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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Litter Box Woes

There are many things that can cause a cat to stop using his litter box.

The very first thing you should look at is a medical cause. The cat may be physically acting differently but that's not always the case. By nature cats are prone to hide any weakness or illness they have so that they are not seen as vulnerable to predators, so even if you don't see any other signs of an issue, chances are you can't rule that there is not a problem. Not urinating in the litter box after using it normally for a period of time signals a problem and requires a visit to the veterinarian. If cats have a medical issue that is painful, they associate the pain with the box so they avoid it.

Please note that if the cat is squatting in the box but not able to urinate, he must see a vet as soon as possible as this can be an emergency situation. If your regular vet is not open, see assistance through an after-hours emergency clinic immediately.

If you've ruled out a medical reason with a visit to your vet, there are other factors to look at.

Is the box clean? Cats are very clean creatures and some will refuse to use a dirty box. Picky? Yes. But put yourself in their situation. Would you want to use a dirty public bathroom? If your answer is yes, evaluate what you're cleaning the box with - is the scent too strong? Cats generally do not like citrus smells (let your cat smell your orange next time you're eating one - chances are he'll crinkle his nose, squint his eyes, and walk away) so this may be the issue.

Choice of Litter, Box, or Location
Have you recently changed the type of litter you're using? One cat may prefer sand litter while another may prefer crystals. Texture, smell, dust, everything may affect the way your cat feels about a particular litter. If you've suddenly changed to a different litter, chances are you need to change back to what you were using. If you are in the process of changing from one litter to the next, gradually mix in the new litter with the old so your cat can grow used to the new litter.

Amount of litter can also be a factor. Some cats don't mind if there are a few inches of litter in the box while others prefer a firmer ground and don't like the feeling of wading through sand and not having a strong foothold while using the box. Try backing off on how much litter you're using to see if this increases the usage of the box.

Another factor is the box you are using. Have you recently changed to a different style litter box? Some cats don't mind if their box is open or closed, but some simply do not want to use a covered box. Often times, scent and any dust that may be caused by digging tend to accumulate in the box and cause an overwhelming situation for the cat. Remember that a cat's sense of smell is much stronger than a human's and they are much more likely to be affected by a smell that isn't that strong to you.

Have you recently changed the location of the box or is the box in an overwhelming area? Going to the bathroom is a private experience for both humans and animals. They want to be able to go in an area where they have privacy and can relax. Also, make sure the box is in a location that is easy for the cat to access. Is there a door that may close and not allow the cat to get to the box? Or if you're dealing with an older cat, maybe they're having physical issues they didn't deal with before that could be making it hard for them to easily get in and out of the box. Explore ways to simplify things for them and your problem may be corrected.

Also remember that if your cat is using a certain area other than the box to eliminate, you need to make that area undesirable to him. Clean the area thoroughly with and enzymatic cleaner (Simple Solution, Nature's Miracle) so that the smell of the area changes. You can also change the texture of the area - if it's on the floor, put down tape or a piece of outdoor plastic carpeting. Also keep in mind that cats do not eliminate in places where they sleep or eat - try playing with your cat in that area or making that his new food location. If your cat has decided that a potted plant is its new box, completely change out the dirt and use plastic needlepoint canvas cut to size on top of the dirt to change the texture and cover the dirt he digs in. You can also bring in the factor of smell again - cats dislike the smell of citrus so use a lemon air freshener in that area.

If all of the medical and physical factors have been ruled out, chances are you're dealing with a behavioral issue, which most times is the most tricky issue to deal with.

The first thing to examine is what is causing the stress. Has there been an addition of another animal into the house, or in contrast, the loss of a companion animal in the house? Have you recently moved or remodeled a part of the house? Change in territory is a very big deal to a cat and will cause stress. Any large change that may be disrupting your cat's normal life may be culprit and need to be corrected. If you've moved to a new location, a daily routine needs to be established, things from the previous location need to be introduced to make the cat feel at ease, and extra attention may be needed to make your cat feel more at ease.

If there's not an obvious answer, your cat may be having anxiety with using the box. If this is the issue, or if the above changes have not helped, you should try a Feliway® Comfort Zone® Plug-In in the room with the litter box (and any other area the cat may be eliminating). This product "uses synthetic feline facial pheromones to end urine marking and scratching to comfort cats in stressful situations." Feliway® is "a natural substance, odorless to humans, that mimics a cat's facial pheromones to calm cats in stressful environments."

We have a cat who would constantly urinate and defecate in the bathtub, on the bathroom floor mats, or right in front of the box (located in the bathroom) but refused to use the box. After a vet visit we found she has an underlying kidney issue that we're currently treating, but that did not change the box usage. We plugged in the Comfort Zone® Plug-In (doubting it, and a little reluctant due to the price) and two days later, we saw her standing outside the box, considering it. Then she climbed in and used it! We've been 100% satisfied with it, she uses the box daily now. Sometimes things are above what humans can control and you need to rely on nature to solve the issue.

Discipline : Not an Option
No matter what the issue is, please remember that your cat is doing what he's doing to communicate with you, not to upset you. Physical actions are all he has and you need to read into what's going on to solve the problem. Hitting your cat, squirting him with water, scaring him, etc. is NOT acceptable behavior and will get you nowhere closer to solving the problem at hand, it will just make him fearful of you and even more anxious about the current situation. If you get frustrated, remove yourself from the situation and collect yourself, and then reenter and evaluate what's going on. Seek the help of your veterinarian who can help you diagnose the problem and advise you on how to fix it.

This article is meant to educate based on research and personal experience. However, it should never replace veterinary advice, please seek medical care if you are experiencing issues with your cat so that they can be properly diagnosed by a licensed veterinarian.

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