Cats and Litter Box Avoidance
Cats urinating or defecating outside the litter box is actually a pretty common problem that we see in the veterinary field. Sometimes there is a medical reason, such as painful hips or knees. The physical movement of getting in or out of the box or even posturing to go to the bathroom can be painful enough that the cat begins to avoid the litter box. Some other medical causes can be a urinary tract infection, parasites, or idiopathic cystitis. If your cat begins to urinate or defecate outside the litter box, the first thing that is recommended is to have a physical exam and some diagnostics performed to rule out medical reasons that could explain why your cat is no longer using the box.
House soiling can also be caused by behavior, and unfortunately, some pet parents have the misconception that this is happening because the cat is mad at them. Behavioral litter box avoidance is probably the most frustrating for our cat parents as it requires time and a lot of detective work to get to the bottom of the problem. This may become a behavioral problem for your cat if something in the home has changed, they decide the box isn’t clean enough, they no longer like where the box is, in a rush you bought a different kind of litter, or maybe you’re working longer hours so your feline friend is feeling some separation anxiety; the list can really be endless, hence all of the detective work. Behavioral house soiling can also be caused by stress and territorial triggers. An outside cat that has been snooping around your cat’s home seems to be the most common trigger; your cat may have caught the offender through the window and is now insecure about their territory. There are several humane products on the market to deter the stray cats away from your home; this is the first thing I recommend in these cases. Next, I often tell clients to place an appealing litter box in the area their indoor cat used to mark its space. As time passes, and you are certain there is no longer a stray around your home, you may be able to move that box gradually back to its original location. If a litter box in the area is not an option, items like tin foil and citrus rind are often safe deterrents.
When a cat comes into the clinic that has been avoiding its litter box, I like to run through basic litter box etiquette and try and see what the home is like through the eyes of the cat. Homes should have 1 litter box per cat plus 1 extra box. The litter boxes should be in different rooms, (putting them all in one just allows a cat to claim all of those boxes as their own) and multi-level homes should have a box on each floor, regardless of how many cats are in the house. Cats are meticulously clean animals, they like a clean litter box. Boxes should be scooped every day and dumped out weekly, or when you start to notice small clumps of feces/urine that slips through your litter scoop. Litter boxes should be big enough for your cat to fit into; if you have ever seen a cat outside going to the bathroom they will use an area from their nose to the end of their tail. You will also notice they are watching their surroundings very closely, so a covered box is not appreciated by every cat as it may feel like a trap. Litter boxes should also be in quiet areas of the home, ideally not in the laundry or furnace room. Another thing to consider is the path that the cat has to take to the litter box, it can be something as silly as a mirror that your cat sees itself in so it won’t continue down the hall to the box. Litter boxes should not be near food/water dishes. An older cat with the painful hips or knees would appreciate a shallow litter box so it’s less work to get into and out of. Some cats appreciate lots of litter in their box, others prefer a scant layer. It is always somewhat amazing to me how many different types of cat litter are on the market. As a general rule, most cats are okay with a clumping litter, and the vast majority of cats prefer it to be fragrance and dust-free.
For whatever reason your cat is not using the litter box, correction is best achieved if you address the problem right away. Use your Veterinarian and favorite Veterinary Technician to help get the detective work started and the problem solved.
Randi Langerud, LVT