate or defecate along walls and /or the perimeters of rooms, in corners, by windows, and by doors often are "marking" their territory and are threatened by another cat (not a dog, or a raccoon or another outside animal). There may be cats in your neighborhood who roam at night (while you are asleep). Male—as well as female—cats may mark their territory by spraying urine on the walls.

3.) Where are the boxes located? Are other cats or dogs in the home interfering with cat box usage?
If the cat boxes are located in a utility room, the noise from appliances may be enough to cause the cat to choose another location for urination and defecation. Moving the boxes to a quiet area may help this problem. In a small apartment, it may be difficult to find multiple locations. In tight quarters, you could use an area of the bathroom or a utility closet for the cat boxes. If one cat routinely attacks another cat as he or she is using the box, consider placing a cat box where the "victim" can enjoy some peace and quiet. Sometimes the box can be located in an area closed off by a cat door that is opened only by one or more cats who wear special electronic collars. These cat door and collar systems are available at many large pet supply stores, as well as on-line.
The cat boxes should be off-limits to dogs in the home, through the use of baby gates, cat doors, etc.

4.) Don't know which kitty is the culprit?
In a multiple cat household, one or more cats may be inappropriately urinating and defecating. Generally, homes with multiple male cats are more at risk for this behavior. However, it's possible to have a home where several male cats get along well and there are no cat box usage problems.
If you don't know which kitty (or kitties) is/are urinating inappropriately, talk to your veterinarian about using fluorescein strips to help identify the culprit who is inappropriately urinating. Fluorescein strips are typically used to detect eye ulcers and provide a stain that is colored apple-green. The dye is harmless to the cat. To do this test, your veterinarian will place one fluorescein strip in a small gelatin capsule. Every 24 hours, one cat in the household is administered a capsule by mouth. The house is then checked for the presence of inappropriate urination. Sometimes a black light (which is inexpensive and can be purchased at some party supply stores) is helpful in finding the spots. The test is repeated daily with each cat in succession until the offending kitty is identified. The test may take a few tries, so be patient. It's important to test each cat in the household.
To identify which cat or cats is/are inappropriately defecating, you can use a small amount of colored cake icing mixed in canned food. The food with the icing is offered to only one cat every 48 hours. The icing colors the feces of the "offender."

5.) What surface is your cat using?
If the kitty is inappropriately urinating or defecating on a soft surface (throw rugs, clothes, etc.), that cat probably prefers a scoopable, softer product. Pick up the rug in question (and have your teenagers use clothes hampers, not the floor). Some behaviorists recommend placing plastic runners (the type that have soft prongs) in the area, to change the texture of the area.

If you have done all of the above and are consistent, chances are that your kitty has returned to using the cat box faithfully. However, if you still are having problems, here are some further tips:

1.) Talk to your veterinarian about a referral to a veterinary behaviorist. These specialists are increasingly available at veterinary schools and large referral centers. Some will conduct initial appointments by telephone. However, please don't expect a busy behaviorist (or your veterinarian) to spend a long time on the telephone with you trying to trouble shoot cat box problems . These discussions are best done during an in-office consultation or by a pre-arranged telephone appointment.

2.) Consider re-training by placing the cat, one or two clean cat boxes, food, water and toys in a small room (a powder room would be ideal) or a very large dog crate for 7-10 days. Then begin to increase the amount of time the cat is allowed out of the room. It's best to keep the kitty confined when you cannot visually supervise him or her—until you're completely sure that the cat is using the box reliably.

3.) Some cats with cat box avoidance issues do benefit from the use of anti-anxiety medications. However, these medications can have troublesome side effects, dosing must be accurate, withdrawal of the medications needs to be done carefully and it's important to make sure that there are no underlying medical issues before using them. As always, never give a medication intended for humans to your cat without first consulting your veterinarian.
Comments (2)
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6 years ago

There's a lot of good info here. I have had problems in the past & have tried some of these suggestions with good results. This is great info to have on hand just in case. Excellent journal. Thanks!

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Debra B.

Debra B.
6 years ago

I've done the majority of these tips. Didn't know about the adminstration of flouroscien tablets to 1 cat to detect outside the box urine marking or the administration of colored frosting to 1 cat detect outside the box defecation. With 13 cats, this would take me over 3 weeks to determine if I had more than one culprit. I would start with the cat that I have seen going outside the box first.

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